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5 things us Africans want you to know about our continent!

June 29, 2020 6 Comments

As you are well aware, global news tends to solely focus on the negative aspects of the African continent, so many people around the world only hear of the wars, disease, and poverty that the continent has experienced. The news rarely covers anything about the emerging middle class in African countries or the beautiful locations on the continent. As a result, there are many misconceptions about Africa that people throughout the world believe to be true. The truth is that these myths are rooted in misinformation, lack of knowledge and stereotypes. And with people shaming each other for a lack of knowledge or a fear of not knowing what’s appropriate, people  may not feel comfortable to ask certain questions to dispel these myths. If you’d like to read another perspective on all the ways your knowledge about Africa is probably scant, check out this well written post.

Social media is currently our biggest fail and win- with some people still perpetuating myths about the continent through their biased content but on the other hand, its allowed Africans like me to step forward to refute those myths. 

If you’re new here, you should know that I was born and raised in South Africa just like my parents and grandparents before me. How my family- and many others like mine- ended up in South Africa is well explained in this article.

Indian indentured labourers coming off the first ship- called Truro- that transported them from Madras, India to Port Natal, South Africa in 1860.

While there is definitely a sense of unity among people of the continent, each country has its own distinct history, landscapes, languages & unique culture. If we can distinguish between 50 states in the USA, we can recognise each of the 55 countries belonging to the African Union. So cease referring to Africa as one big country. It conflates a 1 billion strong continent to a non-existent country that conveniently fits a negative Western narrative.

But when I reference “African countries” in this post, I am referring mostly to the 49 countries south of the Saharan Desert, not the five countries to the north of it, which have different cultural and economic dynamics since they are also part of MENA.

MENA is an acronym for the Middle East and the North African countries shown above that are classified under this banner.

So here are some misconceptions about African countries I would love for you as a non-African to know… and some things you may have wondered but felt embarrassed to ask. I don’t speak for every person on the continent of course but I think we can all agree on a few of these! 

Stop being surprised at the diversity of people across the continent… its tiresome

Africa is extremely ethnically diverse. Powerful white people once treated our ancestors as commodities and thus moved us across the world at their free will. Some people came to seize job opportunities. Some people chose to relocate in African countries after they left the military. Some people came to spread the word of Christ. Some people had babies with members of other races. You know how complex these issues are.

You can find all skin colours in Africa, all languages being spoken across the continent and all kinds of  cultural differences even within specific countries. 

The people of Africa’s countries speak a great variety of languages, Arabic being the most popular with about 170 million speakers. Besides Arabic, the people of Africa speak English, Swahili, French, Portuguese, Spanish and many more languages. About 25 percent of the languages spoken in African countries aren’t official anywhere else in the world, which is a testament to its diversity and fullness. This article has more information about the diversity of the African continent and a link to some cool maps so you can see tribal and linguistic differences.

All of these people are African!

When I meet other Africans, they are never shocked that I am an African too. Mauritians didn’t gasp when I revealed my nationality and neither do the Kenyans when they hear I am from SA. We are aware of the diversity of our neighbours. But when I say I am South African to a person from the UK, they look at me like I’m nuts. “I thought there were only black people in Africa?” is the common response. Well either my presence in front of you confirms that you were mistaken or somehow I have latched onto a nationality that isn’t actually mine?

We understand that you like poverty porn and we sometimes use that to profit off you

Slum tours are sold as an alternative to traditional tourism and a more realistic form of experiencing a country – allegedly getting in touch with real people and the local culture. 

When people hear where I am from, they often tell me about the great experience they had touring Soweto or Langa (South African townships in Gauteng and the Western Cape respectively). I smile & nod in response.

Now this topic can be perceived in two different ways. Proponents argue that tours can contribute to an adjustment in the representation of the slums and its people and that slum tourism is a valid way to fight poverty. They also argue that the tours help tourists to better understand the world and become more empathetic. Opponents argue that it’s manipulative of poor people and that the basic human rights of the local residents to dignity and privacy are often undermined.

While these are serious and valid issues to be considered, I want you to know that we as Africans know you are hungry to see ‘real poor people’. So some enterprising entrepreneurs are using the communities they grew up in to host tours  in a way where negative stereotypes are challenged. In the best case scenarios, local residents have control over and benefit from tourism activities, so that the generated profits can be used to assist the community.

We see you wanting to visit orphanages in Kenya so you can watch the children sing & dance and pose for photos after you give them gifts. Did you think we didn’t know? The children are taught to perform for your benefit, they’re not singing and dancing every day for no reason. 


Picture of a Danish tourist touring Kibera- Nairobi’s largest slum area c/o Al Jazeera.

Another of the misconceptions about African countries is the stereotype of African people as helpless and dependent on Western help. This is one that has been built by decades of well-meaning but indisputably harmful charity advertisements in the West. Assailed by images of sad, thin and dirty children with eyes that call you to urgently donate money, it’s no surprise that its believed that ‘Africa NEEDS outside help‘. Now as much as you may think that your slum tour is making a significant contribution to the economy of an African country, I want you to also know that we can & do help our own.

In 2018, African people who lived outside the continent sent $51.8 billion back to Africa. Meanwhile, $43 billion was sent in aid from Western countries, known as Official Development Assistance (ODA). Yes, you read that right – African people who now live outside the continent send more money back than the whole Western world sends in aid.

Oh & if you’d like delve deeper into the ethics of slum tours, I recommend this article.

There is a middle class in African countries and yes, our economies are thriving

Now I know you’re thinking, “I’m not dumb, I know that not everyone in African countries is poor”, the truth is that in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that more than 218 million people live in extreme poverty. But you should also understand that contrary to the misconceptions, not every African country is poor, and that many parts of Africa are, in fact, quite rich in many growing areas.

Just look at Nigeria for example: The country exports a large amount of the world’s oil, and it’s also the African country with the highest population. Its GDP is more than $594 billion, and it’s one of the world’s largest economies in 2020.

You also need to understand that the middle class in African countries may not look like the middle class you are accustomed to. They may still wear traditional attire and shop in the open air markets… Middle class does not necessarily mean more westernised.

Did you know that  over 50% of working adults in African countries earn their incomes from informal activities that are not reflected in official income statistics, with most earners combining multiple informal incomes? 

I grew up middle class with both my parents being civil servants. I didn’t have to walk to school or get water from a well. In fact, thirty-nine percent of African citizens live in urban areas also throwing out the misconceptions about Africa that everyone lives in huts or shanty towns. Because once someone I had just met asked me if I really grew up in a house during my childhood in Africa. Imagine asking someone that when you barely know them? 

We aren’t all poor and struggling. Some of us may have a higher standard of living than people existing in places the media likes to brainwash us into thinking are flawless.

African countries are not filled with crime and not everywhere on the continent is unsafe

With idiotic white savior travel bloggers like this melodramatic exaggerator and this other attention seeker, portraying their travels in African countries with scandalous clickbait titles like, “The Most Dangerous Travel Experience” and “We Got Scammed in Sierra Leone”, it may put people off travelling anywhere on the continent. 

But I want you to always remember that the rest of the world has hiccups too and just because a country is less developed doesn’t automatically make it treacherous to visit. Generally speaking, there are countries in Africa that are as developed and as safe as any other European or Western country, there are countries or cities that are not safe at all, and then most of the countries are in between these two extremes.

The problem is that the media focuses too much on the negative aspects of Africa. We have all seen movies set in African countries about genocide, child abuse, and slavery. These consistent portrayals of the African continent as a centre of pity eventually gave birth to a false generalization that has gotten worse through the years. This one-sided portrayals of the continent have injected fear and paranoia among travellers.

South Africa comes under fire for high crime statistics often. If you look at the top 50 dangerous cities globally, South Africa has 3 on the list (Cape Town, Durban, Nelson Mandela Bay) compared to 5 US cities (including New Orleans- an extremely popular tourist destination), or 15 Mexican cities (including Cancun and Tijuana, also popular tourist destinations). In terms of firearm deaths, the US rate sits at 12.21 per 100,000 compared with 8.3 per 100,000 in South Africa. But looking at our neighbour, Botswana is a whole different story- Botswana ranks as one of the safest countries in the world and your biggest danger would be wildlife! So honestly, each country is different and truthfully, crime can and will happen ANYWHERE.

In every country there are areas you can visit freely and areas you should avoid. Asking locals and doing preliminary research helps to avoid impending dangers.

I’m not guaranteeing that if you go to any country in Africa right now, you’d be 100% safe. What I’m saying is that countries in Africa are not a terrible place like you were led to believe. And that despite its challenges, many places in Africa are still generally safe destinations for tourists and with due diligence, you too can travel without having to fear for your life.

Yes black people from other parts of the world- we can tell you’re not local

I left this one for the end because I know it’s the most controversial! Now and then a black person- usually Black American but not always- will ask if they’ll fit in when they visit Africa or if people will think they’re local. This question makes me a bit uncomfortable because I never know what the correct answer is- the truth or a feel good lie? But here is my honest answer. 

While you may not stick out at first glance or be the target of a crime simply because you’re black, upon examination you will most certainly not pass for a local. Firstly, being black doesn’t automatically give you citizenship or residency of an African country. Refer back to point number 1 of this list. Now the next thing is accent & language. Your accent gives you away the moment your mouth is open. We have opened our doors to foreign visitors for eons. I’ve been listening to local accents for years and would be hard pressed to the get that confused with a foreign one.

Also, you’re speaking in English really loudly as I pass you & your friends by while walking along the beach. Its uncommon for black people to be speaking to each other in English really loudly. English is the language of business, the language of schools, the language of formality. There’s a much higher probability of locals speaking the vernacular in an informal setting. Differences in clothing, facial features and hair also give you away before you’ve opened your mouth too which is how we are all judged whenever we travel anywhere in the world. 

The African diaspora are people of African descent who live outside continental Africa, having been dispersed around the world through colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade or voluntary migration. The movement of Pan Africanism serves to unite all countries within Africa and also reunite Africa with those of the African diaspora who wish to return. At its essence, Pan Africanism is a progressive goal, which could benefit all Africans and African diaspora should it be executed properly. But its not without its challenges.

You cannot just arrive in a country and assume a sense of belonging due to your skin colour. The emotional feeling that overwhelms African diaspora when they land is sometimes misunderstood by Africans who do not understand how one can claim “oh, I’m home. I’m home” in a land where one has no family members. This misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that the new immigrants do not know anything about African cultures. Worse, many do not make an effort to be absorbed into any African cultures.

The truth is that sometimes black people arrive on the continent in a state of utopia. Many feel that it’s like a 400 years late welcoming home. However, although you may share a skin colour with majority of the locals, there’s a silent separation that’s hard to ignore. Misconceptions, lack of understanding of each other, and hyped expectations can exacerbate the tensions between the locals and visitors.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to give the impression that I have any idea of what it means to be black in or outside of Africa. I have none.

However, I saw so many African American students crash and burn during their time on student exchange programs at my university in Durban, South Africa. They had anticipated this incredible ‘homecoming’ and to walk into social circles feeling a sense of immediate belonging; then sunk into a violent state of depression when they realised their experience would not give them what they craved. And in our ignorance at the time, we couldn’t understand why these American people were trying so hard to find themselves in Africa when they came from the land of the brave, free and what we perceived as a utopia based on American sitcoms.

I would be afraid to re-watch this show- and many others- in 2020.

There’s so many cultural nuances, shared history and the fact that you don’t and cannot understand about what it truly means to grow up in an African country if you were raised in the Western world. As a child who grew up in the era where my country transitioned from Apartheid to being the most liberal in Africa, my experiences will be very different from yours when you visit South Africa for the first time in 2021. 

While a sense of belonging is possible to attain, understand that it takes time, willingness to learn and an open mind free of judgement and bias. Do not allow yourself to be a modern day coloniser imposing your world-views on others simply because you were born elsewhere. The process can be exhausting and very far from the immediate sense of acceptance you may have anticipated.

I understand and empathise with the quest for identity of a displaced person. My ancestors too were displaced and while my culture is distinctly South Asian, Africa forms a huge part of identity too. I cannot expect to identify with the experiences someone had growing up on the Indian subcontinent even if I am ethnically Indian. So keep your high expectations in check if you don’t receive the instantaneous warm embrace that you may be expecting. It’s not an African person’s job to fill any void in your life based on past traumas you/your ancestors may have experienced.

You don’t need to fit in though. We love that you’re visiting us and we want to know that you’re visiting so we can ensure you have the best time! 

Gia Kalk wrote this practical article on 5 things I have learnt as a diaspora returnee. If you’d like to read about the experiences of African American women living in South Africa, I recommend this perspective and this one too. 

So here is the main question- why do many Africans, myself included, feel so strongly about how African countries are portrayed in Western media? For the most part I have noticed that people from other continents are not too bothered about how the rest of the world views them- The U.S.A. is a classic example of this mentality.

But Africans, especially the ones living abroad like me, agonise about the perception of our continent and its population because our future often depends on the opinions of those in whose country we reside.

Do you know how tiresome it is to constantly be underestimated in your workplace because it is assumed that since you grew up and went to school in a pitiable, regressive environment (as many presume all of Africa is), you can’t know terribly much after all?

From my own personal experience and when speaking to other Africans abroad, I know that someone from Zambia, Nigeria or Senegal has to work twice as hard to be afforded the same respect as their Australian, Canadian or Swedish colleague who is performing the same job. Each major news story presenting Africa in a negative light and each damaging image showing a part of Africa as a poverty stricken cesspool is viewed by us as something that will make our lives and conversations that much more uncomfortable and challenging. 

What about tourism? It is the lifeblood of many African economies. Yet it has still not penetrated global consciousness as a viable holiday destination. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) African countries attracted only 4.2% of the world’s tourists in 2017. Why is that? Because Africa is seen as one large continent of disease and poverty. Negative perceptions have a direct impact on economies. When Ebola emerged, tourism on the entire African continent suffered. People were unaware that Portugal and Spain were in fact closer to the epicentre than Kenya and Malawi. For every negative story about Africa, there are a thousand more about successes on the continent but barely anyone hears about them in international news. We as Africans are actively working to overturn or reclaim some of the stereotypes, and also, present a more nuanced picture of the African continent.

And for the love of all that is delicious, please end this century-long trend to portray a giant, diverse continent as an animal theme park. Most actual Africans don’t come any closer to wildlife than Westerners do. Millions of people on the continent have left their rural homelands for cities, where the only place to see wild animals is well… on a safari! 

Yes, millions of Africans have been scarred by war, poverty, and disease. But Africa isn’t just the sum total of its human misery, any more than it’s one huge animal safari. Its 55 distinct countries ranging across a diverse spectrum in terms of language, culture, politics, ethnicities and landscapes. Do your research (using articles written by actual Africans), be open to learning and be ready to have your old ways of thinking challenged.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series; the previous post was: Stop Using Black & Brown Children as Photo Props & the next post is Do’s & Don’ts When Traveling to African Countries. If you enjoyed this post, please pin it to Pinterest using the graphic below!

Is there any question you would like to ask an African or does this article clear up some misconceptions that you may have had? Let me know in the comments below!

expatpanda

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6 Comments

  • patchworkmomma June 30, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    I always enjoy your posts because they’re so informative and speak to topics that interest me. I think your point of view is spot on (as they say in Ireland). During the recent UK & Irish lockdown, I was pleased to see The Guardian print an article by Afua Hirsch, highlighting the innovative ways that Ghana and Senegal handled Covid19. She also questioned why the successes of African nations dealing with the pandemic were largely overlooked by Western media. The negative portrayal of Africa- while simultaneously ignoring its successes- is definitely an issue that needs to be tackled.

    “From my own personal experience and when speaking to other Africans abroad, I know that someone from Zambia, Nigeria or Senegal has to work twice as hard to be afforded the same respect as their Australian, Canadian or Swedish colleague who is performing the same job.“ I’d say this is universally true of the experience of black people & POC, regardless of where their passport says they’re from. I’d argue that racial bias is symptomatic of white supremacy rather than an issue of nationality.

    As for the references to African-Americans returning “home,” I think it’s a sensitive topic. The reality is that no place on Earth claims to be their home- not the country of birth or continent of origin. I am a biracial (African/ Czech/ Irish) American expatriate and have some issues around identity. I remember feeling ashamed when African foreign exchange students mocked me in college (back in the mid- 90s) because I didn’t know more about the Motherland and my “roots.” I felt like they expected me to be more like them, and that they pitied or looked down on me for my ignorance. My father would have no way of tracing his ancestry, a wound many black Americans carry. Yes, it’s our wound to heal, but it seems that compassion- rather than ridicule- would be an appropriate response from our African relations. My mother is part of the Irish diaspora, which would have some parallels, but it’s far less complicated when slavery is not part of the story.

    • expatpanda July 1, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment! I was unsurprised by the way the Western media failed to cover the strict measures put in place by leaders of African countries regarding Covid-19. Its honestly rare for international news outlets to focus any positive news about anything that goes on in African countries and I don’t know if that’s because they think people don’t want to hear it? Anyway if more African journalists and writers are given opportunities to spread the word, this will go a long way to minimising this issue in the future.

      I find the implication that nationality bias- more often known as passport privilege- doesn’t exist a bit confusing. I have seen many white South Africans working abroad being asked to prove their fluency in English yet their German colleagues were not asked to do the same. I myself was in a situation where I worked with a colleague who was the exact same ethnicity as I; in fact we looked really similar. The main difference between us was that she had a British passport and I do not. Yet I was constantly policed at work, made to work twice as hard in order to prove myself and she was paid more than I despite me being more qualified and far more experienced. A bias against those with passports from African countries exists, is valid and should not be dismissed by others simply because they have not experienced it.

      I do agree with you that the business of African Americans finding a piece of their stolen history by returning to African is a complex issue. And I certainly agree that ridicule is not the answer although I have never heard of or witnessed African people ridiculing members of the diaspora. Rather, there is a sense of confusion from both sides as they realise that there are many cultural dissimilarities and preconceived notions to work through. No sense of belonging is immediate and rather, needs patience and open mindedness in order to be achieved. What I have seen is people coming over with Eurocentric, capitalist mindsets and being dismissive of the ways things are done in communities which are socialist in nature. It’s hard to feel at home in a place where you keep criticising things, if you know what I mean.

      Thank you again for your meaningful feedback and for sharing your experience. I am sure your story- with your rich & diverse heritage- is also complex & interesting!

      • patchworkmomma July 1, 2020 at 2:03 pm

        I’m sorry if I sounded dismissive about your experience with passport bias. That wasn’t my intention. I was just trying to point out that sometimes (not always) race plays a bigger part than nationality. Although I have 2 “privileged passports” I still experience problems when I travel internationally.

        In my early 20’s, I traveled around Europe on my own. When I took a ferry from the Greek islands to Italy I encountered difficulties trying to enter the country. The immigration officials wouldn’t accept that I was American because of my braided hair and the way I looked. When a white male American I’d met on the boat came to my aid and insisted my passport was genuine- he lied and said we were together- I was eventually let through. He of course had no problems entering the country. What I’m saying is that nationality does not always protect you from discrimination. Sometimes the color of your skin is enough to demand that you work twice as hard for less money, etc., etc…

        I get what you’re saying about about the capitalist mindset that’s ingrained in American culture. Visiting or relocating to another country requires some humility and and acceptance of differences. My partner lived in Ethiopia for a year and worked on an Afroforestry project there. I don’t think he had a “white saviour complex.” He learned some Amharic and connected with the local people. He wishes he could go back. Both of us want to travel around Africa with our son. Your posts are inspiring in the meantime! Thanks 😊

        • expatpanda July 4, 2020 at 12:07 pm

          I think it’s important we acknowledge that different forms of prejudice exists in our society- some overlap and some are unrelated- and that ALL of them are quite useless and serve only to keep a small percentage of the world happy.

          I am really sorry you have to go through such ordeals when travelling, its very traumatic. I’ve had my fair share of immigration stories based on race and it is always a horrible thing to go through.

          I hope you guys can travel around Africa one day with your son… it would be an amazing experience!! Thanks for reading & engaging 🙂

  • Oluwakemi Loriade July 6, 2020 at 5:06 am

    As a fellow African who is passionate about the continent and how it is portrayed, I really enjoyed reading this post – thank you for sharing many truths.

    PS: I wrote the post ‘5 things I have learnt as a diaspora returnee’ for Homecoming Revolution, not Gia. I was a “returnee” for about 2 years before moving (back) to the US for work two years ago. I shared more about my experience as a on my blog – http://www.lorikemi.com 🙂

    • expatpanda July 9, 2020 at 2:12 pm

      I’m really glad that you resonated with & enjoyed this post! Did I miscredit an article you wrote? 🤔 If I did, I apologise and I’ll fix the error ASAP.

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