Africa Is Not A Country

Max Weylandt ‘13, Columnist

It’s 2013 and I shouldn’t have to write this. Yet here we are having this cumbersome and tiresome talk once more.

It has been brought to my attention that some of y’all—surprisingly—still can’t be bothered to refer to specific nations when you talk about African issues. Africa, in case you are wondering, is a fantastically diverse continent that houses upward of 50 distinct states, hundreds if not thousands of ethnic groups, and a dazzling array of widely varying landscapes.

Still, when the conversation turns to just about anything that occurs there, many mysteriously forget the fact of Africa’s heterogeneity. Both good and bad are discussed as though the same universals apply everywhere. In terms of distinguishing between countries or even regions, not even minimal efforts are made. Sure, several features hold in cross-country comparisons: culturally, politically and economically, the shared history of colonization and structural adjustment does show. However, surely similarities can be discussed without denying the distinct experiences of these nations.

Yes, I hate being the guy who brings the topic up again and again. Often, I’ll let it slip. It’s not a matter of taking offense either (though that would be justified)—I’m just perpetually perplexed by the fact that so many still seem to think that it doesn’t matter, that it makes no difference whether they refer to the place they visited as “Ghana” or “Africa.” But the difference is far from trivial; in fact, often it is crucial.

First, treating Africa as a blurry blob of undifferentiated mass does disservice to the idea of informed discourse, and inhibits the kinds of complex responses that are needed to deal with the varied issues of the region. America’s foreign policy is Manichean enough without being reinforced by an oversimplified intellectual environment.

Second, by definition, the images that come out of these simplifications are not helpful. It’s a common mode of operating in writing about Africa: authors deploy the same tropes again and again, briskly bombarding Western audiences with boring cliché after boring cliché. It makes for easy writing and even easier reading, for neither party in this transaction has to do much thinking. Isn’t that just splendid?

Well it isn’t, because these clichés usually denigrate, dehumanize and disrespect Africans to some degree. Most often, we get the narrative of the “Dark Continent” in this kind of writing: the poverty, the violence, the endemic corruption. This doesn’t put the inhabitants of African countries in a good light at all, and, at the very least, it is disquieting in the context of long-standing racism towards the region. “But wait!” these stories continue, “Africa is beautiful,” because “Africans” are happy despite their poverty, and they’re so friendly, and the sun shines so brilliantly. That’s not much better; this too doesn’t treat nationals of African countries as real people, but as cartoons, convenient narrative tools to delight the Western reader.

Finally, it’s stupid, and you look and sound stupid if you say you visited ‘Africa.’ I get it—it’s a semantic short cut and everyone will know that you experienced the wide plains and dazzling sun. But if you’re trying to show off your cosmopolitan cred, giving your listeners some details about the particular valley you visited in Uganda, or the mountain you climbed in Kenya will do much better.

Unless you just can’t be bothered, I guess. The details don’t matter, right?