A Norwegian student organisation has just released a video called “Who Wants To Be A Volunteer” and it has gone viral. This hilarious clip highlights the very real problems with African stereotypes, looking at the perceptions of some young people who volunteer to “help in Africa”. One of the questions put to the young volunteers is “How many countries are there in Africa?” - which speaks to familiar stereotype dominating conversations, articles and thoughts the world over, and it’s not limited to the young idealists.
To be fair, the issue is more complicated. Africa is one land mass, and there are things that it has in common—like a shared history of European colonialism, which tends to inform the politics of many of the countries in similar ways.
There is a continental organisation that all the countries together, the African Union. There is a continental football tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations. And some expressions like “African woman” actually do sum up the common oppression of patriarchy women face on the continent despite its diversity. And African elections, for example, are unduly stacked in favour of the incumbent, no matter the country.
However, these references are contextualised and well understood by those who are alive to the nuances. The problem then is when a generalisation about the continent is born of ignorance, or a lack of aware of diversity.
In August this year, as US vice-president Joe Biden addressed leaders at the US-Africa business forum he said: “There’s no reason the nation of Africa cannot and should not join the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations in the near term, in the decades ahead. There is simply no reason.” There are prosperous nations in Africa, and there are very poor ones. Which one was Biden talking about?
Then there was this tweet from Bill Clinton last year. Clinton knows the continent fairly well, so he cannot be accused of being ignorant. He was just being cavalier and lazy:
However, as the Nigerians would say, there are those who are “at-all-at-all”, i.e. are prejudiced, know nothing, and probably don’t care, about Africa
So here are 10 signs that you’re one of those people who is “at-all-at-all” and thinks “Africa is a country”:
1. You didn’t realise that the continent is made up of 54 countries. To be specific, there are 54 recognised sovereign states and countries, nine territories and two de facto independent states with very little recognition. (For the record there are many Africans who draw the map of the continent without the island states, and quite a few who aren’t aware of them).
2. You refer to an African country as “Africa”. Even though you’ve only been to one or two countries on the continent – for example, you’ve told people that you’ve been to “Africa” or perhaps that you “love Africa”. Yes, and no. You may have loved certain experiences within a specific country or have visited a certain country - if you have been to all 54 states then, fair enough. (One of the most difficult thing must be to love a continent with thousands of different communities, each of them with their own language or dialect - at the last count, they were nearly 3,000).
3. You thought Africa was a “hot” continent – surprise, it’s not. The continent is so large that many countries experience seasons and in some, such as Lesotho, it even snows - this southern African country even has a ski resort.
4. You use the acronym “TIA”. Made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in blood diamonds, “This is Africa” is a blanket description of hopelessness of an entire continent. (It’s okay to use it in pub with your friends when you are drunk, though).
5. You thought the movie title “Out of Africa” was cool and have a tattoo of the map of Africa.
6. You were surprised when you found out that lions only live in parts of eastern and southern Africa. Believe it or not, Africa is not all about wildlife, savannahs and sunsets. a huge number of Africans live in urban areas, many (shocking) have never seen an elephant, lion or giraffe. In 2014, Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos were Africa’s megacities and by 2030, three more are expected to emerge - Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Johannesburg (South Africa), and Luanda (Angola) - each projected to surpass the 10 million mark.
7. You thought all Africans are black. They’re not. The continent is a melting pot of skin colours partly as a result of centuries is travel, contact, and other business with Asia and Europe, and also its very divergent geography. For example, there are plenty of white Africans of European ancestry - with 4.6 million white Africans, South Africa has the largest population of European descendants.
8. You thought Africa is poor. This is usually in the same train of thought as believing that all Africans live in mud huts, but surprise - wealth varies from country to country and there are various socio-economic classes within those countries. Consider that the GDP per capita of Equatorial Guinea is higher than that of Hungary which is in the European Union.
9. The only African president’s name that you know or remember is Nelson Mandela…and maybe Uganda’s allegedly cannibal military dictator Idi Amin (he wasn’t a cannibal).
10. You thought Madagascar is a made-up movie name and that the made-up African countries of Ghalea (Mission: Impossible), Birani (from the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy”) and Bongo Bongo Land were real.