Africa: Or How Over-Generalization Can Undermine Your Cause

This post was inspired by Waikisays’ There’s More to Africa Than Corruption and Poverty.


Indeed, there is more to Africa than corruption and poverty. I have never visited any African country, but I can’t wait to. It’s a very rich and diverse continent, full of magnificent architecture and breathtakingly beautiful natural areas. This may surprise you given that the image of Africa we get from the news in Europe is, from north to south: where illegal immigrants come from (10%), a huge desert (40%), the place where the documentaries are filmed (5%)  blood diamonds, sickness and starving children (40%), some rich white people (5%) .

This is Africa, too. Photo by Dr. Andrew Hill of Yale University.

I understand why the news give so much attention to these issues. It’s because these issues matter and need to be solved. But in their attempt to concern the general public about everything that’s wrong with Africa, they overgeneralise and forget to mention everything that’s right with Africa! And this is very, very bad for all those issues we cared about in the first place.

Why is it so bad? Because it causes detachment. In the first world it is very hard to consider African countries as equals because the media never talks about the things we have in common. You’ll never hear about the African girl who just wrote an outstanding thesis for her Architecture final year, you’ll hear about the one who didn’t go to school because she had to take care of her brothers. You’ll never see the exotic fashion the middle class is designing, you’ll see the rags and patches of the poorest. Judging from the news, Africa hasn’t discovered concrete yet.

This isn’t helped by the fact that most black characters in American media are African-American, born in America, raised in America. A fantastic example of the opposite is Lt. Uhura from Star Trek (1966), whose nation is the fictitious United States of Africa and whose mother tongue is Swahili. She’s also a female. Take that, inequality. Note that this doesn’t happen only with Africa… non-white characters in American TV tend not to be too foreign. Sadly, American media reaches the whole world, thus perpetuating this negative view.

But there’s one reason why it’s even worse: the common belief that Africa is a helpless mess paralyses the potential aider! The failure to show how Africa’s pulling itself out of poverty tricks the viewer into believing that his little aid will only help one child live a little longer, and then everything will be the same. It makes us think it’s a helpless cause, while it is clearly not.

I’ll be honest with you. I have no idea what Africa is really like. I’ve never been there. But I know it’s not a mess of a continent. I know it had a very rich history. I know that not everybody is dying of malaria and starvation.  I know that there are African scientists, doctors, historians and teachers who are just as good at what they do as any European guy. And I know that Africa is definitely worth helping solve the problems it currently has. So take action now.

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5 Comments

Filed under Places I Like, World

5 responses to “Africa: Or How Over-Generalization Can Undermine Your Cause

  1. waikisays

    Great, great post! we’re on the same wavelength. The issue of “detachment” is so true. Africa has so much in common with the rest of the world.
    If (or should I say WHEN) you go to Africa, you will see both sides. Like I said in my post I went back to Congo after 20 years, and yes I did see a lot of the bad stuff that had been mentionned in the media, but I saw so much more as well, met so many interesting, educated, intelligent people, saw beautiful buildings, amazing landscapes, nature etc.
    I left the country with a bittersweet feeling, part of me didn’t want to come back, but deep down I was eager to do something for the people, to invest in the country, to learn to love it again, to discover even more, because there is so much potential, I saw it with my own eyes. So I’m glad I went. In fact, me and Africa have unfinished business, I can tell you that…

    • I’m so glad you like it… I was afraid to write about “the real Africa” without having actually been to Africa. Now I truly can’t wait to go 🙂

      I feel bad about one thing – all the damage we westerns have caused in Africa. There was a time when exploration implied attempting conquest. As much as I enjoy to read the tales of the early European explorers of the Age of Discovery, I am glad that now exploration is done with scientific purposes only.

      I hope you finish your unfinished business with Africa someday, Waiki 🙂

  2. Wow! Seriously, I had never thought about it. I had always thought that Africa was “a mess of a continent”, and I’ve read quite surprised the words “African” and “Architecture”, which I never thought could go together.
    Keep going with great posts like this!

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Africa: Or How Over-Generalization Can Undermine Your Cause « The Daily Adventurer -- Topsy.com

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