Where be this Africa?

Melania is going to Africa… Kanye – whoops, apologies, the rapper formerly known as Kanye – is coming to Africa… “I sponsor children from Africa.” “I went to volunteer in Africa during my gap year.” Pray, tell, where is Africa?

A couple of weeks ago I sat through a half hour presentation from a young woman who prided herself on spending six month in an African orphanage bottle feeding orphaned babies. Complete with images of the holier than thou oyinbo saviour with precious black boys and girls.

As she talked about their innocent eye, big smiles, kind hearts, etcetera, etcetera – totally oblivious to her tone of white privilege – I listened, incredulous that we still live in a world where such people boast about their African adventures with not even a hint of irony.

Then again, this was not the first time I’ve come across such tone-deaf, short-sighted, one-dimensional white-saviour syndrome. At a philanthropy event a few months ago, talking about her trip to Ethiopia at the height of the 1985 famine, a woman in her sixties was talking about how eagerly the ‘natives’ had been anticipating their food supplies, just how grateful they were. Those little boys running alongside their car, waving at them, using their Coca Cola cans to make toys – oh how our trash was indeed their treasure!

You’ve got two types of unashamedly ignorant oyinbo: the type who is not even aware of their reductive narrative on Africa as the aforementioned, and those, like Melania, or Ye who head out to this imaginary land that is Africa to ‘strengthen ties’ or ‘find inspiration’. Give them a map of Africa and they would be hard pushed to tell the bottom end from the top, Ghana from The Gambia.

The same kind of oyinbo who lives so far deep in the land of blissful ignorance that when they come across someone from Nigeria, they see nothing wrong with asking them if they speak Nigerian? Dumbfounded when they are informed there is no such language.The same kind of oyinbo who, when I tell them I need to find aso ebi matching the wedding themes of a traditional Nigerian wedding, suggest I ask a Zimbabwean neighbour or a Ghanaian colleague if I can borrow from their wardrobe because clearly, Africa is a country.

Only a couple of days ago a Nigerian lady, noticing my last name, asked, “I take it you’re married to a Nigerian?” followed by, “Have you ever been to Nigeria?” Upon hearing I had even lived in Lagos, she was astounded, and I in turn, puzzled by her reaction. To me, it was as astonishing as someone asking Mr O if he was married to a Turkish woman, then wondering if he’d ever been to Turkey. The suggestion that you’d marry into a culture and not even be intrigued in the slightest by it.

Then I realised I may have been mistaken for either of these other types of oyinbos. The ones that reduce the rich tapestry of 55 nations, 2000 languages and 3000 distinct ethnic groups so diverse that two Africans are more genetically different from each other than a Chinese and a European are from each other into one single narrative of poverty knocking on the oyinbo’s door with begging bowls and milk bottles… Or an exotic clime beyond any Western imagination where one goes to find jungle animals, mud huts, banging drums and loin cloths for inspiration so they can harness the energy of this Wakanda-like land in their art. Or the continent you turn to launch a charitable initiative, build a school, a few wells, or score general do-gooder brownie points.

Hence, I don’t know about you, but I am tired of reading of celebrities heading to Africa, or the occasional clueless British kid who talks ad nauseum about their volunteer work in Africa. So much so that sometimes I want to turn around and ask, “Abeg, where be this Africa?”

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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