I can remember a curious scene which took place in a literature class back in high school. I had refused to fall in with my teacher on a particular issue. The issue was this: we had just finished reading William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” when I expressed my displeasure at Golding for referring to Africa as a country. The portion of the book I cited to my teacher could be found on page 47 of Lord of the Flies, where Ralph, one of the major characters, addresses issues pertaining to “fear” in the coastal island. It reads: “you couldn’t have a beastie, a snake thing on an island this size, you can only get them in big countries like Africa and India.” (Emphasis added). This indeed, regardless of the argument, is one out of many negative definitions of Africa.
Some would be wondering what Africa really is. In the words of Professor Ola Rotimi in the 11th Inaugural Lecture of the University of Port Harcourt (1991), “Africa identifies a geopolitical base occupying a land mass of nearly 11.7 million square miles-three times the size of Europe; the second largest continent on the planet Earth.” Africa as a continent comprises 54 countries, and it becomes hilarious when it’s being referred to as a country.
Sadly, this misconception of Africa has been popularized by the mass media. A good example is what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie cited in her speech, “the Danger of a Single Story.” During the speech, one of her sentences included the fragment: “charity work in China, India, Africa and other countries.” (Emphasis added).
Furthermore, Africa is usually seen as a place inhabited by bushmen, pygmies and maasais. An extended version of this stereotype is the African-ape similarity. Some see Africans as apes, and some believe Africans are the sure-proof of Darwin’s theory. This of course has no rational ground. As rightly pointed out by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the media cannot be vindicated for the spread of this stereotype.
As if this is not enough, the word Africa has become synonymous with poverty, disaster, famine and terrorism. Of course, this is no attempt to totally rule out the existence of some of the aforesaid. Talking of Africa and terrorism, fast fingers could be pointed to the Boko Haram terrorist group terrorizing Nigeria, the Lake Chad, Niger and part of Cameroon. Likewise, talking of war, one could quickly talk of Libya or Somalia. It’s, however, worthy to note that most of the African countries are living peacefully with no obvious threats. As a matter of certainty, Mauritius, which is an African country, was recently included in the list of 20 most peaceful countries in the 2018 Global Peace Index (GPI).
Again, Africans are often regarded as uneducated people. This seems the most absurd of all. Africa is ably represented in diverse fields of academia. What if those spreading this notion knew of Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in literature? What if they knew of Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat? What if they knew of Desmond Tutu, a South African cleric and Nobel Laureate? What if they knew of countless Africans who are influencing the world in diverse fields?
In the heart of the spread of these stereotypes is Western Literature. The London merchant, John Lok, who sailed to Africa in 1554 wrote this about Africa: “They are beastly living people without God, law, religion or government, scorched by the sun and moon….” Of course, stereotype is a product of culture. One would imagine what a growing child would think after reading this alluring account.
The mass media are also worthy of blame for the spread of these misconceptions. In the words of the American journalist, Thomas Harris, today’s mass media are not only a “magic window” through which we see the world, but also a door through which ideas enter our consciousness (Harris, 2003). In recent times, the Cable News Network (CNN) has developed a knack for stories of terrorism, illiteracy, kidnapping and bad leadership in Africa. Also recently, the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was accosted by a French journalist who asked if Nigeria had bookshops. With calmness, Adichie responded, “I think it reflects very poorly on French people that you have to ask me that question. I think surely… I mean it’s 2018.” After this fire-back, the embarrassed journalist rephrased her statement, “I ask because French people don’t know. They only know about Boko Haram….” Even if this war of words evolved from a mere question, the default position that prompted this question was obviously that of disdain.
In conclusion, it is pertinent to note that while Africa is not just about its beautiful and edenic landscape, she is equally not just about huts, caves and uneducated people. Africa deserves a fairer definition, a true definition of what she is. There is need to retell the stories we’ve told about Africa. If this is done, we will have a better world.