“Is that the first time you’ve taken a flight out of Africa?” the blonde from Kentucky asked the brown haired young man beside her.
“Yes, it actually is- I’ve never flown from Africa before.”
Like many tourists before them, they went on to discuss the dangers of Kenyan matatus (public service minivans), the craziness of Nairobi’s impossible traffic, and how everything they had experienced-from diarrhea to our airports, was incredibly bad. This young lady however still managed to praise the fact that in the national park, their tour guide had a Bush-A certificate, which made the experience feel safer. From their story, it sounded like Africa was this bit of hell they were lucky to have escaped from. As I stood listening, a familiar anger rose up in me. I was enraged- to hear how the beautiful place I come from was reduced to a hapless contortion of reality. I wanted to challenge them and show them how incorrect they were- but I was afraid. In that lobby of the immigration hall at Boston Logan, I was afraid that if I spoke up, I would somehow anger the powers that be and get locked out of America.
But what gave them the right to say they had just flown out of Africa? Africa is 54 countries, not just one and in their two months, they’d just seen two or three. Africa is about a billion people on one big continent, so how much does one poster, one book, one campaign, one trip teach anyone everything there is to know about us?
This story is not a one-time occurrence, but something I live through every single day. This mythical land of Africa is both an abyss of affliction for its people, and still a utopic paradise. It’s a place where donors and good will ambassadors can go to serve their time in purgatory, and come out with a tale of how they saved wretched, ignorant tribesmen from the black horrors of the Dark Continent.
In a perfect world, where we all make objective decisions based on opinions that are neither mal-informed nor misinformed, such stories would be dismissed as trivial or harmless. However, these stories are potent because of how they shape the very thoughts of those who hear them. In freshman year, one of my professors assigned a reading that made a demeaning remark about the intelligence of the backward village African. I was humiliated, yet no one else noticed. I remained silent because I was the only African in this class, and I feared that no one would agree with my point of view.
I must admit the pressure I felt to conform to this mythical idea of what Africa really was came not just from without, but also within. Under the cloak of this Africa, I could stand out as a true oxymoron: pitied for the hardships I must have endured on the Continent, while at the same time being admired for overcoming them. For instance, within the first 5 minutes of our introduction to each other, a friend of mine once said: “You’re from Africa? That’s so cool!” I reveled in the mix of pity and pride that he presented.
Later this same friend asked me: “You are from Kenya, do you speak Kenyan?” This level of ignorance left me speechless- and I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not in a dream. I wanted to scream: “You’re from America, do you speak American?” Yet something held me back.
I realized that just like I do, he had believed the lie that was told in thousands of images with shabby looking African children. Don’t misunderstand me- I’m not denying the existence of these very grave problems- I’m saying that they ARE NOT a full picture. Africa has a vast abundance in knowledge, history, culture and initiative that is often eclipsed by this one-sided story of “poor Africa” The wealth of experiences and views of the African life that we gather are not weapons to use in defending the lie, but the very tools we should use to see past it. The prostituted, mythical, exotic Africa is a story often told to grace the ears of the listeners and glorify the storyteller. But it is an injustice to all of us- one that we should not perpetuate by continuing to tell an imbalanced tale once we’ve found the truth.
Salman Rushdie, the British Indian novelist, wrote: “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” So I urge you to tell the true story even though it paints you like less of a god reaching down to save the helpless mortals in your story. Tell the truth because it paints these people like the human beings they are, people with wives, husbands, little boys and little girls- who would shudder to think of the type of stories you tell about them. Tell the true story, measuring both the good and the bad. Tell the truth, simply because it is the truth and you know it.
Play the video below to see the audiovisual version of this piece:
Walenda Peggy is a Biochemistry undergraduate student at Harvard University.