Africa is Not a Country
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
African is not a language.
Africa is not a country, and African is not a language - although Afrikaans is, but that’s not the point of this conversation. I know this statement must seem obvious to most, but I think repeating it isn’t a waste of time.
I cannot tell you how often I have had someone ask me whether I spoke African. To me it is one of the dumbest questions you could ever ask, but apparently it is a question that a lot of people have. Africa is home to 1.2 billion people. That’s 475 million more people than in Europe. Do you know how many official languages there are in Europe? About 50. And that’s not including dialects or non-official languages. So tell me this: how would the whole continent of Africa, with her 1.2 billion inhabitants, be home to only one official language when tiny Europe already has 50? It wouldn’t make sense.
Africa is actually one of the most linguistically diverse continents with something between 2,000 and 3,000 languages and dialects spoken. It is true, however, that most of African countries, due to their colonized past, have at least one European language as an official language. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where my father is originally from, that language is French. I know it is also spoken in the neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Burundi, but that further east in Tanzania and Kenya, the official European language in use is English. African countries are also home to other European languages, such as Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and German.
To think however that those European languages are the only ones spoken in African countries is ludicrous. Most African countries have their own recognized national languages that are commonly used alongside European languages. Actually, some of the most spoken languages in Africa are Arabic, Swahili, Hausa and Amharic. My dad’s family, who comes originally from Bukavu in the South Kivu region of the Republic Democratic of the Congo, speaks Swahili. I do not know much of the language unfortunately - I hope I’ll learn it one day though! - but I always tell people as a fun fact that the name Simba from the Lion King actually means lion in Swahili.
Africa is also not a country.
Africa is a very diverse continent in terms of culture, traditions and history. Neighbouring countries might be further apart than Belgium is to France or to the Netherlands. However, Westerners - and Western media - continue to refer to Africa as if Africa’s 54 countries were one and the same. The New York times and the Guardian, for instance, have created a very interesting tool that tracks the proportion of articles that mention only "Africa" (and no specific African countries) in both newspapers. The results are overwhelming. Since 2012, the Guardian has written over 8,500 articles using only the term ‘Africa’. As a comparison, the same newspaper has written less than 3,000 articles with only the term ‘Asia’, instead employing more often the name of the specific country referred to such as China, India and Japan.
I truly believe it is important to start paying more attention to our speech and words. It is important to recognize the diversity of the African continent, and to acknowledge that we might not know as much as we like to tell ourselves about Africa. I know I don’t. Because I am brown does not mean I know anything about Africa. This statement is not only meant for people that might ask about my “country of origin”, but also for myself. I was born and raised in Belgium, in a mostly white environment. The first time I stepped foot in the Congo, I was fifteen. Since then, I’ve only visited the country one other time.
So no, I do not know the Congo, and I certainly do not know Africa. I have visited the continent a few times, yes, from Tunisia to South Africa via the Congo and Tanzania, but that does not make me an expert on Africa. I have family there, yes, but what I see on social media - or what I am told - is far from what people experience in the actual country. I do not know Africa, and you know what, that’s alright. Because being of African-descent does not mean I know the country where a part of my family originally comes from, because being a tourist in a country does not make you an expert about the local culture, and because it would be foolish of me to pretend otherwise.
Africa is not a war zone.
In addition, let’s stop pretending that Africa is all wars and famines and dictatorships, because it’s not. The continent might not have developed as quickly as liberals thought possible in the last century, but things are on the move - and fast. Our dear iPhones and Samsung smartphones would not be produced at the same scale if it was not for the Congo’s largest reserve of mineral cobalt, which is used for rechargeable batteries. Afrobeat music, which we have grown to hear all day long on the radio, actually comes from Ghana and was exported to Nigeria in the 1970s. Mobile networks in Africa have grown at a pace not yet witnessed in any other part of the world. In less than ten years, 90% of the urban population in Africa gained access to a mobile network. In seven years only - 2000 to 2007, the number of mobile users grew from 10 millions to 180 millions!
Tourism is also booming - and oh man what a beautiful place - although flights remain expensive compared to other destinations, and prejudices persist. I have been lucky enough to go on several safaris and they remain one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. It is important to be aware of the progress, of the music, of the literature that is being produced in Africa, and to give credit where it belongs.
I try to educate myself a bit more about the whole continent and her varied cultures, including reading more news outlets that focuses exclusively on the region. I feel some sort of fascination at being exposed to cultural, political and economic practices from a place that is supposed to be half of my heritage. Here are a few suggestions for you, just as a first taste as I continue my journey into African cultures. I personally really enjoy Jeune Afrique to get interesting news on African countries - although it is for French speakers only. On natural Afro hair care, my cousin Charlotte, based in Kinshasa, has you covered with her Facebook page Nappy Care. I also recently discovered Fatoumata Diawara, a singer, actress and composer from Mali that literally sings to my soul.
I hope to be able to keep sharing my discoveries as I go through my life. More importantly, do not hesitate to drop suggestions below! After all, sharing is caring.