One of my favourite sites for commentary on African news, culture, and history is ‘Africa is a Country.’ The name is tongue-in-cheek, a joke, but it also comes with a hard edge; a not insignificant people do in fact think that Africa is a country. Among others, people think of Africa as a nebulous entity where everything is the same, where South Africa and Morocco and Kenya are basically the same, Masai tribesmen and lions and zebras littering the landscape. Most cannot name more than a handful of the 54 countries in Africa, let alone articulate the considerable social, political, cultural, environmental, geographic, historical…differences between them. When asked to point to Benin on a map, or to articulate the history of the Congo, blank stares may occur.
Why, then, do Westerners think of Africa as a country, despite all evidence to the contrary, including a casual glance at the map? A number of factors are in play, and, well, racism underlies almost all of them.
To start, the media don’t really distinguish well between African nations, painting the entire continent as a place ravaged by diseases, famine, and corruption. Africa is depicted as a place where children are starving in UN refugee camps, where corrupt officials divert medical aid, where diseases like Ebola run rampant and unchecked. All of these depictions are not only inaccurate, but tainted with racism. There’s an implication that Africans, as a whole, are too ignorant, too animalistic, too savage to govern themselves, to organise medical care for citizens, to keep the governments sorted out, to control the spread of disease. This becomes a game of Western superiority: Such things would never happen in Germany, or the US, or Canada, because of our highly sophisticated systems and, of course, better morals and ethics. We’re more socially developed both in the sense of our scientific, technological, and biomedical achievements, but because we’re ‘civilised.’
Setting aside the fact that Africa is home to the oldest civilisations in the world, the place where humanity originated, and that many of these civilisations were quite ‘sophisticated’ by Western terms, many of these civilisations still exist. Others were crushed by colonialism, which brings us to another issue. The colonisation of Africa by the West for the purpose of seizing land, natural resources, and people devastated the continent, split communities and regions apart, and created a fractured, broken continent. As nations slowly pulled out of Africa under pressure or because they had stripped the regions they colonised of anything they found useful, they drew artificial, arbitrary borders, didn’t meet with community leaders, left no functional infrastructure behind, and effectively set African nations up for failure. Expecting nations to thrive to European standards after creating power vacuums, drawing artificial borders, and creating political tensions is a losing game, yet one the West felt quite comfortable playing; after all, the trashed continent wasn’t their responsibility.
There is also, of course, the underlying deep Western racism that people across a spectrum of social and racial groups with vaguely similar characteristics look the same. Thus, all ‘Asians’ look alike, and it’s apparently impossible to distinguish not just between people of the same regional community, like Japanese people, but also between larger Asian groups; Chinese, Thai, and Japanese people all look the same, right? There aren’t a number of ethnic and cultural groups within China, or Japan, or Thailand that look radically different and come from radically different communities, right? ‘They’ all look and behave the same, speaking strange, incomprehensible tongues.
In Africa, a continent filled with terrifyingly black people, there seems to be a persistent belief that everyone from an African nation looks the same, and that, by extension, Africa is a country. In fact, there is no lumped racial and cultural group of ‘Africans.’ There are people from different regions, nations, and communities. Broad phenotypes appear within these social groups. People from Africa can have skin of a variety of shades, they may be tall or short, their hair can be quite variable (yes! It is not a tangled mop of uncontrolled wiry strangeness!), they may have pronounced cheekbones or full lips or any number of other traits, not just within broad groups but also as individuals; gosh, it’s almost as though individual Yoruba, or Tuareg, or Tutsi people look different, come from different cultural backgrounds, even value different physical traits as beautiful. As though Africans are diverse and culturally distinct.
Underscored by racism, the myth that Africa is a country endures, with very real consequences; the famous Ebola/not Ebola map that made the rounds last year, for example, highlighting the fact that, er, the vast majority of Africa was not experiencing active Ebola outbreaks (and that the disease generally only crops up in a handful of nations to begin with). The myth also perpetuates rescue-orientated and interventionist ‘rescue’ groups convinced that Africans need to be saved from their own backwardness, assuming that all African nations are exactly the same; that people need to be saved and that what works in one country will work in another. For the public, it creates a lack of understanding about political and social complexities; Egypt is in Africa, for example, and yet people seem surprised by this, associating Egypt with ‘the Middle East,’ without realising that ‘the Middle East’ spans continents. It also creates a simplistic view of Africa in which the issues of specific nations are collapsed into each other, and the whole continent is treated as a walking disaster.
There’s also a persistent Western ignorance about African nations and their business, social, and political communities. In nations like South Africa, for example, tech has advanced very quickly and the tech sector is big. Communities across Southern Africa (a broad geographic region, still not a country) skipped landlines and went straight to cell phones, making them ubiquitous long before they caught on in the US. Innovators in engineers, tech, and a variety of other fields come from African nations and do their work in their home countries; it would seem that Africa, that great unknown land, isn’t so backwards after all, eh?