What you need to know:
- Have you ever heard someone say they are going to Asia instead of Thailand; or to South America instead of Brazil; or to North America instead of Canada? Why is it happening for Africa? And to know that this is a big problem, a book was published last year with the title “Africa is not a country”.
Consider these words by persons A, B, and C. Person A: “I am going to Africa for holiday”. Person B: “I am going to volunteer in Africa”. Person C: “I am going/not going back to Africa”. Can you try to identify the groups of people from which persons A, B, and C are most likely to come from?
Here is my take: person A is very likely a non-African person who has made it in life – I mean, they can afford a holiday to ‘Africa’.
Person B is very likely a non-African young professional, recent graduate, or a young person taking a gap year before they proceed with further education, or donating their expertise.
They very likely come from a wealthy family or are part of an association that sends volunteers for community service to less developed areas of the world.
And when they do this, they earn significant mileage in their careers by demonstrating such evidence of community service on their CVs.
Now person C is who I am more interested about today. He/she is very likely an African person who lives in a non-African, very likely a western country.
Here is the problem – all these persons are talking in wholesale; as though Africa is a country.
The problem gets bigger when the very African people form part of these people. Am a little curious here: Have you ever heard someone say they are going to Asia instead of Thailand; or to South America instead of Brazil; or to North America instead of Canada? Why is it happening for Africa? And to know that this is a big problem, a book was published last year with the title “Africa is not a country”.
Writing about this topic today was triggered by the book “The Challenge for Africa” by Wangari Maathai; that I picked from the library to accompany me on a long road trip.
In the book, the Nobel Laureate is at pains trying to explain how the colonial mindset inflicts African peoples and why that should end.
This mindset manifests in many forms. It is the moving to a western country and getting a new accent in two months.
It is the boy we met at a holiday a few months ago who made sure that anyone within earshot knew that his family did not come from Kenya, but had recently landed from the United States of America.
Mind you, that family is as Kenyan as it could be. It is the thinking that ‘mzungu’ is inherently better and so is any product or service by them. It is telling someone they look like mzungu or speak like mzungu, meaning that their language is impressive or their look is appealing.
It is when an African says ‘I am going to Africa’ instead of their own country.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not denying that some continents are better than others and neither am I suggesting that we should not appreciate the progress of others.
In fact, it is good for Africans to experience the best of both worlds if they could, the developed and the less developed.
Wangari Maathai puts this nicely when she says that one of the deepest issues Africa faces is what it means to be African. She describes her own identity as a duality: both local and international; western and African; member of elite and rural background.
She goes on to say that she knows first-hand how the self-determination of western culture, which she acquired from studying abroad, can be liberating and act as a positive force in one’s life.
I absolutely agree with Maathai. Yes, African countries are less developed because they did not have the same starting point as its colonizers.
But liberation, our own and of our communities cannot happen if we continue carrying a colonial mindset.
This means that while it is helpful for African people to go to western countries, the purpose is to learn.
To learn while embracing our victories and struggles, instead of putting ‘mzungu’ and all that is his on the pedestal, and undermining what is ours.
So, next time you talk to that relative or friend who lives abroad and they start lamenting about going or not going to Africa, remind them the name of their country. You may be called ‘kamati ya roho mbaya’ but that’s probably okay!
Ms. Kimaro writes about careers, leadership, personal development and issues affecting youth and women