And I wonder why people think of Africa as one country…

Okay, so the World Cup, which I’ve been watching – and enjoying on a new and deeply emotional level, much to my own surprise, actually – pretty constantly this week, is, of course, in South Africa. It’s the first time it’s ever been in Africa, and this is a big deal, and something to be celebrated.

But damn, it’s also an opportunity for reinscribing the discourses of ‘Africa’. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve recalled this passage from the wonderful “How to write about Africa” post:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

The musical chant “It’s time for Africa”. The CBC halftime information segments “Revealing Africa” (which also invokes the sense of Africa as dark, hidden, incomprehensible, needing to be brought to the surface). The commentators’ attribution of the term ‘home soil’ to each of the participating African nations, despite the geographic, cultural, linguistic, social, and political distances among the six of them.

At one point, the commentator of one of the games actually said that South Africa has put more effort into their self-presentation during this World Cup than any other country he can remember, and explained this as relating to the host country’s knowledge that it was representing an entire continent. It’s that pattern of personal privilege – where only the Other is expected to represent her entire group, and a heterosexual white TAB North American middle/upper class male is presumed to be an individual representing only himself – writ on a national/continental scale.

When I was a TA for first year cultural anthropology last year, and students were assigned to write a research paper on some topic relating to a book dealing with themes of global poverty (primarily on whether this was really a universalizable concept in the first place), I got to the point of keeping a tally on a separate sheet of paper counting how many of my students somehow conceptualized Africa as a single country. One even referred, in a phrase riddled with ambiguities and non-sensicalities, to “the government of Africa”.

Dear CBC and World Cup commentators: You are not helping with the education of Canadian youth. You are making a substantial contribution to their ignorance, and not just because they’re watching soccer while they should be studying. Thank you.

Sigh.

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One thought on “And I wonder why people think of Africa as one country…

  1. Mendacious D says:

    You might be interested in this piece by Duncan McNichol, an engineer with EWB who took photos of Malawian colleagues dressed as “poor” and in their best as well.

    He did this after seeing the “starving African child” trope a few too many times in fundraising advertisements, and wanted to show the personality and life of these people. Or, you know, their humanity.

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