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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!