“Tu da dove vieni?” My favourite question to answer here in Italy: where do you come from?
When people hear I am from South Africa, I am always met with great excitement and enthusiasm. I’m inundated with all sorts of questions about Durban, the beaches, our soccer or what the boys are like. I love showing off the clicks of the Xhosa language and the Zulu tongue twisters I was taught as a child. The world cup really put SA on the map, and I have taken it for granted now that people understand that South Africa is not a dirt covered, wild life infested jungle where we have to hunt for our food in animal skin all day long.
However once in a while, I am hit with a few questions that leave me absolutely dumbfounded.
Today I had the wonderful opportunity to meet a group of Russian Exchange students, here in Italy via a different program. One of the exercises we had to do, was to cut out different pictures representing the most popular characteristics of each others countries. There countries represented were Russia, America, Australia, Germany and of course South Africa. After passing around pictures of Miranda Kerr (Aussie), McDonalds, Obama (USA) and beer (Germany), this was the picture I was eagerly handed:
I looked at it and literally laughed until I cried, thinking they were joking, however the group of Russian girls was genuinely proud of themselves because to them, this picture encapsulated the essence of Africa.
When I lived in the states I was always asked questions about my pet Lions, or the troublesome elephants roaming the streets. My favorite was from a boy asking how my mother was adjusting to wearing shirts (because in all the pictures he was exposed to of Africa, all the women were bare breasted). That was in 2007. 8 years later, I’m STILL being asked (by people of different nationalities) if I can speak English. I’m still met with surprise as people learn that I don’t speak “African” and bitter disappointment when they learn that I don’t ride a Zebra to school.
I can fully accept the fact that we are all culprits of stereotyping a nation in some way or another, but it is always with the underlying knowledge that it’s not true. I mean, we all know that not all Americans are fat, and not all Germans are stiff and strict, but why don’t people know that not all of Africa is famine stricken or is infested with disease and crime?
I guess it’s easy to blame mass media or for peoples ignorance, or school systems for not providing the students with a more holistic and realistic view of the world. It still bothers me though because, one would think that children who are supposedly open minded and have some sort of general knowledge of the world (by virtue of the fact that their on exchange) would to some degree understand that Africa has developed on a very large scale.
It’s up to us (Africans around the world) to educate and enlighten the people that we meet that: yes, Africans come in all shapes, colors and sizes, we are an intelligent people and that we do have working electricity (well, we’re supposed to).
It is also important though to make sure that people understand the significance of supporting the less fortunate. That pictures like this are the reality of many, but are not representative of the continent as a whole. In every growing and evolving nation, there are those who are victims of circumstances far beyond their control, but they are not weak and helpless. They are built with the spirit and fire that every African has engrained in every fiber of their being, and have every potential to thrive, all they need is a helping hand.
So, if you are a non-African reading this, I’m sure you obviously know better now. We do not have elephants rampaging through the streets, Lions are not kept as pets (imagine the mess) and we don’t ride zebras to school. We are however trying to get the monkey problem at schools under control though.
P.S The term Africans refer to ALL people that live in any part of Africa regardless of the colour of their skin.