Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Guest Post: Paul Harris, Author of The Secret Keeper

I asked Paul to share a little bit about how we as Westerners should view Africa. I really liked his response!

Everyone has an image of Africa. For most of us that image is crafted in
the media via news coverage that focuses almost exclusively on tragedies or
by wildlife documentaries that cut out the human element in favor of
wildlife. Not surprisingly, this is not exactly an accurate picture of the
continent and the hundreds of millions of people who call it home. But it
is the dominant one that we in the West get. Africa is a place of near
universal human misery or animal majesty. As always, the truth is far more
Africans, it should come as no surprise, are no different from other people
anywhere. Indeed even the phrase "Africans" has its problems. No one would
try and lump all Europeans together in the same way that the media does
Africans. Europe is an area that stretches from Portugal to Russia via
places like Albania, Hungary, Greece and Finland. It is hard to think of
that group of nations as having anything in common, let alone being lumped
together under the catch all banner of "Europeans" to sum up all their
fears and aspirations. It is true in America too. I have been lucky to
travel all over the US and have been stunned at its diversity. If you put a
Navajo Indian, a Cajun, a black southerner from Alabama, an Iowa farmer, an
Appalachian, a Maine fisherman, a New York banker and a Hispanic
Californian in the same room, you would find that the idea of an average
"American" does not really cover that enormous range of human experience.
But Africa is far more diverse than either Europe or America. In fact many
African countries contain dozens of different ethnic groups, speaking
different languages, with different cultures, that in most continents would
justify their own separate nation. Yet the Western media, for reasons of
laziness and lack of space and a willingness to generalize, simply ignores
this and lumps all Africans together as if they share a common experience
from Ghana to Lesotho to Sudan. That makes it easy to paint the continent
as a uniquely blighted place, full of wars and famine from one end to the
other. That is not to downplay the disasters and conflicts that do occur. I
have seen enough of them first hand to know they are very real. But there
are so many other stories too that rarely get much attention. One thing
that springs to mind is now how ubiquitous mobile phones have now become,
solving one of the great infrastructure problems of the continent. I
remember once riding a bus in Malawi, surrounded by my fellow passengers
with their huge bags and even animals, and seeing people getting out their
mobile phones and chatting to relatives and friends just like they do in
London and New York (and, after a while, it is just as annoying). Or just
take a look at how South African politics is reported on in the media. It
is almost exclusively covered in terms of relations between blacks and
whites. Yet in fact South African politics cannot be understood without
looking at the complex relations between the different black African
ethnicities, especially the often fraught relationship between Zulus and
Xhosa. Also, there are two very different white communities: the Afrikaners
and the English-speakers. After having spent four years in Africa, I would
not say that I understand "Africa". That is a patronizing and wrong. I
would say that I have tried to understand the different situations and
countries that I wrote about, visited or lived in. Putting it that way
acknowledges that Africans - like everyone else - are all unique. The
political and social problems facing countries as different as Sierra Leone
and Mozambique and Somalia should not be lumped together into one big mess.
No more than we would try and solve in one big go the "European" problems
of democratizing Russia, poverty in Albania and the mafia in Sicily. We
need to start seeing Africans as individually as we see ourselves. Then,
perhaps, we can truly start to learn something about "Africa".


LisaMM said...

I've definitely been guilty of generalizing about Africa and never knew there was that much diversity. Thanks for an eye-opening and educational guest post!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I really like this post too Amy and thanks for sharing Paul! It's really frustrating when I hear people talk about visiting Africa. I always wonder where they are going? I don't need that many specifics but at least give me a country,

bermudaonion said...

This post really made me think.

Literary Feline said...

What an informative post! Most of my friends growing up were Asian and it was very common for people to lump them all together when really they came from very different backgrounds--and ethnicities. In my work I see it with the Latinos as well. Is it really then a surprise that the same would be true for Africa--a continent made up of so many different people.

bethany (dreadlock girl) said...

From living in Spain and crossing through Gibraltar to Morrocco, I have seen some of the diversity of Africa. In highschool I had a friend from Gambia who really brought this problem to light, how we will say, France, Spain, and Africa as if Africa is a country and not a continent. I was amazed that because it was unknown it was easy to do that with.

Thanks so much Amy and especially Paul for bringing this up, people really need to see things differently when they think of the African continent.

PS. I loved The Secret Keeper!! If you haven't read it, you really need to!

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