Thursday, November 13, 2008

Africa Is Not a Country

I illustrated Africa is Not a Country in 2000. These days, it’s suddenly current again. The election postmortem accusation by a McCain staffer that Governor Sarah Palin thought that the continent was one country made the national news, and denials and counter attacks kept the media feeding on the story.

Some professed shock – nobody could be that misinformed! – but in my experience, it’s not that surprising. I’ve met a number of perfectly intelligent adults, including a teacher or two, who’ve reacted to the book's title with a puzzled, “It’s not?!”

It’s not that people are completely unaware of the countries of Africa. Most Americans could probably name six or seven of the fifty-three. The problem is that we’re just not paying attention.

Our habit of lumping all the countries together as one place, Africa, blinds us to the extraordinary richness and diversity of the continent. In a September interview on "Meet the Press," former president Bill Clinton suggested that we should “have a cessation in the use of the word 'Africa' for just eighteen months while America learns that Africa is a continent.”

The twin historical scourges of slavery and colonialism have a lingering legacy, often unconscious, in our failure to recognize the peoples of Africa in their full humanity, dignity and value. This plays out in contemporary news, where we hear much of warfare in Darfur and the eastern Congo, and the devastation of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but little about, for instance, the extraordinary success of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, or the South African convening of The Elders by Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu.

When I visited South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe in 1998, I was deeply stirred not by war and devastation but by the museum tour of Robben Island where Mandela spent sixteen years, the World Heritage site of Great Zimbabwe National Monument, and the warm friendliness of people I met while traveling who gave me directions and shared their snacks with me.

As we could see in internet photos last week, the citizens of Kenya and of countries all over the African continent watched our election with tremendous excitement. They’re very aware of us. Students I met in Zimbabwe knew all the names of U.S. presidents. We can help our own students join the world community by offering them better information about the countries and peoples of the African continent.

For more information:
"What We Want Children to Learn About Africa" by Margy Burns Knight in Teaching for Change

"I Didn't Know There Were Cities in Africa!" by Brenda Randolph and Elizabeth DeMulder for Teaching Tolerance

2 comments:

TadMack said...

I'm going to try that Bill Clinton thing -- what a mental exercise. I tried to sit here and name as many African countries as I could, and I was nowhere near fifty three!

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

I illustrated the book and I can't name them all. Tip: Don't forget the island nations - Madagascar, Cape Verde and others.

Even beginning the exercise is worthwhile. The new focus shifts your awareness. The next time an African country is named, you'll notice.