I have always been interested in the way people perceive things that they have never experienced firsthand. To some extent, a person’s preconception of a country, city, or even culture reveals much about the perception and even prejudice of that person’s own environment. What follows here are my reflections on how uninformed not only the world, but South Africans and all Africans are about our own continent.
I recently had the priv
ilege of spending six weeks in Washington, D.C. as part of the South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP). I was one of 15 South Africans on our team, all of whom come from very different backgrounds.
The nature of our program brought us into contact with a broad spectrum of Americans and people from all over the world. In conversation with them, we were frequently asked about what it is like living “in Africa.” Before going to Washington, I already knew about the stereotypical ignorance that some people have about the African continent: “Wait, Africa isn’t a country?” or “Oh, you’re from South Africa? I have a friend who lives in Ghana—do you know him?”
We would often exploit this ignorance for comic effect, but always found our way to the moral high-ground from where we would speak about ubuntu and the misunderstood spirit of the African people.
On our way back to South Africa from D.C., I was afforded the opportunity to explore Dakar, Senegal for a few days. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my perception of what it was to be “African” would be actively challenged in the two days that followed. While speaking to people on the streets of Dakar, I became increasingly aware of just how ignorant even South Africans, people of the Rainbow Nation, can be about the cultural diversity of our continent.
Africa is really big: the land mass of our continent is larger than China, the United States, India, Japan, and most of Europe, combined! There are, by some counts, over 2,100 distinct languages spoken the continent. To me, this highlights the danger of gross generalization when it comes to talking about what it is to be “African.” Can we really say that there is a defining characteristic that we can apply to all “Africans”? And is there even any value in doing this?
In many ways, the past decade has highlighted the true diversity of the African continent. Six out of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are now in Africa. As a few rising African stars find their feet in global markets, I hope to see other African countries follow—shaking off stigmas of famine, civil war and darkness as they nurture their own, unique African identities. No longer can developmental economists write about “the African experience,” as they often did a mere decade ago.
I have heard many people complain about the one-dimensional, depressing way in which Africa and her people are portrayed by Western media. Although these concerns may be justified, I can’t help but feel that many of us are as ignorant about our continent as the guy who believes that I have a pet lion. How many of us in South Africa know the basic history or ethnic make-up of Senegal? And for how many of us will our next trip abroad be to an African country, rather than Europe or America?
In the light of all of this, I wonder what it truly means to be African in a time where people from all over the African continent are finding the means to communicate their uniqueness to the rest of the world. I suspect that I will be surprised by the answers the next few decades bring.
The South Africa-Washington International Program (SAWIP) is a six-month leadership, service and professional development program that recruits 15 high-potential South African students from three top South African universities each year in pursuit of its mission to inspire, develop and support a diverse new generation of emerging South African leaders from multiple disciplines.