Growing pains: Confronting American misconceptions of “Africa”

Growing up, I had little contact with anything related to the African continent. In public school, we were taught Asian, Latin American, European, and American history, but nothing significant about African history.  I couldn’t have told you how many countries there were, or how many languages/ethnicities exist on the vast continent.  I never had an African friend to learn from.  Sadly, to me, Africa was the stereotype, an unknown land that the media portrayed as poor and disease ridden.

It was during my sophomore year at Northwestern, when I was deciding where to spend my semester abroad that I began to think about “going to Africa”. I already knew I didn’t want the typical Euro-trip experience, and the other option was to put my French language skills to test in Francophone Africa. My friends and family were hesitant about sending me off Cameroon because of their understanding of “Africa.”   I didn’t know what to expect when going to “Africa”, as I myself knew little about Cameroon specifically. My experiences would change my life and perceptions in many ways. Had it not been for this opportunity and this willingness to venture to a foreign land, I would have remained the same.

Dchang 2007
My neighbors in Dschang, October 2007

The media does not help us to learn this about Africa. Our schools don’t teach us about the nuanced stories, the human complexities, and cultures coming out of the continent, they don’t teach us about its vastness or about the abundance of natural resources that fills it nor do they even show us a map.  Our rudimentary understanding of this place tends to be of villages filled with malnourished babies living in dirt, warring with foreigners over diamonds, with little hope for a future, which reflects the “danger of a single story”.

There are many aspects about the African continent that people who live in the West do not know about; the cultures that reflect joy, dynamism, and constant change. Imagine a place where everyone shares and takes care of one another, with no strings attached. Family is a term used very broadly- where cousins, neighbors and friends become siblings. I was welcomed into a family in Dschang, where every night we would cook delectable plantains and peanut sauce for dinner, sing along to trashy American hip-hop and dance to Makossa, the popular music from Cameroon.  Of course, life is not always a bed of roses, but I fell in love with this mentality that despite the problems people face, they always remember, appreciate, share and celebrate what they do have.

While Senegal, where I currently reside is different in many ways, this fundamental concept of community is the same, and runs true for all the other communities of Africans I have been welcomed into. I have friends from Benin, Togo, Central African Republic, Kenya, South Africa, Gabon, Gambia and more, and have done research on and studied myriad other countries as well over the past eight years. The Africa I live in is a beautiful, diverse, and thriving continent, with an amazing amount of potential for growth, and every day I learn more and more.

My students in Dakar throwing me a birthday party at lunch, June 2011
My students in Dakar throwing me a birthday party at lunch, June 2011

As an American, I believe it is crucial for my compatriots to have a better understanding of the world, in my case the African continent. Take the Ebola crisis, which is driving the American society into deeper xenophobia against Africans, it is becoming more pressing to end American ignorance African people. Students from Rwanda were sent home from their New Jersey school for fears of Ebola, even though the distance is nearly 3000 miles from the outbreak. People are forcing quarantine those who have been, including an Oklahoma teacher who visited Rwanda. Would a person from New York City be unwelcomed in California because there was a case of Ebola? If those with misconceptions could see and experience these great things I see, then perhaps the hype around the Ebola outbreak would not have gotten so out of control.

I urge all of my fellow Americans to take the time and effort to learn more about our world. Our world is rapidly changing into a global village, and even though we might be physically far from one another, we are all interconnected. Let’s open our minds, challenge our perceptions, and learn from our friends in Cameroon, Senegal and beyond to take care of each other for the common good of our global community.

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3 thoughts on “Growing pains: Confronting American misconceptions of “Africa””

  1. Thank you Liz for writing this to educate and let people know about Africa that it is not a country but 54 countries and more than 200 langages and as many ethnic groups. I like everything you’ve said in here. We need people like you around the world! You should be part of a TEDtalk. Moutarou

    Like

  2. Thank you Liz for sharing your experience in Africa. I’m sure there are still many other things to appreciate in this cotinent and hope you will always enjoy it …

    God bless you!
    God bless Africa!

    Like

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