“Africa is a country” is a common belief among Americans. It pictures Africa, meaning black Africa, as a place like Italy or China, a place where everyone pretty much looks the same, dresses the same, eats the same and talks the same. “Say something in African,” they ask.
Even those who “know” it is a continent divided into dozens of countries still tend to think that way when, say, watching the news.
For example, every now and then on the news you will see a boy who is skin and bones sitting in the dust somewhere in Africa. He will die if food aid does not arrive in time.
The news report is perfectly true: he is skin and bones and he will die if food does not come. Millions in Africa have died that way before. It is not made up, not for a nanosecond.
The trouble comes when that boy is seen in terms of “Africa is a country”. His somewhere in Africa then becomes everywhere in Africa. Because Africa is a country where things are pretty much the same from coast to coast, like America.
Only the worst news about Africa – and not even all of that – makes it to America. Then it is applied to all of Africa, because Africa is a country:
- The boy who is skin and bones in Sudan becomes how Africa is.
- The bad leadership of Mugabe in Zimbabwe becomes how Africa is.
- Aids in South Africa becomes how Africa is.
- The senseless mass killings in Rwanda become how Africa is.
- The 12-year-old boy with a machine gun in Sierra Leone becomes how Africa is.
Africa can never become more than its bad news because most Americans know so little about the place to add enough balance.
Even worse, this news is being laid on top of racism, a racism that already expects the worst of black people – making the bad news seem more telling than it is and the racism, in turn, more true than it is.
Africa is huge: it is three times bigger than America in both land and people.
Africa is a continent of a billion people. That is bigger than the whole world was up till 1800. Bigger than it was in the time of the Bible. Bigger than it was in the time of Shakespeare.
Africa has at least a thousand languages, which means at least a thousand cultures. Meaning each country has dozens of cultures of its own! So even the countries are not countries in the Western sense.
Africa has way more genetic diversity than the rest of the world – because it is the root of mankind. Deep down we are all Africans no matter what our colour or country.
So while there is some truth to the stereotypes about Africa – it is easy to find supporting examples in a land of a billion people – they are profoundly false. Because any stereotype about a place that big would have to be.