Five words please

A challenge for you dear reader.  Five words to describe Africa.  Don’t think about it.  Just write them down (you can even post them on the blog if you want to).
I’m serious.  Stop reading go and do it.  I’ll still be here when you’ve finished.
So what did you come up with?   ‘Magical’?  ‘Violent’? ‘Family’? ‘Backward’? ‘Beautiful?’ ‘Corruption’? ‘Community’? ‘Oppression’?
Words are powerful things.  Not least because they reveal how we imagine our world.  And most of our words about Africa spring from two images of this vast continent.
Image 1: Africa as the dark and magical continent
This image paints Africa as a place of mystery.  A place of magic and a place of adventure.  A place where values still matter.   A place where the importance of community and family have not been overtaken by love of ipods and colour televisions.  A place where an elder is respected not shouted at by rowdy teenagers.  A place of beautiful children with self-made toys playing outdoors against a backdrop of big skies and endless beautiful sunsets.  
Image 2: Africa as the dark and dangerous continent
This image paints Africa as a place of fear.  A place of instability and violence.  A place where values are unaffordable.  A place where the importance of protecting your tribe and family against all comers has not been overtaken by enlightened self-interest.  A place where an elder is busy organising election fraud, corruption and coups while teenagers sit on the side of streets out of work and out of hope.  A place of sick children with distended stomachs playing outdoors amidst the sewage against a backdrop of slum housing and endless hunger. 
Now I don’t want to be the self-righteous ass that delights in pointing out how wrong these perceptions are.  Partly because – like all clichés – there’s actually some truth in them.   I also don’t want to be the pompous traveler who tells you that these are massive oversimplifications, simplifications that remove from people here their human complexity.  For what choice do you have?  How on earth are you meant to hold in your head what life is like for 800 million people living in 53 different countries, speaking countless different languages, remembering countless different histories and praying to countless different gods.  Unless you enroll in a PhD in Africa studies, surely the only choices you have is to simplify.
Well, maybe there’s another option. 
For there is a image of life that is highly complex that you hold in your head everyday with ease. An image where you understand that humans – by their very nature – are complicated and contradictory.  An image where no human is reduced to being only magical and pure and no human is completely violent and backward.  It’s the image you hold of your own country and your own friends. 
And here’s the controversial bit.  Maybe, just maybe, – once in a while – we’d be better off when we think of Africa and Africans, starting off by thinking of our own country and our own friends.  And then making the dangerous step of assuming that people in Africa aren’t actually that different.  
At least that way – whilst we may lose critical cultural, historical and religious differences – at least we don’t remove from the African the most human attribute of all – complexity.


2 Responses to “Five words please”

  1. Blair Miller, Acumen Fund Says:

    Jon, your posting was extremely powerful and yes I actually took the time to write down the first 5 words that came to my mind: Vibrant, Captivating, Colorful, Communal, Proud. Five words that are a reflection upon my six months living in Senegal, West Africa.

    What I would add to your posting is not only the complexity of Africas, but also the complexity and subjectivity of the observer. From my perspective we are missing the authentic complexity of Africans because so many of us only hear the stories of Africans from external observers. I think the real challenge is to to surface more african voices who tell their own stories of diversity and complexity.

    That is why the work of Acumen and our fellows is so important. We have the unique opportunity to surface the voices that have been silenced for so long…

  2. laurence zankowski Says:

    heartbreaking conflict of passionate lives

    senegal to film musicians, changed me. I am connected there and need to go back

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