Africa Week, a student-sponsored week of speakers, films and open discussion on stereotypes of Africa and Africans, attempted to break down the mainstream narrative of war and poverty that defines Africa in the eyes of many Americans. The ideas that came out of Africa Week were a welcome and important break from the typical Western conceptualization of the region.
In American education, talk of Africa is often centered around Western expansionism and the development of the global slave trade. Instead of portraying Africa as the forward-moving, culturally rich and immensely diverse continent it was and continues to be, Africa is the historic heart of human trade and the modern epitome of underdeveloped society. As children, we’re told to finish our food because people our age are starving in Africa. As student activists, we sell cupcakes in the Campus Center to send a few dollars to needy kids in some remote village. We must break free of the mindset that makes these behaviors socially acceptable. Cupcakes are not a cure for global inequality.
While international aid organizations do important and valuable work with the help of a widespread base of volunteers, it’s important to understand the cultural politics behind initiatives that provide aid for Africa. The money a college bake sale earns may send a girl to school, but the idea that selling sweets in the U.S. will undo the systemic failures that plague American foreign relations in Africa as well as continental development, only deepens the ideological shortcoming that leads us to think of Africa as a singular geographical area that has only one set of political and social landmarks. Most people wouldn’t say America, as a whole, is failing because we have students in inner-city schools that don’t learn how to read. Let’s start considering the work of well-educated and thoughtful Africans as we would Europeans, and stop assuming worldly progress cannot be made in developing nations.
Africa’s story is about more than foreign aid, warlords, poverty and the salvages of decades of colonialism. If we look past media images of child soldiers, dramatized documentaries of war and the politicized attempts to show chaos on the continent, we will have a better understanding of our place in history as well as the future of development in the post-colonial world.