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Africa as a Country

We just had another argument. I was getting tired of this. I stomped up to my room and resisted the urge to slam my door; despite my rage, my African home training restrained me from acting

We just had another argument. I was getting tired of this.

I stomped up to my room and resisted the urge to slam my door; despite my rage, my African home training restrained me from acting out. For a brief second, I was sure I heard my mother’s voice saying, “I know it is not me you are slamming that door at”. I slumped to my bed and let out a heavy sigh. Anger and sadness churned in my throat. This was, perhaps, the fourth time in the last month that I’d contested various facts about Nigeria with my host mom. You see; I fancy a sensible debate or a friendly argument – if you’re speaking from personal experience or a very reliable source. Otherwise, the conversation could be flat out annoying.

It was the summer of 2011 and I lived with a Swiss host family. We got along really well for the most part until my host mom started talking about “Afrika”. When I arrived, she’d informed me of her trips to Rwanda as an aid worker and how she helped provide psychological support for children affected by the Rwandan genocide. I was touched to hear this because the massacre of 1994 shattered the foundations of Rwanda and had left many children orphaned. As a result, the development and complete independence of the country fell back a few years, and it suffered greatly on both economic and technological fronts. That said, I was mystified to find myself standing in the kitchen, arguing over the available infrastructure in Nigeria, my home country.

As the conversation went on, I realized that two stereotypes were at play here. First was the, “Africa is a country” idea. Before this tête-à-tête, I used to think that some people simply thought that the African continent was just a really, really, big country. Which to an extent is understandable, a little ignorant, but at least understandable – you cannot know what you were not taught (or what you did not Google). However, after speaking with my host mom, I realized that there’s another path down this rabbit hole, which leads you to a second group of people: those who know that Africa is split into different countries, but choose to firmly assume that these countries are all the same. This group is slightly more worrisome.

The second stereotype at play here was the “please come help (insert plural noun here) in Africa”.  While it is true that Africa needs help on various fronts…so does everywhere else, really.

As I sat on my bed fighting the urge to go back downstairs for another round of “I’m right, you’re wrong and here’s why”, I stopped to ask myself why I was getting so upset. Why did I care what people thought about Africa? Nigeria? Why did any of this matter? I picked up the phone to call my sister. It rang once, twice, and then I hung up.

Wait.

Why did this matter? I flashed back to junior secondary school in Abuja, when the teacher would step out of class and it would turn into a jungle. Children would stand on desks, girls would rush to the back of the classroom to play ten-ten, boys would scream over each other, swearing that they had scored more goals.  Yet when the teacher returned you could hear a pin drop. I laughed – they always asked me to write the “names of noise makers”. I thought about the girls and boys in my class who trekked miles to get there and those who arrived in jeeps. I thought about the children who complained about how tired they were because (house) chores and oil lanterns weakened their bodies, yet they never missed a day of school.

Arriving at a conclusion where my host mom saw a different side of “Afrika” than what she read in a book or observed in a single country mattered to me because the immeasurable value of Africa is perpetually diminished and devalued by those who are not African. Africa is not one mass of black, poor people but it is rather a cradle for diversity and dare I say, awesomeness. It is not merely an investment opportunity, but is also the estate to many homes. Like every country, Nigeria struggles. For me, Nigeria was the melting pot of freedom and discipline, suffering and smiling, traditionalism and modernism, rich and poor and good and evil. Yet, as generic as that sounds, I do not for a second assume that every Nigerian would sing the same song. It is the kind of country where nothing functions but everything works. It’s the type of place where frustration feeds you but satisfaction, fills.

When a foreigner argues over a topic that is not foreign to me, it bothers me. If someone told me about their Canadian tradition, I’d nod and listen. I would not argue, because I would not know. I wish the same courtesy would be awarded to each African country. If I talk about Nigeria, everything I say, is about Nigeria. Not Kenya, not Tanzania, not Uganda or South Africa. Just Nigeria.

I laid on my bed and stared at the ceiling. What did I really want my host mom to understand? I guess I wanted her to know that Africa is not a math equation where one country equals another. That while a country could benefit from foreign aid, it would somehow not disintegrate without it. That there is no book that can write about African-ness. That a little bad can equally be good.

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