Unpacking “Africa”

When we think about Europe, it’s easy to discern that France is different from Ireland, which is different from Romania. Europe is familiar to Americans. Let’s also not forget that when we picture Europe, that image often comprises of cafes, museums, and white skin.

What comes to mind when someone says, “Africa”? A safari? A desert? Vulnerable women? A kid you can rescue by donating $1 a day? Drums? Disease? Black skin.

This post is a plea to move away from an all encompassing “Africa” rhetoric and toward one that celebrates individual countries within a vast continent, each deserving a separate identity, and many that are more developed than parts of the United States.

The common and hollow misconception of Africa is far-reaching and perpetuated by every form of media. It used to include me. For Americans, particularly white Americans, saying you’re going to “Africa” is sexy. It implies adventure, roughing it, exoticism, being cultured, and changing the world. That stock portrayal of “Africa” is not wholly inaccurate. There are hungry kids with distended bellies. There are lions and elephants. There is violence.

But I live in Zambia, one of the poorest yet most peaceful countries in Africa. It’s colder here than Vermont today. Christianity has unified this place, a place with more languages and tribes than I can remember. And while I sit by the fire in the woods, in Morocco tourists are taking camel rides through the desert. In South Africa, they have sushi and gay bars and racial tension.

Unpacking “Africa” does not mean we should all buy plane tickets and wanderlust our way over there right now. It’s about resisting conflation and recognizing stark distinction. It’s reading books not only written by white people. It’s introducing our children to more than The Lion King and Things Fall Apart. It’s toning down the sympathy and looking for assets. It’s transforming what we don’t know into thoughtful questions instead of stereotypes. It’s using the framework of cultural difference rather than hierarchy.

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