In 2012, I arrived in South Africa for the first time and the first thing I asked was “Are we really in Africa?” The South African airport was not congested, the restrooms were perfectly clean and people were not attempting to jump the lines for passport checking. Are we really in Africa? As I left the airport, I was amused at how the roads were not as overcrowded with hawkers, unclean and sometimes, incomplete, as Nigerian roads often were. I glanced through the window, hoping to see two drivers cursing angrily at each other in their various languages, while causing traffic, but none of these was found. Are we really in Africa?
It was not until I watched the “Danger of a single story” by Chimamanda Adichie that it occurred to me that I had been a victim of the single story that had been pinned on Africans, especially Somalis. I heard nothing about Somalia but the war that was going on and the people that were suffering and dying each day. After arriving in school during the first week of September 2013, I had an interesting encounter with a boy that challenged this mental model I had about Somalis.
“Hi, my name is Khadija. I’m from Nigeria,” I said with a smile.
“Hi. I’m Hamza, from Somalia.”
I took a good look at him. He was a good-looking boy, with dark honey-brown skin and tall in height. He was neither scraggy nor built, with curly short black hair that was brushed towards so many directions. He was on his way to the field, dressed in his football jersey with blue knee-length socks and multicolored boots, the way all the boys dressed. In other words, the perfect description of the perfect boy from the wish lists of many girls I knew. There was no way this boy was from Somalia. There were no visible scars on his body. He did not look like he was starving and he seemed too innocent to have been a child rebel. Or was this a joke? Confused, I asked him where he was from again.
“Somalia,” he repeated with a friendly smirk.
“Nice meeting you,” I had said, praying at the back of my head that he did not notice my bewildered expression.
Similarly, I met people from Burundi and Rwanda, Lesotho and Swaziland, places I had never heard of. I have lived in West Africa all my life, but was honestly unaware of the fact that Nigeria and Ghana stand as the only two West African countries that were colonized by the British. I was so amazed at how the indigenous Africans, Berbers, in Northern Africa had a completely different complexion as I, the very dark skinned girl from yet another indigenous African tribe. Nevertheless, who could question their Africanism?
What amazed me the most during my first week of school was how I could only locate three countries on the African map; Nigeria, the country I call home, South Africa, the country at the extreme south of Africa, and finally, Malawi, a lucky guess. I had been to Kenya and Egypt, but I could not place them on the map if my life depended on it. As a child, I was taught the thirty-six states of Nigeria and their various capitals, but nobody taught me the Maasai tribe in Kenya, or the story of Sundiata, the lion child of Mali. I would have been fascinated to hear that Swahili, which is actually spoken in about seven different countries, is an official language in the African Union and that Lesotho is a country in the country of South Africa. But then again, nobody had time to teach me and I had to rely on my assumptions and personal experiences to learn about my own continent.
How many lusophones from Mozambique can proudly identify the simple Moroccan flag in the midst of others? How many Namibians can tell you about the recent conflict that broke out in the newly born South Sudan? We often complain about how the western countries do not give full stories of Africa, yet who are we to judge if we, ourselves, do not know the full stories of Africa? How can we, as Africans, expect the West to not have preconceptions and single stories of us when we ourselves are not aware of our own stories? Let us learn to teach our children the stories of Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin and let them decide for themselves if Gaddafi should be regarded as a good leader. Let us not cloud their minds, rather teach them to love Africa the way Kwame Nkrumah did.
This was first published on my old blog, theunseenafrica in January 2014.