“So… you’re from Africa?”, asked the friendly American as we waited for our order at Dennys in Florida.
“Yes, I am” – I replied with a smile.
“But… you’re white!”
“Uh… yes… I am”, I admitted.
“So you must be a missionary to Africa?”, he asked – genuinely perplexed by the colour of my skin.
“Nope. Not a missionary”, I replied frankly.
“Oh… then your parents were obviously missionaries to Africa”
“No, my parents weren’t missionaries”
“But then why are you white??”
It’s an odd question to have to answer: “Why are you white?”
I was born and raised on the continent of Africa.
My father was born in England, my mother was born in South Africa (her father was Afrikaans, her mother from a mixed European heritage). I’m a bit of a mongrel (in a cultural sense)… and prefer to call myself a “World Citizen” since I’m not very patriotic about flags and borders-marked-on-maps… but, if you had to press me, I’d probably refer to myself as an African.
I was born on African soil and raised in an African nation.
Africa is a part of me – and, although I will probably travel the world and live many months and years on other continents… this continent will always be home.
This post, I guess, is meant for people who are not from Africa – and who have never visited this continent. I’m going to try to dispel some of the myths (and some downright stupid shit)… I’ve heard and read about Africa (usually from people who have either never visited… or who felt that their 2 week visit to Kenya render them experts on the subject of all things African).
I can only hope… (perhaps naively)… that with the internet and globalisation and the world becoming ever-smaller… that people don’t still view Africa as a dark, scary continent, scattered with a few mud huts and semi-naked “natives” who are wild and aggressive and who cook missionaries (like my parents?) in giant cauldrons whilst chanting and dancing.
My apologies, of course, to all the forward-thinking, eyes-wide-open, not-naive non-Africans who read this post. I fully understand that there are MANY foreigners (some who have visited my part of the world – others who have not)… who still have a broad and fair understanding about Africa.
I know that not EVERY American assumes that I’m from a family of missionaries because I’m white. I know that not EVERY European will refuse a sip of our Rooibos tea because “it’s from gasp! Africa and you never know what kind of germs may have got in there”.
I have many foreign friends who get that Africa is not all mud-huts, AIDS, war and malnourished children.
So – please bare with me… (the enlightened ones)… if this post sounds a bit condescending. Because, believe it or not, I have actually been asked these things… and not just once or twice – but numerous times (whilst travelling internationally).
Fact #1: Africa is a Continent made up of *54 countries.
Africa is not one, giant country.
The countries on this continent are very varied and very different from one another. Different languages are spoken, different traditions and religions are practised… it’s all very different!
I come from South Africa – which – sorry to burst your bubble to the man who once asked: “But what country in South Africa are you from?”… actually IS a country.
Have you heard of Nelson Mandela? Well – he’s from South Africa. Desmond Tutu? He’s from South Africa too. Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron? She’s from South Africa (in fact, she and I attended the same primary school). Table Mountain? Biltong? Shaka Zulu? All South African. Please don’t assume that Uganda is like South Africa… or that Kenya is like Nigeria… or that Egypt is like Malawi… these are all African nations – yes – but they are vastly… vastly… different to one another.
You are not an expert on Africa just because you spent 3 weeks in Cairo… or a month in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
I’ve spent most of my life on this continent – and I haven’t even begun to touch the scope of the true diversity of Africa. Apart from travelling all over my own country (very diverse in itself) – I have also visited Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Zambia and Swaziland… and they are all VERY different to my home country.
The next time somebody says: “Oh you’re from Africa? Really? Hey – I have a friend from Kenya… do you know him?” – I might have to produce an atlas and point out the fact that Nairobi is nowhere near Johannesburg – and that there are millions of people living in both cities!
Fact # 2: Africa has cities – yes – REAL cities!
Gasp of shock! – You mean Africa isn’t just mud huts and jungles? We actually have CITIES? Yes… we do. We have lots of cities. Big cities – with big, tall buildings. We also have big highways and high speed trains and world-class stadiums and beautiful aquariums and many, many (ugh!) shopping malls.
If you land at O.R. Tambo International Airport (which looks like this)…
You can board the Gautrain (which looks like this)…
Which may take you to the centre of Sandton (which looks like this)…
Where you can stay at the 5-Star Michaelangelo Hotel (which looks like this)…
Which leads me to….
Fact # 3: We don’t all live in mud huts!
There are all kinds of different homes (in Africa) just as there are all types of housing all around the world.
There are lots of brick and mortar homes (I live in one such home). There are mansions, there are flats, there are townhouses, there are shacks and yes… in the rural parts of the country… you’ll even find mud huts and other traditional types of dwellings.
There is diversity in Africa. We do NOT all live in mud huts!
As proof – I offer a photo of our brick & mortar home:
Fact # 4: We don’t have lions roaming our streets!
Yes! You can go on safari.
But, for that, you’ll need to leave the city and travel 4 hours north (in a car)… to get to the Kruger National Park – where you can enjoy the Big 5 in their natural habitat to your heart’s content.
But you’re not going to find lions in suburbia… or in the cities (or in every African country). And no, I don’t have a pet giraffe. I used to have a cat, but my husband has allergies. So, no pets for us.
And speaking of giraffe… no, they don’t “hunt in packs”. They’re herbivores.
I was once visiting a very nice man in Ohio. As I looked out into his back yard, I noticed a small deer scamper past.
“Wow!”, I remarked, “You have deer that just wander into your back yard… I like that!”
“Nah!”, he said, waving off my comment, “It can’t be anything like what you have in your garden… with all those lions, tigers and bears roaming about…”.
No bears. No tigers (you’ll need to visit Asia for those). Yes – South Africa has lions – but, as previously mentioned: they’re contained in enormous nature reserves and national parks (if you want to visit them in their natural habitat)… or we have places like the Johannesburg Zoo and the Lion Park (where you can visit them in much smaller enclosures).
No “wild animals” roaming around my back yard – just because I live in Africa! We have dogs, cats and budgies in suburbia…. just like much of suburbia around the world.
Fact #5: There’s more to Africa than poverty, AIDS, war and wildlife.
Much… MUCH… more! Yes – we have our fair share of problems. Yes… there’s poverty. Yes… there’s AIDS… yes, there’s corruption… and in certain countries, there’s also war.
But is there any country on this planet that doesn’t have any problems? We ALL have our issues… and Africa certainly has more than her fair share of problems. But that’s not all we are – there is so much MORE to Africa than that!
(Just like the United States is so much more than “Cowboys and Indians”)
(Just like the United Kingdom is so much more than “The Royal Family”)
(Just like the Netherlands is so much more than wooden clogs and windmills!)
Don’t pigeon-hole Africa (or Africans). We’re not all dark-skinned. We’re not all poor. We’re not all dying of disease. We’re not all corrupt. We’re not all violent. We’re not all living in mud-huts. We’re not all uneducated.
… you get the picture.
And if you still don’t get the picture, watch this TED talk by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie. In fact, it’s just an absolutely brilliant talk that I recommend everyone watch anyway…
And a few more cringe-worthy tales….
One of my (dark-skinned) friends visited the States on a business trip. Shortly after arriving at his first meeting for the day, a curious person asked my friend whether he’d purchased his clothes at JFK (the airport).
Confused, my friend asked the questioner to elaborate.
The assumption was… that my friend… being from Africa… must surely have been wearing SKINS (!!??)… and the questioner assumed that my friend had purchased his “Westernised” attire from JFK once arriving in the USA.
Here’s my friend, travelling to the States and giving boardroom talks about his experience as an African entrepreneur… and someone wants to know where he left his animal skins (after purchasing the ‘real’ clothes at the airport). Seriously.
And on another note…
The same man who made the comment about the “lions, tigers and bears” later asked:
“How long did it take you guys to get here?”
I thought he was asking how long it took for us to get from our guest house (where we were staying) to his house.
“Oh – not too long – about 15 minutes”, I answered.
“No”, said the man, “I meant… how long did it take you to drive here… from Africa?”
At first I thought he was joking, so I laughed.
He stared back at me, dead-pan.
“Uh… it took us… uh… 18 hours… in a… plane…?” I answered, hesitantly.
“Oh, so you flew?” he asked.
Either the man was privy to information about a secret tunnel that ran under the Atlantic Ocean… or he had never picked up a World Atlas in his life.
I have other stories like these (many of them).
Most of the time, I’m mildly amused. But I DO get irritated when ignorant people make sweeping – and damaging – statements about a continent they know nothing about.
The other day – on Facebook – I was reading a thread where circumcision was being discussed (and a very heated debate was going on about the topic). Someone had mentioned a couple of health studies which had been carried out which suggested that circumcised men had a smaller chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases than their uncircumcised counterparts.
Someone else wanted to refute that claim – but instead of questioning the study or the information itself – she attacked the fact that some of the studies had taken place in Africa. She asserted that nothing out of Africa could be trusted because everyone was corrupt and/or poor and seeking to line their pockets in some way (even medical professionals carrying out a study).
That’s when I get hacked off. When people say stupid shit like that… I get very hacked off – because it reinforces a negative stereotype that simply. isn’t. true.
(We have some of the best medical professionals and private hospitals in the world. The world’s first successful heart transplant happened here in South Africa… among other things).
Regarding the man who asked why I was white. I wonder how he might’ve responded had I asked why he was ‘white’… because surely – he should have been native American Indian… and surely he should have been wearing plaits and feathers… and living in a teepee… and hunting wild buffalo? Didn’t all Americans have names like Big Bear… and Jumping Dog? Why was he “white”?
Rant over. Nuff said.