I have been living and working in the UK for nearly two years now, and there’s something that really irritates me. I notice it in the media, in TV reports and in everyday conversations. It’s people referring to “Africa” as if it was a single country. Over and over, I hear people talking about something that has happened in an African country, and simply referring to it as “Africa”. This would never happen with other regions in the world.
Would people say things like, “I am going on holiday to Europe”? If they did, you’d expect them to be touring through multiple countries on the continent. If someone was doing business with a partner in Brazil, they’d be very unlikely to say, “I’m doing work in South America”. They’d be specific, wouldn’t they. And anyone in conversation with them would insist on the detail. It really isn’t helpful if someone tells you that the order you just placed would be shipped from somewhere in “Asia”. You’d want to know if it’s Vietnam, Thailand, North Korea or the Philippines. It would make a difference knowing which of these countries you were dealing with. Each country is so different.
The Americans should know better. In the US, you typically have to specify your State when talking to people. There’s a world of difference between New York and Iowa, or Florida and Washington.
So, why do people say, “I went to Africa”? It has been a long time since I heard anyone being specific about which countries they had visited in “Africa”. Invariably when someone is specific, they turn out to be African themselves. I propose to start an underground movement. I commit myself to stop letting people get away with being unspecific about Africa. When I hear someone talk about “Africa” as a homogenous mass, I commit to asking them to be specific about the country or countries they’re talking about.
Africa has more diversity than any other continent or region in the world. It makes a huge difference to know if you’re referring to the Africa of Lagos or the Africa of Cape Town. It makes a huge difference if you’re talking about Zimbabwe or Egypt. Botswana and Algeria share a desert landscape, but that’s about all they have in common. Africa comprises a total of 53 nations (47 on the mainland, plus islands). The six biggest countries are bigger than Europe. The three most populous countries have more inhabitants than the United States.
It has every type of topography (except fjords), every type of climate, the most diverse range of fauna and flora, the most number of cultures and languages, the broadest range of political establishments, and the broadest north-south spread of any continent. All the world’s religions can be found in Africa, including some that are found nowhere else. There are Christian states and Muslim states and secular states in one continent – no other region in the world can say that. It includes some of the most volatile nations, but also the world’s most peaceful: Botswana is the only nation in the world that has never experienced war – either internal or external. It is host to some militant leaders, and also the only nation that has ever developed and then dismantled its nuclear weapons, South Africa. The best – and the worst – of humanity can be found in Africa.
And that is why it makes a huge difference to know which part of Africa someone is referring to.
Let’s stop people saying, “I am going to Africa”, and let’s start getting them to be specific. I don’t want to play the racism card here, but it really is an issue to me that Africa is referred to as a single mass while no other region in the world is treated this way. This could be one small step to getting Africa properly recognised and referred to. If you have influence in the international media, please join me in this campaign. Why not write to the BBC and CNN and TIME magazine, and all the other international media, and express your desire for specificity.
I do think it will make a difference to how people think of the African continent, and Africans.
From your correspondent, somewhere in Europe...
[5 Jan 2010 10:57]