What makes an “authentic” African? Who is an “authentic” African? I often spend hours asking myself : Will I be an “authentic” African if I put away my biological individualism and refer to myself as one? Will I be an “authentic” African when I become familiar with all her countries? I speak fluent Hausa (the most common language spoken in northern Nigeria), I wear pants from Senegal, walk in Moroccan slippers and eat South African pap, yet I am not starving. I did not witness genocide. I have never suffered from drought. I do not cook using firewood and I do not live in a shed. I’ve had malaria more than three times and I am still alive and healthy. Am I not “authentically” African?
Upon my arrival at the African Leadership Academy, between feelings of excitement and expectation, I carried my single stories bundled in a sack, imprisoned, yet striving to get out. In this fictional sack, a South African was demanding an HIV test to declare her negative status and a Nigerian was swearing upon his sister’s grave that he had never been in possession of drugs. Also in my bag was a Kenyan, whose entire life was spent trying to get a long-distance medal because, apparently, true Kenyans have speed in their DNAs. Then, the all too familiar prey: a Muslim woman was caught up between covering herself as the Qur’an instructed, or wearing less clothes so as not to be referred to as a terrorist.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “To create a single story, you show a people as one thing and only one thing over and over again and that is what they become.” Of course we cannot say that these widespread stereotypes are completely fictional, but they are just pigments of the truth. As I unpacked this sack during the course of my first term, I made friends with Kenyans that were proudly Maasai, who spoke fluent Swahili, but never even attempted to run. I met many South Africans who were HIV negative, but had in mind that Nigerians were drug addicts. I was born a Nigerian Muslim, and so I represent all the perceptions about both Nigerians and Muslims. However, I am neither a drug addict nor a terrorist.
People of my generation are defacing their natural forms just to feel accepted into the society. In Nigeria, it is very conventional to think that the noble people come from the Hausa tribe, while the people that seem to be after almost nothing but money are of the Igbo tribe. Stereotypes are the over-generalisations created towards a particular group of people due to class, race, gender, country, religion, looks and any other feature we may not openly relate to. This behavior comes with a belief that whatever we do not immediately identify as “normal” should be recognised and, possibly, corrected. It emphasises how different, rather than similar, we are from one another. Stereotypes can be used to create or destroy us, but we must not let them define us as a country, race, gender or class.
During my African studies class, we were asked to conduct research on African countries we had never heard of and observe the image and information being given to people that have never been there. The dominant images were of indigenous people, mostly naked or half -dressed women with black, sagging bosoms who lived in huts. Natives who suffered from famine and many easily identified diseases such as malnutrition, malaria and HIV and Aids. There were images of African mothers, in tears, deciding between which child to feed and which one to let go. Child soldiers, genocide and slums represented the “accurate” definition of what our beloved African continent is really all about. And of course there were pictures of wild animals, which many in the West believe are the only appealing thing in Africa.
I did not see a picture of Wole Soyinka, the first black man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, or Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for the freedom of his country. I looked for Haile Selassie, who resisted the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the 1930s and saved the country from colonisation, but not a picture of his was found. What of Dr Christiaan Barnard, the South African who performed the first heart transplant in 1967? Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry that produces more movies annually than Hollywood, striving to promote the African culture, was not even acknowledged.
Mandela once said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes even more naturally to the human heart than its opposition.” It is very easy for us to intensely dislike people for the stereotypes that they have, but we must also understand that they are only acting upon the single stories they are exposed to. What if they had heard differently? What if we give them the truth, rather than pigments of it? What if they learn about the earlier civilisations of African countries before the ruthless arrival of the British? As a society, we can seek to dispel stereotypes through education and a social action. We can seek to give the world the full stories of Africans – how many children actually attend schools and sit for both the SATs and the Cambridge International Examinations, for example.
Another Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, said: “If you do not like someone’s story, write your own.” I will write my own stories because I do not condone the oversimplified image of Africa. Stereotypes divide us as countries, continents, cultures, nations and most importantly, as individuals.
This piece was first published by Mail and Guardian’s Voices of Africa on February 3rd, 2014.