Tuesday, 18 March 2014
(96): I have been to Africa
I followed with interest a recent story that started from Harvard University called I, too, I am Harvard. It is in response to the stereotyping and the challenges faced by black students or more generally, to use the controversial term ‘people of colour’. They were indirectly protesting against the treatment they receive from colleagues, friends, tutors etc for being black or non-white. Soon the campaign became viral and students from Oxford and Cambridge also joined the bandwagon to protest against the misrepresentation of blacks, particularly the thinking that you have to belong to a particular race in order to belong to these elite institutions.
But I am afraid, it is not just Harvard or Cambridge or Oxford where being an African or black comes with stereotyping, almost in all aspect of life being an African as an individual, or the continent itself are shrouded in misinformation, ignorance, mystery, stereotyping, and at worst belittling simply because of how people look. I was once told by someone, “So black people do PhD”. Sometimes you laugh, other times you explain, and in some occasions you get angry. What is even more interesting is that the media sometimes reinforce such stereotypes.
But one of the things about this stereotyping that you find common is the thinking that Africa is a country, and so a lot of people come to you excited that they will be travelling to Africa. When you ask them where in Africa? They start murmuring and stammering to figure out what you mean.
The first time I experienced this was in March 2004, about ten years ago. I was dressed in white Babbar Riga (a traditional attire common in sub-Saharan Africa). It was a brief visit to London at the time, and I was trying to get a bureau de change in Oxford Street, when I heard a voice across the road shouting “African brother, African brother”, The man crossed the road and came towards me. “I like your dress, please how do I get one. Can you give me your address in Africa so that I can send you the money”? My address in Africa?? I was confused, I told him that I am from Nigeria in West Africa. He doesn't have the time to listen to my lecture and so we said goodbye. Interestingly he is a fellow black guy, who told me that his ancestors were from Africa, and he has consumed the stereotype that Africa is a country.
Sometime in 2005, I was approached by the kids of one of my friends in Sheffield. A very nice family. The children were so happy to see me, and so was I. “We have been to Africa on holiday”, the young kids told me. “That was great”, I responded. “But where in Africa?” I asked. Instead of answering my question, they looked at their elder sister, with their father watching by the side, “which part of Africa have we been to?” after a little silence, she responded, “Gambia”.
But don’t blame the local people for not understanding the African continent. Sometimes even the educated people, in fact some of whom supposed to educate us, you will be shocked by their perception of Africa. Here is the story I always laugh at when I remember. It was at the BBC World Service when the language services introduced Premier League commentary in local languages. And one of the best commentators, works for the Swahili Service. He has an excellent mastery of football commentary in Swahili, he has become a household name in his region. In fact you don’t have to understand Swahili to know which team is performing well, and when he says it’s a Goaaaaaaaal. Almost everyone in the African hub will stop his work or at least smile at the skills of our friend. Then one day, one of the journalists, in fact a senior one, asked whether our colleague could do the commentary for Hausa and other languages. If it were possible I would have been very happy, because that would have saved me from struggling to translate certain football terms in Hausa language. Luckily, we had my friend Aminu Abdulkadir who came up with such excellent terms like ‘bugun lauje” for Conner-kick etc.
But the one that remains fresh in my memory was in the autumn of 2012. I was teaching a course on the impact of propaganda and distortion in the media. So I had pictures of two locations, Nairobi city in Kenya, and Harlem in New York. As an introduction to the topic I displayed the picture of Harlem and asked the students to identify the city. Unanimously all the students said it must be somewhere in Africa, simply because it looks like a deprived area populated by black people.
I then displayed the picture which provides an aerial view of Nairobi and asked them to identify the city. “This must be somewhere in Singapore” one of the students said. “It looks like somewhere in California”, said another. When I asked the students why they think Nairobi looks like California, and Harlem is somewhere in Africa. The answer was obvious, that’s how the media represents Africa.
So if I were to advise the black students in Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, I would have told them to take their peaceful campaign to the doors of the news media, for among other factors, their colleagues think they don’t belong to Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge because of what they see on their television screens.