Written on the plane from Johannesburg to Mumbai

What do you think of when you hear “Africa”?

Our training began with that question. We were in a hotel in Kigali. I sat with my summer scholars at the onset of orientation for ThinkImpact and pondered my answer.

What about Rwanda? the speaker continued.

Today, I would add, “How about South Africa?”

If genocide, apartheid, poverty, suffering, or hunger came to mind, I was [am] right there with you. It is what we’re taught- from the charity solicitations of starving children with distended stomachs to celebrity movements to fight AIDS, malaria, access to water, female genital cutting, war, the list goes on- the images we see of the continent are ones of deficit.

Africa= in need of [fill in the blank]

Third World. Underdeveloped.

The dark uncivilized continent.

The implications all of which infer that she is Incapable of Making It On Her Own.

Of the past five months, I have spent four of them on said continent. I have seen and experienced some of the above. I’ve also experienced love, joy, community, resources, innovation, beauty, and an abundance of spiritual, relational, and (yes) material wealth.

The speaker who posed these questions had a particular point: insomuch as we maintain and perpetuate this desolate view of Africa, we deter her development by dissuading investors to consider the countries- of sub-Sahara Africa especially- viable markets. In putting forth the assertion she could not do it, we ensure this is so by cutting off the channels through which she could.

Though this is an intriguing line of thought, for me, the question is not just one of economics. Rather, it is about our understanding of ourselves and of the world.

Underneath all of this is a question at the heart of TBB’s curriculum: What is development?

And I don’t think the point in asking is in finding an answer. In fact, the fallacy of the aforementioned picture of “Africa” is in treating this question as if there is one answer. In letting the answer be determined by Western values and standards of living.

So, my issue with the dominant view of Africa is tri-fold. One, the view casts development in a simplistic box that is neatly defined and already achieved, supporting a narrative that says to be developed is to be like us. Two, it is not as complex as the reality of the very large continent, collapsing herstory and status into a dualistic frame that ignores beauty and potentiality abroad while denying problems at home. Three, it belittles local capacity and culture in touting ourselves at the top of the moral and cultural hierarchies we define, without crediting Africa for her strengths, assets, and wealth.

When I first stepped foot onto Africa’s soil, it was out of this belief in poor Africa that I came, making it vogue and admirable for me to pursue her.

My secret though?

I return now for me. For how the culture and people invite me to relationship, simplicity, and joy in ways that I don’t find as readily in my own culture. In saying this, I don’t want to reverse the storyline to one that only romanticizes the villages in which I’ve lived.

Instead, I want to offer that one answer-whatever it may be- will never suffice for such a large place and large question. I want to suggest that the answers we’re most often fed, though wrapped in compassion, are neither accurate nor beneficial. And I want to urge us towards understanding, complexity, and relationship. It is in this pursuit that Africa (in her many forms) is found.

Today, when I hear “Africa”, I think of people. The smile on my Rwandan sister Muraza’s face while she runs to greet me. The sound of the Tanzanian orphan Loveness shouting “Love-u” as she introduces herself. The laughter of my neighbors as we play our games and the embrace of my honorary grandmothers.

I think too of the problems- the racism encountered in South Africa, the corruption I’ve read of and glimpsed in the DRC. I am not asking that we deny or ignore these realities. I suppose I am imploring others, and myself, to stop treating these as the only piece of the puzzle. And to be informed by those whose story it is; to not accept BBC as our only source, but seek Africans’ experiences, opinions, and perspectives on their lives and needs.

To me, all of this is about seeing people. Honoring culture. Holding difference.

Not judging, subordinating, or comparing.

Seeing, honoring, holding. I suppose I’d add knowing to the list. For it is out of my knowing- people, cultures, and the interconnectedness of history- that my views on the continent have changed.

Today I ask you: what do you think of when you hear “Africa”?

…. What else is there to see?


One thought on “Written on the plane from Johannesburg to Mumbai

  1. When I hear Africa I feel sunshine, warmth, laughter and skin like mine with a different story carved into the lines. I know all the other stuff, too. But louder than that is the drum beat and stronger than that is the heat from the earth.


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