One of my classes this semester does weekly reading quizzes. I loathe these quizzes because, even though I always do my reading, I always have that fear that I’ll mess up and won’t get credit for doing my work. Even though I hate the concept, one of the questions on today’s quiz sparked my interest. The preface of our textbook discussed common stereotypes people have of Africa: broken Africa; utopian Africa; unspoiled Africa; wild and dangerous Africa, the list goes on.
The quiz question was to name two of the stereotypes that are contradictory, and when going over the quiz we remarked on how odd it is that our stereotypes have such a wide range. It made me think about my own perception of Africa and how varied the continent really is. Just like it’s hard to describe America (which is just a single country) in a single word, it is also difficult to encapsulate Africa (an entire continent) in a single word, even though we all seem to think its possible.
Looking back on my visit to Africa, I would have to say that it is a place of contradictions. Even within Kenya, there is a huge variety of what you see and experience. I think contradictions are just part of our modern world; there is no way to easily describe the complexity of an entire place in a single phrase.
Kenya includes Nairobi, a bustling city that looks like it could be American, extremely rural areas, and then lions roaming the savannah. Now what stereotype would include all three of those different realities of Africa?
My professor seems to assume that we all only appreciate the African savanna stereotype as depicted in The Lion King. Yes, there will always be difficulties in understanding the nuances of a culture that is so different from your own, but I think there is merit in trying. Not every American is stereotyping Africa every time they discuss it. The media portrays Africa as a disaster because that is what sells, and thus the stereotypes are born. But not everyone assumes this is the entire extent of the continent, in fact I would say that most people do understand the multi-dimensional personality of the continent to some degree.
I think some people don’t give enough credit; our generation is honestly intrigued and interested in understanding and forging relationships with Africa based on more than exploitation. At least, that’s the impression I get from the people I know. There will always be people who don’t understand or don’t care, but I don’t think those people are in the majority.
There will always be stereotypes, and while they aren’t ideal at least the contradictory nature of major ones helps to encapsulate the broader characteristics of the continent, while also forcing individuals to think about why the stereotypes are all so different. This nudge towards exploration will open the doors to understanding the true complexity of the area and will urge people to get beyond the basic stereotypes.