A Short Guide to Talking About Africa

As a U.S. citizen, I’ve heard many reactions to my nationality as I travel to other places. A few gems: “We love Americans!” “We hate Americans!” “You can print your own money at an ATM.” “You’re all fat.”

People have ample opportunities to see the United States in news and entertainment, so they have ample opportunities to form opinions of us — for better or for worse. It’s easy to latch on to one particular thing about a community or country and define its essence accordingly. I remember when I was in high school, someone heard where I went to school and asked me, “Are you all gang members there?” No, we weren’t. There were a couple of kids who liked to act like they were tough, but the vast majority of us were just ordinary kids.

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It’s often lamented how the same thing has happened to an entire continent: Africa. We have heard the newsreel version of Africa and stereotyped one billion people in 53 diverse countries (including the surrounding islands) as sick or sad or violent. Non-profits are to blame, in part, because we focus so intently on the hurts that our organizations seek to help.

Who am I to presume to speak up for Africa, as if she needs my defense? I’ve traveled to only two countries within Africa. I am no expert, and I have no right. But as a writer for a non-profit who often writes stories about people living in East and West Africa, I feel it’s partly my responsibility to bring any balance that I can to our perceptions.

But in trying to show the amazing beauty, diversity and cultural richness of the continent, we can also stereotype in the other direction — creating a caricature of everyone on this continent as jolly and not recognizing that there are thousands of cultures on this vast land mass, some exuberant and some reserved. Or we can paint a picture of only the physical beauty of one section of Africa — giraffe on the savannah with acacia trees — while ignoring the high-rises of Lagos and the boulevards of Kinshasa.

So instead of praising Africa in generalities, which might sound pretentious and condescending anyway, I’ve come up with a handy guide to talking about Africa.

1.Let’s start talking about individual countries and communities. Not that these are homogenous either, but let’s do our research and speak in specifics. As we try to be specific, we’ll probably realize our own ignorance and be forced to learn more! And that’s always a good thing. Learning about the countries in which we work might be an easy place to start.

2. Don’t talk about Africans as victims, as powerless, or as unchanging. Would you want someone to talk about you like that? Besides, it’s not true. Read “The Changing Face of Africa” from Compassion Magazine to learn how the continent and its cultures are growing.

3. There is danger in telling only a single story. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave an insightful TED Talk about how a single story can lead to cultural misunderstanding.

4. Take a trip. I’ve visited Rwanda and Kenya and loved them both. One of my life-long goals is to return to Kenya with my husband. I would also love to visit Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Botswana, Tanzania and Ghana someday. Let’s turn our mindset from considering Africa as a continent deserving our pity to unique places rich with things to discover.

5. Read! Though I have a degree in literature, I have never been required to read a single text by an African writer. This is an area in which I want to improve. Some places to start: Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, Purple Hibiscus by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, and Nervous Conditions by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga. I have also enjoyed learning through Africa Trek by French travelers Alexander Poussin and Sandra Poussin and The Number One Ladies Detective Agency by Scots author Alexander McCall Smith, who was born in modern-day Zimbabwe.

Just as not everyone in my high school was a gang member and not all Americans are fat, not all Africans are poor, violent or [enter your own perception here]. Let’s help change the discourse.

What countries within Africa would you like to visit? Do you have a book to recommend? Do you support any African-based businesses? What tips have I forgotten? Share them in the comments!

14 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Avatar
    kelly merkes March 18, 2015

    I’ve been to Kenya six times and sponsor a girl there that I was able to meet last time, I love Kenya and her people!! They are the nicest,kindest people I’ve ever met! Alot of times when I tell people I go to Africa, they think I stay in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere(I have been in a hut the middle of nowhere) but I’m like I stay in a house,we have a washer and dryer, working lights and showers and Nairobi has skyscrapers:)

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    Joseph March 13, 2015

    I am really touched by the post. I am from Tanzania. We are everywhere regarded as island of peace, that’s because we have helped other countries in Africa to get freedom. But when we are reported by abroad countries, its like we cannot exist to the next minute. People regard our country as being very poor and all our leaders are robbers. We admit having problems as other human beings but not to the extent the report shows. God will one day prove his word that the first will be the last.

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      Joanne August 12, 2016

      Amen Joseph! In my eyes your country is already first. Much of the world is blinded by glitter and cannot see the Glory.

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    EllenEllen March 12, 2015

    I recently read Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, a novel about Kenya. Loved it.

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    Paula Pasterski January 6, 2015

    Now I have a desire to learn more about Africa. Thank you for the excellent article.

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    Reva Gray January 6, 2015

    I really enjoyed your points of view! I have met Pastor/Evangelist Steven Mayanja of Kampala, Uganda He is partnered with my home church here in Washington State and I hope to get to visit Uganda and participate in his outreaches. Our home church also supports a group in Monrovia, Liberia; Orphan Relief and Rescue. The founders, Tim and Rebekah Pratt, are members of our home church. So we have been very concerned about them, but God has been faithful to protect them in the crisis there. I have had friends from Nigeria in the past also. So thank you for this post

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    Gabrielle Thompson January 6, 2015

    One time, when I was introduced to someone after moving to the US: “This is Gabrielle; she is from Germany,” the person said: “You’re from Germany? Are you mean?” Cultural stereotypes are everywhere. – I visited Kenya, and I absolutely loved it. I met many wonderful people there from all walks of life. And I’ve had friends from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Morocco, South Africa, Rwanda, and more. People are people – we’re all different, and we’re all the same.

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    Colleen January 6, 2015

    Thank you for this article!

    Another good read is “THE ROSARY – The Prayer that Saved My Life” by Immaculee Ilibagiza. It was because of this book that I chose to sponsor a young girl from the same region in Rwanda. This woman is amazing and has a heartbreaking story of the genocide in Rwanda…and how she survived.

    Her website is http://www.immaculee.com

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    Emily January 6, 2015

    A great post and definitely something to keep in mind, not just about Africa but other areas as well! Another book suggestion might be “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba of Malawi (also a TED talk participant). It’s an autobiography, thereby breaking the single story rule, but gives insight into Malawian culture and great hope for what the future of that country, and it’s neighbors. could be.

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    Lynn M. January 6, 2015

    Excellent post. I enjoyed the TED video also. Our sponsored child is from Rwanda and despite being a bit of a homebody, can dream of visiting there one day.

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    Casey January 6, 2015

    I have a heart for Africa and love what you said! I’ve been to Ghana and the people were absolutely amazing! They were the most joyful people in the world! They were so welcoming and treated me like royalty! The children were so thankful and respectful! I love Africa!

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    Debbie January 5, 2015

    I spent 2 years in the US Peace Corps in Namibia, Africa. I was glad to be able to spend 2 whole years in one community rather than a 10 day mission trip! I was also able to travel to several other countries. I am always looking for African authors & books. Whenever I speak to people about Africa, I first ask them what comes to mind when I say “Africa”. Always amazing what I hear. I hear jungle…I was in desert! The people weren’t what I thought they would be! I can’t add anything to what you wrote at this time. But I do plan to go back to my “African” family someday. PS consider Namibia…very diverse!

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    Hannah Anderson January 5, 2015

    I love love love this post!! Thank you for reminding me of the dangers of “a single story” today!

  13. Avatar
    Michael Patterson January 5, 2015

    Very well said, Amber!

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