Wednesday, June 4, 2014

5 Things Not to Say When You are in Africa: A guide for White Travellers

Don't do this, ever!

I have had the opportunity to travel to various parts of Africa, or as my mom would say: "wander across deserts and jungles." It's okay, she's African.  In my travels, I have come across of great number of white people looking for an adventure or looking to save the continent from one perceived catastrophe or another.

All of which is fine depending on how it is done. What has always shocked me however is how ill prepared many white travellers are for traveling through predominantly black countries. This lack of preparedness leads some to make statements that are culturally inappropriate at best and downright rude at worst.

But no worries, below, I highlight some of these shocking statements and assumptions and explain why they are inappropriate and offensive so that the next time you go to Africa you will avoid saying these things. 

1) "Now I know what it feels like to be a minority"

Actually, no, you don't. On the surface, this statement could be true. Being one of the only white people in "The Heart of Darkness" technically qualifies a white person as a minority. What is not true, however, is how many people mistakenly believe that because they know how it feels to be "different" means they now automatically know what it means to be racialized or marginalized. Being a minority in the American context means that historically (and presently) your racial/ethnic group was subject to systemic, legal and institutionalized  marginalization. In Africa, there is no history of white people being subjected to that. In fact, it is the exact opposite, white Europeans subjected black (and Arab) Africans to imperialism, colonialism and slavery for centuries. So, though it is true that being in Africa makes a white person a minority because of your skin color, it does not automatically mean that you now know what it is like to be black, native American or any other marginalized minority group throughout the world.

2) "I don't see race here, everyone is so nice!"

Well, just because you don't see it doesn't mean that it is not there. Race in Africa takes on very different characteristics than it does in the United States, however, the privileges that come with whiteness are universally recognized and understood even in Africa. People in Africa  are nice to visitors because they want you to have a great experience. Their "niceness" does not negate their blackness. Most importantly, the fact that you are saying you don't see race "here" because everyone is so nice implies that you believe that black people by nature are hostile and unfriendly. You should work on reconciling your prejudices towards black people before going to Africa. You should also work on figuring out what it is about YOU that may make some black people unfriendly to you. I remember a woman telling me this when I was in Kenya and I will never forget how disgusted I felt.

3) "Wow, you speak such good English!"

*Everyone rolls their eyes" As a consequence of colonialism, many African nations have been introduced to European languages and many speak it as though it were their native language. Additionally, it is not uncommon to find Africans that speak 5-7 other languages fluently in addition to speaking a European language. The problem with expressing surprise at the fact that a person in Ghana/Nigeria/Kenya etc speaks fluent English or that a person in Togo or Senegal speaks excellent French is that it 1) illustrates your lack of knowledge about the history of the country and 2) implies that you didn't expect "these people" to be capable of speaking European languages.You can see why that might be problematic. If you do catch yourself making this statement rest assured that at least one person is muttering hilarious profanities in their language towards you in response to your ignorance.

4) "Everyone is so happy here even though they have so little"

Please don't use other peoples suffering as a foundation for your spiritual awakening. Like most people around the world, Africans are generally hospitable to visitors.They are also proud of the village, town or city they grew up in or currently reside in and try to make visitors feel welcomed and embraced in their communities.  Do not use their friendliness to support your "spiritual awakening" to the fact you could be happy without all your material possessions. Many poor people suffer from a great deal of economic instability that causes them incredible amount of anxiety. Asserting that they are much happier than you despite their limited possessions can be insulting and as it belittles the harsh economic difficulties they face.

5) Assuming you now know everything about Africa

Despite what celebrities like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney might have you believe, spending time in Africa or studying genocide in a particular region of Africa does not make you an expert on all things Africa. When you come back from Africa, share your experiences in a way that highlights the fact that you are speaking only about the specific region or country you visited/lived in. Do not make broad statements such as "when I was in Africa" etc. Otherwise, you will just look like a colonialist and that is not a good look. I have met far too many people who go on one visit to a particular country in Africa and come back thinking they know everything about the African continent and its people. Even with all the traveling I have done throughout Africa and the years I spent studying/living in various parts, I also try really to be conscious of the fact that in the grand scheme of things, I know next to nothing about the vast continent.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How to get involved in the "Bring Back Our Girls" Campaign

Two weeks ago, a terrorist group known as Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 school girls in North Eastern Nigeria as part of their effort destabilize Nigeria and make it ungovernable. In addition to the kidnapping they have also been responsible for mass shootings of University students and bombings all across the northern region of Nigeria. It is speculated that this part of their effort to ensure that Goodluck Jonathan is not reelected in the upcoming 2015 elections.

I admit, when I first heard of these kidnappings, I failed to comprehend how much of a tragedy it actually is. Yet, as the news poured in and I saw pictures of the marches and protests staged by women in Nigeria under the banner "Bring Back Our Girls" I began to understand the devastation that this has had on so many families. I also keep thinking about all those girls and the unspeakable horrors they must be going through.

In all this, I was amazed by the lack of media coverage of this issue and the Nigerian government's inability to protect its citizens. Its children.

Though I don't really know how much it will do in terms of bringing these girls home, I still believe awareness is important so I have posted videos and articles below to provide you with more information about this tragedy and how you can get involved.

There are protests and marches in various parts of the country and you can find some information about one of them on the poster below. Please share with your friends in the NYC area. You can also sign this petition. You can also post these posters on facebook and other social media platforms to raise awareness about this very important issue.

Here are some links with important information about Boko Haram and the recent kidnappings:

Stay informed. #BlackGirlsMatter. Lets beat our war drums for them.

Monday, April 7, 2014

News Brief: Nigeria becomes Africa's largest economy, overtakes South Africa

‪#‎Nigeria‬ surpases ‪#‎SouthAfrica‬ to become Africa's biggest economy after  it overhauled its gross domestic product data for the first time in more than two decades (Guardian) 
But most Nigerians are not impressed:

"I'm not really impressed. I don't feel it in my pocket... It's not the masses who are rich," said Richard Babs-Jonah, 47, a small farmer, expressing the common view that Nigeria's economy is rigged in favour of a handful of well-connected oligarchs.

"Those controlling the economy, those with government contracts, get all the money." 

Despite its consistent growth in recent years and now a bigger GDP, Nigeria still trails South Africa in basic infrastructure - power and roads - necessary to lift its people out of poverty. However, Nigeria's new position is expected to enliven competition for investor capital at a time when South Africa faces challenges such as striking workers and high current account and budget deficits.

Interesting fact: As cheesy as its movies are, Nollywood, Nigeria's film industry makes up 1.4% of the country's GDP

Monday, March 24, 2014

Understanding the Tension between African Immigrants and African Americans:

Martin Luther King Jr. and Kwame Nkruma 

I watched 12-Years-A-Slave with a Kenyan friend of mine the other day and was genuinely impressed with the cinematography and overall performance of the cast. Brad Pitt was a bit random but I guess he wanted to be part of a "Socially Conscious" movie for once.

My impressions aside, I want to briefly discuss the African diaspora experience and how it relates to this movie. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, the two leading actors in this film are of what I call the new diaspora; Africans who immigrated to the United States willingly. Thier immigrant status have lead some to question the legitimacy of their roles in this movie; the central Question being "Can an African immigrant understand the African American experience?"

In 2008 this was a major question many African Americans were asking of Barack Obama.

My answer to this question is yes, but not completely.

It is very true that African immigrants, including myself, cannot really fully understand the African-American experience. In Africa, the history of the transatlantic slave trade is not taught beyond the assertion that Africans were responsible for selling their brothers and sisters. This is attributable to the fact that, for the most part, African education systems are based on the colonial system which, of course, had no interest in teaching black solidarity or the truth, for that matter.

This is of course no different than how African Americans learn next to nothing about African history.

So, I spent a great deal of time explaining to my Kenyan friend how the institution of slavery operated and how it has metamorphosed into Jim-crow laws and the prison industrial complex over the years. I only know these things after spending 14 years in the United States and being an African and African American studies major as an undergraduate. Like many Africans, I came to this country completely ignorant of the African-American experience.

 In fact, I didn't even know there were black people in the United States!

This "lack of awerness" resulted in prejudice against African Americans. Prejudice that was only solidified by the fact that the people who picked on me the most in elementary and middle school for being an "African-booty-scratcher" were African Americans.

Looking back, it was silly but when you are a poor, illiterate, African, refugee, adolescent trying desperately to be normal, anyone pointing out how "different" you were instantly became your mortal enemy. Naturally.

But my prejudice against African Americans was not solely attributable to my ignorance of their history or to the fact that they called me an African-booty-scratcher in school.

When we (African immigrants) arrive in this country, we are socialized through various mediums to believe that in order for us to assimilate to American society, we must do our best  not be "like them."  Them, the "others",  being African Americans. The media does a great job of portraying African Americans as lazy, uneducated and only concerned with instant gratification. Images of inner city gun violence, so called welfare queens, gangsters etc are presented as exclusively and characteristically African American issues resulting from generations of poor individual choices.

Nowhere do we hear any serious discussion about how African American communities came to be plagued by these issues. Nowhere are  there any mention of the very real presence of institutional racism: the kind of racism that makes it possible for African Americans to have higher incidents of death from any disease imaginable than the rest of the American population. The kind of racism that makes it possible for African Americans to make up 13% of the population but 40% of the people in Prison. But these facts are not a part of the national rhetoric that characterizes the united States as a land of endless opportunity for immigrants that are willing to work hard.

Like all immigrants, Africans pride themselves in their ability to work hard and thus are reluctant to accept the notion that no matter how hard they work, they may never fully attain the American dream because of the color of their skin. Racism is something that is incomprehensible to many Africans (excluding South Africans) because we don't come from societies  that discriminate against people because of the color of their skin.

Additionally, institutions that have historically upheld racism are dodging their social responsibility to African Americans by replacing them with Africans. The perfect place to see this in action is on University campuses. Many Universities are actively recruiting African students and professors to meet their diversity quotas instead of African-Americans.

So, I believe there are four main factors contributing to the tensions between Africans and African Americans in the United States; 1) Mutual ignorance of each others histories, 2) African immigrants strong held belief in the American dream 3) Socialization by the media 4) Preferential treatment in certain institutions

However, no matter how much we try to disassociate from each other, our genetic predisposition to producing melanin in large quantities leaves us vulnerable to the same attitudes, judicial failures and institutional prejudices the characterizes the black experience in America.

Africans and African Americans are of course different. We are separated by hundreds of years of  history and an gigantic ocean. We can not and should not pretend that we are the same.Yet, in the American context our race unites us in how tragically it shapes our lives. We must recognize and embrace that fact and use it as a force to build solidarity. We may have our differences but we really do need each other.

African Imports