What is Africa?

This is an excerpt from “Finding ‘Real’ Africa: Learning from Three Weeks in South Africa”, a reflective paper on my experiences in May ’07.

What is Africa? How do we define a continent that is so rich and diverse? As Americans, we tend to like things neat and simple. FedEx wants us to describe the contents of a package in two or three words, sometimes our president has trouble pronouncing more than three syllables, and the important complex details of a business offer are often in the form of fine print and hurried words at the end of a commercial. For a culture that is so diverse, Americans are still exclusive, elitist, and incapable of comprehending other cultures in a complex manner.

For many, Africa is a country, not a thriving blend of cultures across some 54 countries and 2000 languages (UNESCO). Prior to my visit to South Africa, I’d spent 4 months living as a student researcher in what I thought was real Africa, the ideal case-study for the continent – Uganda. While there, I received a varying view of East Africa by traveling the country, living with both rural and urban families, and meeting with scholars and politicians. My brief visit to Rwanda gave me a more cohesive view of the corrosive effects of colonization and dependency (or neocolonialism, if you prefer).

When I left the continent in May 2007, I left a part of myself behind. The naive American who thought she could save the world and thought of Africa as this troublesome spot that needed help fixing itself. I had grown to appreciate Africa and its people as a diverse blend of cultures and identities. I thought of myself as an African studies scholar, well versed in developing politics, dependency theory, and the struggle for economic growth on the continent.

When I arrived in South Africa this May, all of that changed. From my studies in comparative politics, I knew the South Africa was a newly industrializing country (NIC), making it very different from most of its neighbors who are still in the developing or underdeveloped stage on the development continuum. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the level of American- and Westernization I encountered. South Africa has come further in 14 years than most African countries have in the past 50. From what I’ve seen, South Africa is much closer to being a developed country than most Americans would like to accept or believe, including those in Congress and working for NGOs who profit from Africa’s starvation image.

This all made me question – What is Africa? Is it the red dirt roads of Kampala suburbs like Kyebando? Or is it the skyscrapers of Cape Town’s city center? Is it a refugee camp in the yard of a police station in Johannesburg or the ride on the back of a boda tata (bicycle taxi) in Busia?

Africa is not a simple place; it is all of these. And it is not so different from the United States. What I’ve found is that Africa is not something we can define, not as political scientists, anthropologists, or comparativists. The continent is too versatile, constantly changing in the face of growing GDP and development. To give a name or a few words to what it is to be African would be a great injustice to the people who live there. The moment we think we’ve seen it all, something happens to make us say, “T.I.A. – This is Africa!” (Blood Diamond). The continent is what it is, and we can constantly learn from it.


Blood Diamond.  Warner Bros Pictures, 2006.

UNESCO.  “Multilingualism in Cyberspace: Safeguarding Endangered Languages.”  United Nations (Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization).  15 June 2008.  <http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=8048&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html&gt;


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s