Friday, February 1, 2008

Wait... But I Always Thought...

It seems like more than any other place on earth, Africa has more mystery, depth and stereotypes.

The more and more I talk to people about my experiences in Malawi, I frequently hear something like... "Wait... but I always thought..."

Many people's only perception of the continent has come from Walt Disney or National Geographic.

Needless to say, the first thing that comes to most Americans mind's about Africa is Tarzan, Timon and Pumba, or fierce Zulu warriors.

So, I thought it would be good to expand our horizons and mindsets about this wonderful continent...

First of all... Africa is a very large continent.

It is comprised of 54 separate countries... but for some reason many people speak in general terms about Africa. We don't really do that about any other region of the world, but when it comes to Africa we think differently. The reality is, Africa is no different than Asia, Europe or South America... within each continent, there are a great variety of countries and languages represented.

Within the small country of Malawi alone, there are several different people groups and languages represented. Although they share many cultural attributes, they all have very distinct ones as well. This is magnified much more when you're talking about the differences between people from Malawi and say, Ethiopia. Between the two, there are as many differences as America and Germany.

However, one of the great travesties of our history happened when the white colonizers pulled out a map of Africa while sitting in their European palaces and just started drawing lines. You see, in pre-colonized Africa, there weren't really any "countries". There were simply many many groups of people living next to each other with very different customs. Some lived next to each other peacefully, others opposed each other.

But, when the colonizers picked up their maps and pencils, they took none of this into consideration. They drew lines right across territories of people, placing 1 group of people in several different, newly formed countries. Some groups of people that had been in opposition for centuries were now under 1 government!

The reason for many of the wars across Africa were not because people in Africa are violent, primitive beasts... many of them were simply an inevitability of what happens when you put different people under one roof.

There is also a widespread belief held by Westerners that Africans are all mired in poverty and living in mud houses. I will be one of the first to step up and take the blame for perpetrating that one.

For years, one of the most alluring and mysterious things about Africa was the thought of adventure and getting back to your roots or something.

The less reported and somewhat less alluring aspect of modern Africa is the fact that not everyone lives in huts and runs around naked. In fact, there is a growing trend for people to move to cities like the one I live in and start businesses. In Blantyre, there are several big buildings, and Malawian business people dress way nicer than I ever do!

Another funny site is to see the amount of people that use cell phones here. There are a ton of Malawians that are always on their cells.

It's really easy for us to just buy into everything our media feeds us in the West. But, I really think it's essential to open our minds and check things out for ourselves. Western media is never going to report accurately on Africa. It's sad but true.

So, next time you hear about some war among "primitive" people in Africa, take a second to really look into the story. I think it would be surprised what you find out.


Bennett Kankuzi said...


I am very thankful for your very honest analysis of the unjust stereotypes about Africa. I am a Malawian who also has a blog whose main theme is about correcting the wrong stereotypes about us Africans. In your free time, you may check some of my posts on this issue in my blog.

May the good Lord bless you in your noble cause.


SaraEaker said...

Let me be the first to say I had a list of "but I always thought..." in my mind. I had so many ideas about Africa that the media had put into my head. It was such a blessing to visit Malawi and see it with my own eyes. I loved seeing the city and villages and everything in between. I hope that some day I will get to spend a longer amount of time in Africa to correct even more of the sterotypes in my mind. Or at least I will have you to do that!