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October 12, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

The Misunderstood Continent

What comes immediately to mind when you hear the word ‘Africa’? Be honest. For most of us, I imagine it would be words like ‘poverty’, ‘famine’ or ‘war’; potbellied little children looking at the camera with flies buzzing around; maybe even big cool animals like lions and elephants and stuff, ’cos, y’know, The Lion King, right?

Well, you’re wrong about Africa.

It’s not your fault, though. These images are the product of centuries of ignorance and oppression. There has been a consistent and remarkably persistent narrative created of Africa which says that it is ‘the Dark Continent’ full of savage, uncivilised people. Under this narrative, it’s easy to see how such atrocities as the slave trade or the Belgian King Leopold’s tyrannical reign over the Congo Free State, which saw tens of millions of Africans sold and up to ten million Congolese killed respectively, could be ‘justified’. And these images are reinforced when we turn on the news here in New Zealand, and the only time we ever hear about Africa is when ‘pirates’ have seized another ship off the coast of Somalia, or Islamist terror group Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria.

From earlier colonial times, when European map-makers decorated Africa’s unexplored interior on their maps with “elephants for want of towns”, not much has changed. Even well educated, intelligent people I know and love have a blind spot when it comes to Africa. Whenever I mention possibly travelling somewhere in Africa one day, my mother gets all worked up because it’s “dangerous”. And a few months ago, the lovely editors of this very magazine wrote an article about inequality, and rehashed the old “starving African children” cliché as a shorthand for ‘real’ poverty, ignoring the fact that there are more malnourished children in India alone than in all of Africa.

Of course, there is some element of truth to all of these stereotypes – some parts of Africa are dangerous, and some parts of Africa do have starving children – but by reducing the experiences of over one billion people in over 50 completely different countries to a single story of misery, we are doing them, and ourselves, a massive disservice.

But Africa is full of poverty, famine and war, isn’t it?

Africa isn’t as poor as you might think. While centuries of colonialism and oppression put African countries at a major disadvantage economically, they are starting to catch up. Of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world in the last decade, six are in Africa. In the 1980s, drought, civil war and poor governance led to hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians starving to death. Live Aid, Bob Geldof’s worldwide television extravaganza, implored us all to send money to help. 30 years later, and Ethiopia is being hailed as an “African lion”, GDP having almost doubled in the last six years. Construction is booming in Addis Ababa, the capital. But Western stereotypes haven’t caught up with the reality.

And yes, there are ongoing civil wars in parts of Africa: South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Islamist insurgencies in northern Nigeria and northern Mali come to mind. Many wars in Africa since independence were caused in the first place by reckless European border-drawing which shoved hostile ethnic groups into the same states. But there are wars going on everywhere else, too, even in ‘peaceful’ Europe: civil war in eastern Ukraine, and wars in Syria, Iraq and Gaza in the Middle East.

But doesn’t Africa have Ebola???

No. Three tiny West African countries are currently battling an Ebola epidemic – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. At least 3500 people have died since the outbreak started. It is a serious problem, but it’s worth remembering that these three countries comprise less than two per cent of Africa’s population and total land area. The other 98.5 per cent of Africa is doing just fine, thank you very much (at least as far as Ebola is concerned).

Even if not all Africans are suffering, those who do still need ‘saving’ though, right?

Aid can certainly be a part of the solution to the problems that do exist, but it won’t solve everything, and is often counterproductive. Despite their best intentions, a family in Khandallah sending $1 a day to help a cute little boy in Malawi go to school won’t change much. Nor will the hopelessly misguided #Kony2012 brigade. Many well-intentioned attempts to help do the opposite, and end up perpetuating the same old stereotypes about helpless Africans needing a white saviour. Things which could help, along with well-targeted aid? Real global action on climate change (Ha! We can dream.), as the Sahara desert continues to spread south and droughts intensify. Continuing to develop strong trade and investment ties with China; maybe even ending selfish agricultural subsidies in the developed world, opening up markets for African exports.

So, what now?

This article has been a bit all over the place. If there’s one thing you take from it, I hope it is a realisation that there’s so much more to Africa than the shit you see on the news. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, Africans are ordinary people going about their lives like the rest of us, trying to get by. Don’t patronise 1.1 billion people by dismissing them all as poor and miserable. They’re not.

Nick is a third-year Law, International Relations and French student, and Salient’s Chief Sub-Editor. He’s also an upper-middle-class white kid from Wellington who has no business purporting to speak for an entire continent he’s never even visited.



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  1. Dan says:

    Thank you for this superb article! Very much needed- far too many people are misguided in their perception on this part of the world. I was lucky enough to spend two amazing years in Swaziland on a UWC scholarship, and I traveled to six Southern African countries. This article really hit the nail right on the head. Keep up the good work!

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