I could write another blogpost about how job-hunting is depressive; however, I just wanted to rant about an issue I have been facing while living in a Western society. It is the “Africa-is-a-country-syndrome.” This syndrome that infects the minds of numerous people in non-African societies, consists of reducing a continent of 54 countries with extremely heterogeneous cultures into one ambiguous blob of a country. These poor souls truly suffer a case of immappancy — meaning insufficient geographical knowledge.
Please, let us start by considering that when we are talking about the continent of Africa, we are talking about this:
Now, this is a serious problem. Remember that Rick Ross tweeted that he landed in the country of Africa. And then of course, there is this mess. Paul Romer is an economist suggesting highly sensitive policies –that in my opinion, are very reminiscent of colonialism– and he can’t have the decency to acknowledge that Africa is composed of countries!
Another thing, that we need to consider if that we are talking about FIFTY-FOUR COUNTRIES, then nothing warrants cultural similarities. I, myself, have grown up in five countries– Burundi, my home country, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Zimbabwe. Therefore, my knowledge of cultures around the continent tends to be broad but superficial. Yet, with my faulty knowledge, I can still tell you that each country has vast differences in foods, clothing, languages, the politics of culture and the number of ethnicities/nations within the country. Take, for example, Burundi and Kenya. Both are in the East African Economic Region, they share some of the same economic products (namely tea) and they are both democracies. On the one hand, in Burundi, there are three ethnicities– the Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas– who share the same language (Kirundi) , wear the same traditional clothes and eat similar food. Meanwhile, in Kenya, there are nine different ethnicities each with their mother tongue, their own customs and their, well I suppose, own clothing. This is to say, in one country you can find an extremely heterogeneous, diverse society where people of different socio-economic backgrounds intermingle. This does not necessarily hold true for the next country.
Which is why it frustrates me so much when I hear people make comments such as “Oh I love African fashion. The clothes are so colorful!” I actually had a fashion student tell me that, and I was perplexed. I thought about my own invutano and I could not fathom how you could describe as colorful.
Linda Ikeji’s blog, which admittedly is not a perfect resource, pointed that there are all these traditional dresses in Nigeria. The singular country of Nigeria!
In Senegal, the traditional dress is called a boubou or the m’boubou when worn by women:
And then of course, we have our dear invutano, the “Sunday Best” in Burundi and Rwanda.
How can anyone make a sweeping comment about African fashion when you are confronted with such diversity in clothing? That is why I believe that there is no such thing as “African fashion” or “African food.” There are simply too many differences and different type. Sure from time to time , a dish– such as foufou— will pop up and you will think “Hey I eat that too!” Nonetheless, it is likely, as is the case with foufou, that the preparation and base ingredients change from country to country. It is like saying “We eat rice too!”
I feel that there is so much more that can be said on the topic; however, I want to touch base on why this ‘syndrome’ is problematic in the first place. It is problematic because it is foreigners whom make international development decisions, often made with little regards to the input of the citizens of the concerned country. These decisions are more often than not blanket, one size fits all programmes. It can also result in policies such as the Millennium Development Goals which in spite of its good intentions sets up countries for failure. African Studies classes talk about theories without applying them to specific case studies leaving people who have actually lived in the continent flustered at the cheap talk. Sometimes newspapers get one correspondent to cover the entire continent.
It is further problematic that people amalgamate these 50+ heterogeneous countries because there is, through the process of amalgamation, a loss of sense of individuality and humanity. My experiences and stories stop being specific to my origins and the obstacles that I have to face and instead become commonplace. I guess I am talking about tokenism. For example, suddenly you are asked to represent the ideas of a Malagasi when you are Burundian because you are the only African person in the room . People expect your life to be representative of the typical life of the hundreds of thousands of people who live in various conditions throughout the continent. When your experiences don’t fit within their expectations on how an African is meant to live, they will try to undermine your authority. Combined with the image that the continent has in the media, it can lead to dehumanization of African peoples.
Africans themselves are by no means guilt-free. The other day I posted a quote from an article about Spaniards that stated that:
“Anyone who has ever been in a group of Spaniards knows that there’s no such thing as waiting for someone else to finish speaking before speaking themselves. If there are four Spaniards in a group, there are four people talking. And, as they talk, the volume increases as they each try to make themselves heard above the others. Actually, this doesn’t really piss Spaniards off, that nobody is listening. It’s just the way it is. It will piss you off a lot more than them.” (Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/how-to-piss-off-a-spaniard/#LEzepX8C8oseOUKY.99“)
and then a Senegalese answered that this was also the case with Africans. To which a Burundian answered that talking over someone else and interrupting people is considered extremely rude in their culture. In a final example, this reminds me of when Senegal was eliminated from the African Cup of Nations in October 2012 for riots which broke out after losing to Ivory Coast and a fan had this to say “We had to save our lives. We didn’t understand what was going on – we’re all African, and we’re all brothers.” France and Germany (and their allies) waged two World Wars, dragging all their colonies into the battle and their animosity resulted in the direct creation of the European Union. And they are right next to each other! I am not saying to condone violence or to condone further divisions between different African citizens. Rather, I wish to make the point that it is okay if disagreements occur between people of different nationalities. We are not all the same; we will not react the same way to certain events.
In the end, I know people will blame the “Africa-is-a-country-syndrome” on ignorance: “But in the media, they only show us images of the poor starving African children!” This is bullshit. In Canada, and so many other places, they have electricity 24/7, internet is broadly available, libraries and bookstores are well-stocked and there is a diverse population with people originally from African countries. In spite of this wealth of resources available to them, I still get comments such as “Oh where is South Africa?” I think it is time that we take a look at ourselves and question how much effort are we making to combat faulty geography lessons.
I left a map here (you can click on it to make it bigger) just in case you need a point of reference throughout the article.