My anthropologist friend Nicola was in Thohoyandou with us for a short time, but her critical eye and very unique perspectives made quite the impression on me. I hope to write more later on what I’ve learned about humanitarian aid, but below are some of Nicola’s thoughts on public opinions of Africa. If you’d like to read more, it reminds me of something I wrote last summer.
Upon arriving at my rather dismal, what some describe as “ghetto,” accommodation in the burgeoning city/town of Thohoyandou , Limpopo Province, South Africa, my apparent discomfort was frequently met by the phrase, “This is Africa!” As an African, a South African, I find the dismissive phrase disheartening at best, derogatory at worst. What exactly do people mean by the words, “This is Africa”?
We often forget that Africa is a very large continent. The total land area of the United States of America, China, India, most of Europe, and Central America together are not as large as the 58 countries that make up Africa. Just as the United States is distinct from India or China, so is North Africa distinct from southern Africa, East Africa from West Africa. Indeed, Africa is full of contradictions in race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, politics, and culture. In South Africa, shopping malls host stores selling products of Italian fashion designers, and grand houses line the streets with the latest in luxury interior design, all hidden behind high walls, electric fences, and security gates. The South African president has erected multi-million dollar homes for his wives and his post-presidential years. Yet, while some people live a life of luxury, many more continue to living in townships and squatter camps and ‘ghettos’ with road signs and scrap materials used to build makeshift shelters. They depend on communal water sources and ablution facilities and have limited, if any, electricity.
What then “is Africa”? Perhaps the shear contradictions, the vast inequities within communities, countries, and the continent is “Africa.” Do we accept the deterioration of public buildings due to laziness or allow corruption and the inappropriate distribution of resources? Do we accept that Africans fail to voice their concerns and give up their right to vote because they feel that no one is listening and their fate remains in God’s hands? Do we just stand back and watch Africans and the African continent get raped, pillaged, and murdered, because after all, “this is Africa”?
Rather than accepting the inequities and injustices that Africa and Africans have endured for centuries with a simple and dismissive statement, is it not the time to start asking, “What is Africa?” It’s time to ask, “What do we want Africa to be?” Anyone that has had the good fortune to stand in the midst of the collective African voice in song understands the strength of Africa. Africa must no longer be disenfranchised; Africans must have a voice that refuses conditions of deprivation and oppression from national or global leaders. Following the call of US President Barack Obama, as global citizens we must ensure that Africa becomes much more than just “this.”