Stereotypes are a very easy way to classify the world – they allow a person to summarise a person, place or thing in as little time as possible. They allow us to group Brits into the soccer hooligan categories; French people are all good chefs and Italians all pizzas and spaghetti. New Yorkers are all busy, people from LA like the beach and nothing else and those from the South of the US love deep fried everything. There are stereotypes everywhere, you do not have to look far to find one.
When it comes to Africa, the stereotypes are innumerable: poor, starving, undeveloped, hopeless, lazy…there are quite a few. If we try to explore all of them we shall still be here in ten years’ time. These kinds of stereotypes have been displayed in popular media such as films and documentaries, each one adding to the general misconception that Africa is the Dark Continent that it is.
In many respects, it is. I have lived all of my life on the continent and there are some truths about it that cannot be dismissed. It is a poor continent, poverty is rife and there corruption, war and famine that plague certain parts of it is no laughing matter. But with all due respect, not all of them are true – there are some that are completely unfounded.
For one thing, not all of Africa is a bush. There are some parts of it that are so cosmopolitan they will surprise even the busiest New Yorker – there are other parts lined with so many Ferraris it is hard to pick out the pavement. Africa then, is one of those strange places that are hard to navigate using stereotypes – all of them apply. And the same time, all of them do not.
Speaking to one of my housemates from the US, it was interesting to hear his take on Africa. In eloquent words, he described it as a place that needs all the writers and directors it can get because it is being sold short. In his opinion, it is a place that one will not understand until one explores the continent for oneself. It was a heavy statement, one that impressed me. It also made me stop and re-evaluate my stance on Africa as well.
As an African, what did I think of Africa? I have been living here for as long as I can remember and I still far from forming a cohesive opinion of the continent. I am engrossed in a constant love-hate relationship with Africa that words cannot describe. I explained this to my housemate and his response was, “Dude, you don’t have to understand it all – I am an American and I don’t know whether I want to stay there or leave.”
Perhaps it is not just Africa that suffers from stereotypes that do not adequately encompass all of its personalities. From conversations held with my housemates, it seems the US is such a place too. Television sells one side of it, newspapers sell another. Twitter and Facebook also give it a different twist too: all American, and at the same time, not.
Since becoming an RA, this is the first time I have been around US students for any amount of time – it is interesting to hear some of the way they are stereotyped and how they perceived Africa before getting here. More interesting is what they think of the place now. The opinions are wide and varied, too many to capture in one post. I am happy to note though that the purpose of cultural exchange, to exchange ideas, not necessarily with the purpose of completely understanding the other but just being given the chance to experience, is happening here at CIEE Cape Town.