A customer approached me and asked the question, “What does your shirt mean?” and of course I answer with excitement telling him about this iconic man who unapologetically used his voice to highlight injustice in Nigeria. At the end of my speech the customer had two words as a response, “Poor Africa.” Yes you read that right, he said poor Africa. After my one minute synopsis about a Nigerian legend, the only thing he could add to the conversation was that Africa (the whole continent) is poor. I remember my head jerking back in shock like this man just slapped me. This type of monolithic story created around Africa is just so incredibly tiring because it is just so incredibly condescending. Chimamanda spoke about this experience in her book Americanah; Ifemelu was what we American-born children of African immigrants call F-O-B, Fresh Off the Boat. New to the country and did not understand many things about American culture, but what Ifemelu quickly realized was that as soon as she mentioned anything about Africa everyone’s first reaction is pity, like it is a reflex. Just like the customer who commented on my shirt. It seems like people stop listening as soon as Africa is mentioned and fill the rest of the time conjuring up stereotypical images instead of hearing what the person is actually discussing. Your thinly veiled faux sympathy is just to cover up how superior you feel in comparison to those “poor starving African children”.
Yes Africa, as a whole, has much work to do but how can people not understand that America is only the way it is today because it stole, exploited, and enslaved from Africa and her people. How can people not realize that most countries in Africa are barely 60 years post-colonial? How can this man not hear me when I speak about the greatness that Africa produce but instead relies on a lazy method of “understanding” by resorting to stereotypes. How can this man, and so many others, not realize by you saying, “poor Africa” in response to anything African related makes you ignorant. These interactions that I have are not rare, and that is the saddest part. Too many people refer to Africa as if it is one giant country; not a continent made up of 54 countries. Too many people feel certain that this continent is made up of wild animals and starving children. They believe this to be true because the media rarely treats Africa or Africans with respect.
This is one reason I studied Marketing. It is fascinating to realize how powerful media is; how it shapes perceptions and creates realities for everyone. Obviously, part of the problem is the media. In the words of Malcolm X, “The media’s the most powerful entity on Earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the mind of the masses.” I believe everyone would benefit from a media literacy course early on in life. Specific to this case, the media’s storyline for Africa is all too depressing. All we see when it comes to the depiction of this continent is disease, war, and poverty. On television, from the Discovery channel to mainstream news outlets, nothing you hear about Africa is appealing; ebola, civil unrest, and kidnappings permeate our screen and so our minds. When people write about Africa, they find the most “exotic” ethnic group and exploit them. Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a wonderful piece speaking about the absurd nature of how people write about Africa. Media plays a huge role in how we view African nations but I want to stress personal responsibility here, it is your job to educate yourself about the world and those that differ from you. Whenever people show their ignorance by saying poor Africa (or whatever variation of that phrase), I think about the opulence of a traditional Yoruba engagement party. Every corner of your eye welcomed by colorful ankara, glorious geles, and money being showered on the bride and groom. Yoruba weddings are no joke! Yoruba culture is just one of the many ethnic groups in Nigeria, not to talk of the entire continent. We are so much more than what the media reports and that is what people need to recognize. Africa is not a country, all of us are not poor, and we sure do not need your pity. What is even more interesting about the relationship between Africa and the media is on one hand they will dehumanize Africa with images of skinny children with flies around their mouths but then fetishsize other aspects such as the fashion. Recently, I read about a Japanese fashion designer by the name of Junya Watanbe, who did an entire spring collection that was inspired by “African culture”. This designer’s blatant ignorance shines when you see models walking down the runway holding spears and white models wearing dreadlock wigs. Not only was the collection filled with stereotypes and poor research on actual African fashion it also had zero black models. Urban Outfitters is a repeat offender of cultural appropriation and came under fire for selling a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dress without any mention of the cultural significance. When representation of Africa is either negative images and or fetishised fantasies it produces a completely inaccurate and unfair perception of this diverse continent.
Africa is either treated like a child with no agency or like an exotic wardrobe that outsiders can pick up and strut around in when they please. Africa deserves better than this, Africans deserve better than this. It is hypocritical for people to continuously talk about the issues Africa is facing but refuse to acknowledge the problems within their own country. It is like people cannot fathom real issues like food accessibility, police brutality, and poverty are right down their street. We all have a role to play when combatting stereotypes and speaking up when injustice is occurring, so stop saying poor Africa as your go to response. It is wrong and further spreads the fallacious stereotypes that Africans are subjected to regularly. Instead of relying on stereotypes, try listening.