The African Student Experience
BY Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When I recently told the person seated next to me during a class discussion that I was from Nigeria, he asked, his blue eyes completely serious, thats in South America, right?
His tone was the same kind you would use to ask a question you were almost certain of the answer, but just wanted to be extra-sure. Like veal is meat from a baby cow, right? I was not surprised. Not even at the fact that this person was a college senior. I had finally out-grown the surprise phase, even the anger phase, and had come to realize that such questions comprise an integral part of the African Student in America experience.
We may be varied in ethnicity and language, in the number of vowels in our often tongue-tying names, in the legacy we have from the different countries that colonized our homelands but we do have one thing in common, all of us African students in America. And that is the experience of coming to terms with people who carry a picture of Africa, our native continent, from a Tarzan movie. Having to wade through questions like Do you have houses in your country? and Did you know what a car was before you came to America? Having to explain that giraffes and tigers do not stroll through backyards, that people do often choose to walk around fully clothed is something that grows on you until you reach a peak where you are numb. Where you can afford to be complacent. Where you start to wonder at the whys and hows
Why is it that Africa is still a dark subject to so many seemingly educated and enlightened people in America? How is it that in a Philosophy class I took, as we discussed moral relativity, a junior said that parallels could not be drawn between African cultures and civilized ones because around here we do not walk around with no clothes and live on trees like they do in Africa. (I dont doubt that Tarzan had a very exhilarating life, swinging from tree to tree, but I was compelled to let this well-meaning person know that the movie really was not based on a true African story) Why is it that so many people think of Africa, and refer to it, as though it was a homogenous country? (The bizarre flip side, of course, was the American president referring to Nigeria as a continent during the presidential debates!)
I got my answer recently when a TV show host was listing countries where kids could be adopted and said Russia, Korea and Africa. Perhaps it is too easy to blame the media alone, too easy to simplify things and place the blame on those amoral ratings-obsessed TV people who are already held responsible for everything from violent teenagers to fat toddlers. But the media does play a role in this, no doubt about it. I did not need to major in communication to realize how powerful the media is. But being a communication major did make me realize that there is a correlation, if not a cause and effect relationship, between media coverage of Africa and the prevalent ignorance about Africa on the part of many Americans. After all, Africa gets covered in the news when there is a famine or flood or war, and the TV screen is filled with pictures of skeletal children with their bones sticking through their chests, holding on to painfully emaciated mothers, while dingy huts float on debris-filled floods. Africa in the media has come to
be used invariably in the same sentence as poverty or unrest or war-torn.
The news coverage IS true, unfortunately. It is true that civil wars ravage many countries, that AIDS numbers rise daily, that floods and famines occur. It is true, but only for parts of Africa. The problem with the news coverage then is that it is done as though the part represented the whole. By focusing exclusively on a part, the media impart the characteristics of that part on the whole, thereby distorting perceptions. If I know nothing about purple people and I see purple people portray dumb characters in the media, I will likely associate purple people solely with dumbness.
Perhaps it is a little simplified, but in essence, I believe that explains the indulgent ignorance about Africa that is prevalent in the US. If I had a choice, I would want to see footage of the resilience and hope and courage that exists throughout the diverse countries in Africa. I would love to see the rich traditions, the ancient religions. I would love to see a little balance cast the purple person as a dumb character today and tomorrow, cast him as a smart character.
But like my father says, you cant have it both ways. Africa is not yet considered important enough to be covered properly, at least not like Europe, or even Asia. Africa is still the dark continent, not big enough a player in the world to have both sides shown. Except for Nigerias move into the democratic fold and South Africas euphoric election of Mandela, I have not seen any widespread positive coverage of Africa on western international media. Even the so-called positive coverage had ominous references to such things as massive unemployment and political unrest.
So we cannot have the good side of us shown to the rest of the world. And because the media exists on a shock-value basis of if it bleeds, it leads, the bad will always come first. Period. Since we cannot have it both ways then, and at the risk of sounding defeatist (hey, defeatist and realistic may be interchangeable here) I will keep what we have. Such as the recent CBS footage of Sudanese children dying from sleeping sickness, which is 100% curable, only the drug companies stopped producing the medicine in order to produce a more-profitable cream for removing facial hair. Or the TIME magazine cover story on AIDS in Africa. Or the children from Sierra Leone with chopped off limbs on CNN.
Yes, it is all very one-sided, often very patronizing. But if this kind of coverage will prompt a greater good, then it is worth it, then I will not picket CNN with my fellow African students, sporting afros and dashikis. Levity aside though, if CNNs biased coverage of a flood in Mozambique will prompt a network of donations to aid the victims, and if AIDS coverage in Lesotho (even if done in a way to suggest that everyone in Lesotho is stricken) will bring about a trickle of drug donations from the multinational drug companies, then it is worth it. One day, Africa will rise. One day, Africas minuses will be covered in the international media with as much detail as its pluses. But until that day comes, I will plant a smug smile on my face when I get another you didnt wear clothes in Africa, did you? question. And all the time I will know that I am doing it for those African brothers and sisters in need.