The Young and Disenchanted

“I’m coming home again/Maybe we can start again” – Africa, Part I

Posted on: 26 January, 2009

I was in the Met a couple months ago and got into a conversation about Africa with an 8 year-old girl whilst looking at an exhibition of fabrics from my part of the continent. It went a little like this:

Me:      Oh my goodness, I love looking at these fabrics ‘cos they remind me of home.

Girl:     Wait… so you’re from Africa?

Me:      Yes…

Girl:     Oh, I didn’t… so they have like, towns and cities in Africa?

Me:      Yes, I grew up in a big city a lot like New York.

Girl:     Oh… so do your parents live in Africa?

Me:      Yes, they do.

Girl:     Well… what do they do there?

Me:      Um… they work? And live…?

Girl:     Oh… okay. I thought everyone lived in little villages in the forest there.

Me:      *Dying to cuss her out but remembering in time that she’s only 8*

Thankfully, this conversation got cut short as we moved on to another section of the Met. But it illustrated for me the surprising level of ignorance about Africa that exists in this country. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone – elementary school kid or not – in the world’s most advanced country would actually believe that there were no cities in Africa. But this is just one example of a pattern that I have noticed since moving to the States.

I got asked recently by the op/ed editor of my school’s newspaper to write a piece about what brought me to New York City. In the email she sent me, she slid in a little sentence that let me know what direction this essay was meant to take: “As an African student at Columbia, I am most interested in your experiences in your home continent. Now, no disrespect meant to this chick, but sometimes I get a little tired of being asked to talk about Africa. Eager blonde-haired sophomores approach me all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed after learning that I’m from the motherland to complement me on my English and express surprise upon learning that yes, I do live in a real city and no, my house is not made of mud. This routine gets old very quickly.

This isn’t the only reason I get tired of talking about Africa. See, I have days where all I want to do is talk about home. Maybe because I’m freezing my arse off in my under-heated room (thanks, Housing Services) and all I can think about is the sexy humid heat of the equator that I’m missing. Or after my third day in a row of eating nothing but sandwiches, all I want is a big ass bowl of jollof rice with plantain, or beans freshly fried in palm oil, or some correct pounded yam balanced with banga soup on the side. But more often than not, it’s because something about my home continent has crossed into my world of classes, meetings and friends and taken me out of New York City and back to the streets of Lagos – some photograph or song or football score that has me believing for just one second when I close my eyes that I’m not here, but back home.

But there’s a flip side: almost every time I read the news off the BBC website, it’s always some kind of misery being reported about Africa. It bothers me that most of the time when Africa is mentioned in the mainstream media, it’s an extremely stereotypical view: genocide, AIDS, corrupt rulers – y’all know the drill. For someone born and raised (mainly) on the continent, it is frustrating to see my home presented as a primitive place. And this is why I do get tired: because when I try to challenge people’s stereotypes, I tend to be met with blank faces, at best. It’s almost as if no one in the West that I’ve encountered wants to see my home continent as anything but what the media depicts. Which leads me to ask the question: why do you ask me about Africa if you don’t want to know about the “real” place, the one that I have lived and breathed for the past 21 years?

This isn’t a topic that I can cover entirely in one blog post, and I’ll definitely return to it because it’s one that has shaped my world view. When I don’t have a ton of reading due, I’m going to expand on the article I wrote for the paper. All the things I couldn’t fit into the 900 words I wrote talking about how much New York reminds me of Lagos: from the massive pockets of wealth in Manhattan and Victoria Island respectively to the feeling of calm I get looking at the Hudson because it reminds me of the Lagos Lagoon. And not because anyone asked me to write, but because writing these things makes me happy. Or mad, or sad, depending on what I’m talking about. But most importantly, because they keep me connected to the one place that matters the most to me, even when I’m 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean: home.

For right now I’ll say this: being an African outside of your home country is an interesting experience. For me, it has meant having to struggle to disprove certain assumptions that people make about my continent. But it has also involved me having to face certain hard truths about the reality at home – the corruption, the ignorance that keeps people in poverty, the ways in which our leaders failed to live up to the dreams of independence. Maybe I’m realising these things because I’ve grown up and no longer see things through the eyes of a child. I know that, ironically, classes that I have taken at my college and books that I have read helped me understand the dynamics of Africa much better than simply living there ever could. And I can’t call myself an expert, but I hope that more people will ask me questions and actually listen when I talk about Africa, not just come to me with pre-held notions and blank out when I say there’s no safari in Nigeria. Because I know there is definitely a whole lot to be said.   

P.S. Kanye West and Chris Martin’s “Homecoming” was one of my favourite tracks off the Graduation LP. And even if I can’t co-sign Kanye’s “singing,” he always does have some fly ass videos, this one included.  Hype Williams is most definitely a visual genius. 

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3 Responses to "“I’m coming home again/Maybe we can start again” – Africa, Part I"

I feel you SO many times on this one. I had a conversation about Nigeria this weekend, and even though it was on a different topic than usual (Catholicism in Africa as compared to the US), halfway through the conversation I realized I was tired of talking about where I’m from. But then at the same time I rave about African music just so people can ask me about it. It’s a mixed experience, living here.

Tackling ignorance can be frustrating; but all you can do is scoff at it. You are not responsible for people’s ignorance. If you want to educate then do that; but if not…then just be yourself.

As a black person, I made it my responsibility to know that Africa is not a country but a continent with many countries…I’ve been to Dakar, Senegal, Guinea Bissou & Conarkry…(might be spelled wrong)…and I’ve traveled.

Most Americans aren’t even thinking about traveling to Africa; hence their ignorance.

GT

I’m glad you’ve listed some of the places you’ve traveled too, because I’m one of those, “I’d like to visit see the continent for myself and what not type of guys”, but honestly I wouldn’t even know where to start. I can admit that I don’t have a clue as to what the true climate is their due to the one sided media coverage. I’m just glad their are folks out there being torch barrers and shining light that way.

On a side note I’ve witnessed in Europe, (specifically Italy, Germany and Holland) a more shall I say enlightned perspective toward the mother continent. There are so many immigrants and euro-colonoized African nationals everywhere. You have no choice but to open your mind.

In fact I’ll be the first American Black man to say that on atleast a superficial level, the collected African Dispora around the world is way flyer than American blacks. Yall are on some new ish that I don’t think the rest of the world see’s yet. American blacks tend to think yall are just following us or emulating us, but I honestly think yall are on some stuff we haven’t even opened our mind too. I mean an African abroad who speaks two or three languages, dresses like they on some Paris runway stuff, and attends the best schools in the world, is definently flyer than Tyrone chilling on the corner in Baggy jeans. Just my opinion.

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