August 19, 2018

Viewing Africa Beyond the Western Stereotypes

Commonwealth Foundation Lecture "Connecting Cultures" by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Picture by Colin Patterson, Creative Commons License.

By Evangelina Opoku-Nyarko ’21
Contributor

So many negative stereotypes are attached to Africa.

Many people, either from movies or stories they hear, have certain ridiculous beliefs about the African continent. These beliefs have thereby generated the name “black continent”.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this name. To be honest, I like that name. My liking of this name though, doesn’t mean I like the stereotypes attached to it.

While having lunch with kids at Oliver Partnership school in Lawrence one day, I was running out of topics to discuss. The kids then started talking about their houses and how close they lived to each other.

Seeing this as an opportunity to jump into the conversation, I told them my house was all the way in Africa.Their facial expressions in reaction to this revelation was exactly what I expected, but not the comments that came after their seconds of shocked silence.

A little girl beside me asked,“Africa? Are there even houses there?”

I was quiet for a few seconds before replying to her in the calmest way possible, but I couldn’t convince her enough that we had houses in Africa.

A little boy, who previously was paying absolutely no attention to me, suddenly lit up and started asking about the animals in Africa and if I always saw the lions and tigers walking about. As I was explaining that the first time I actually saw those animals was last year in a zoo, the little girl blurted out again “I can’t believe they even have zoos in Africa”. At this point I couldn’t take it anymore and changed the topic.

This little encounter with these third grade kids is no different from my experience with well educated adults.

I have been asked severally about the wild animals walking the streets of Africa. Africa is perceived as some kind of jungle with illiterate primitive occupants cohabiting with wild animals.

Recently, I read a complaint in an article that in 2014, Delta airlines used the Statue of Liberty to represent the US and a giraffe to represent Ghana in a tweet congratulating the US soccer team’s victory against Ghana.

This raised an uproar among many in the country since there are no giraffes in Ghana. We probably had more tourists that year looking for giraffes.

The first stereotypical comment an African receives is mostly about their English.

It will interest you to know that out of the 54 countries in Africa, 24 are Anglophone. Many Africans grow up speaking French, or Portuguese or just their local languages. It all depends on the country they were colonized by.

With countries like mine that have so many tribes with over 200 different languages, we need a universal language for intertribal interaction, therefore the English language was adopted since we were colonized by the British.

Many Ghanaians and some other Africans grow up speaking English at home, and know no other language.

It may be hard for an African in the US to understand American slang, which makes it difficult to communicate and at times lead to the assumption that Africans do not understand English. However, one must note that one’s fluency in the English language is in no way a measure of intelligence or anything else.

Another stereotype about the African continent is that we are violent, poverty stricken and disease stricken.

I personally believe the stereotypes of African violence date back to the periods of colonization. What would you have done if your otherwise peaceful existence was disrupted by total strangers who wanted to rule over you?

Last year, Sierra Leone and Ghana were ranked the thirty-ninth and forty-third most peaceful countries in the world respectively. That says a lot in debunking the belief of irrational violence of Africans.

Africa was always associated with AIDS, until Ebola came to give the HIV/AIDS virus a huge relief.

Upon telling people I am Ghanaian, I am usually met with questions about Ebola. I have only heard rumors of Ebola outbreaks. Further research proved that there had not been a single documented case of Ebola in Ghana.

But apparently, that does not matter since an incident in a foreign country somewhere other than my country, will always be tied down to me so long as it is in Africa.

On the issue of poverty, I do not argue that it is absent.

I live in one of the poorest parts of my country, but it is ridiculous for a friend visiting my tiny community to assume that the rest of the entire 11.73 million square mile continent looks like that.

As much as there are poverty stricken and filthy areas in Africa, there are also very beautiful, clean and advanced areas that get overlooked.

After President Donald Trump (I say this with all due respect) declared Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as shit-hole countries, I saw many pictures circulating on social media showing dirty places in Africa. I wondered why they couldn’t use pictures of places like Kigali, Cape Town, Abuja and Nairobi.

I know no one intentionally just makes up these stories about Africa. Chimamanda Adichie, a famous Nigerian writer, said, “If all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by some kind, white foreigner”.

Our presence in the US says a lot about our efforts to learn and understand your culture and a reciprocal effort will be very much welcomed.

I am proudly African but I, and I believe many Africans out there, will appreciate it if we are not boxed under one umbrella and seen through the lenses of stereotypes.

So next time you meet an African, instead of saying “You’re African? I could never tell. Your English is so good. Where did you learn it?” Or “So do you live among the animals?” stop to think about how you would feel if asked similar ridiculous and hurtful questions.

It’s like being asked questions like “You’re American? I could never tell. You’re not lazy. You work so hard” or “Oh, so are your parents divorced?” or “Are you a psychopath? Suicidal?” If you wouldn’t like to be asked silly questions like that, maybe the best you can do is to say “Wow, tell me more about Africa”.

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