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 What is the capital of Africa?

South Africa is the no-joke response I got to that question when someone adamantly told me that Africa was a country some years back. I kid you not. Admittedly the person was a teenager (ok not a solid excuse) but I think I’d be more forgiving of a young person than someone much older.  And yet the instances where this kind of nonsense resurfaces is largely down to those – in my opinion – who should know better.

JLS lyrics

Almost 89% of Africa was Ebola-free in June 2015, image © Anthony London

My top bug bear has to be how easily a continent with 54 countries (48 mainland and six island) can be juxtaposed against a single state. You know what I am talking about: listing Africa alongside India and Brazil when talking about ‘developing’ countries.

But how many of us question it? The UK Guardian newspaper made this point well in the article ‘Africa is not a country‘. It highlighted disparities between the way African countries are reported compared to those across Europe and Asia, for example. This illogical mixing of continents with countries is not just the mainstay of newspapers, however. My beloved ex-boy band JLS even fell into the trap with their song: ‘She Makes Me Wanna’….with their chorus lyrics “….London to Jamaica, LA to Africa”

Africa is a country

Another personal favourite is when blanket statements are linked to poverty-stricken and disease-ridden Africa. One Telegraph piece ‘Ebola fears hurting African tourism’ published on 20 October 2014 springs to mind. The article was inspired by reports that travellers were putting safari trips to Kenya and South Africa on hold which was in turn hurting businesses in those regions. Why? – I hear you cry… well… because people assumed Ebola was ravaging the whole of the continent – of course.

Bikes for Africa

But these crazy stories are closer than you think. In my local newspaper, two businessmen had organised for bikes to be sent to ‘Africa’. Despite scouring the 400-word in vain, I was no closer to deciphering where in Africa these bikes were destined for. To this day, I imagine shed loads of bikes hovering like clouds over the continent seeking an African country to call their own. So I thought instead of mumbling under my breath about these faux pas, I’d put pen to paper and share my concerns with the authors. In the main, the approach has been met with silence but I’ve had the odd exchange, which I like to share with you.

Denial – isn’t just a river in Egypt

Most memorable was from my 690th subscription issue of Popbitch on 15 May 2014. Popbitch is a message board and a free weekly newsletter featuring satirical celebrity gossip.

The news bite read as follows: ‘Ryan Lewis from Macklemore reveals his mother is HIV+ from a blood transfusion 30 years ago, when his sister was born. They’re fundraising to set up clinics in Africa:’ The above link feeds into a website on the full fundraising campaign. I don’t know about you but I immediately thought there was some causal link between the two sentences. Had his mom contracted the virus in ‘Africa’? And more importantly how many countries were we talking about?  Turns out she contracted the virus in the USA. And according to the web link here, Lewis’ plan is to raise money to ‘build health centres worldwide’ the first of many to start in Malawi.

So the response I got after tackling the author went like this: “To answer your points – we have about 20 words to convey a complicated story – which is why we link to the full article. We said “Africa” as the idea behind the project is to build healthcare centres to start with in 4 countries in Africa, adding more countries if they make more money. 30 countries, eventually, according to the info. We didn’t list all the countries as we didn’t have space. We didn’t explain that we knew Africa was a continent not a country as we assumed people would already know that. And if not, by clicking through to the full article, the full details of the project would have become apparent. And there is no implicit assumption that HIV is from Africa in his project. As Ryan Lewis explained, in Seattle, where he is from, there is now a risk of only 2% of a positive mother passing HIV to her child – thanks to medical care. Therefore they are raising money for clinics in some of the countries in which there is a high incidence of HIV in pregnant woman to try and minimise the risk of passing on the infection to the children in the same kind of way that people in his part of the US can expect.” I did respond challenging that this portrayal of Africa is probably more damaging than the author thinks. And in my opinion this has contributed to the often one-dimensional view some people have of the continent being only poor, war-torn and disease-ridden. I did not get a response…..

Same number of letters

More recently, the age-old tactic of referring to Africa as a country surfaced in an Evening Standard article on 10 June 2015. The article was about a couple who were victims of fraud after a tenant they rented their flat to sub-let it while they were doing charity work in ‘Africa’. Thirteen lines in (in the print version) and I learnt that they went to Uganda. But for whatever reason, the authors reverted back to using the Africa in the rest of the piece. I did point out to one of the authors that if it was an issue of space in the publication, Africa and Uganda have the same number of letters….

This was the Evening Standard’s response:

“The simple answer to your question is that the precise location of the couple within the African continent was not crucial to the story, which is why we referred both to the continent as a whole and to Uganda specifically (usefully avoiding too much repetition).  I imagine we might well do the same in relation to South America, say, although I wonder if we would follow the same pattern had they been living elsewhere in Europe. It’s an interesting one to ponder. I did point out that in fact by substituting Uganda for Africa for the remainder of the article suggested that both terms were mutually exclusive when they were not. And the bit about not wanting to repeat the word Uganda threw me as it just meant Africa was repeated instead.

I’m still waiting for a reply….

Read: Insane in the membrane: Sticking two fingers up to the virginity test

Now as you can see from the few responses I have had, reasons for not being accurate when it comes to talking about African countries has been linked to newspaper column-inch constraints and relevance to the story. But tell me – if those stories had been a little closer to home (and I am talking about where I currently reside in the UK) would there have been greater willingness to elucidate on the locations?

My concern is that if we have to wait for an issue to have relevance in the West ( ie. the Ebola threat moving closer to the West or the rise in African migrants entering Europe) before we take the time to be accurate and specific, the risk is we will have a greater task of undoing a lot of the mis-education that currently exists when it comes to understanding ‘Africa’.

Read: Why I am not buying the new Band Aid 30 single

So if – like me – the ‘countryfication’ of Africa leaves you hovering between mad frustration and hysterical laughter, please share your examples.

And even better, if you manage to extract a reply from these offenders, let them know you plan to share them on this blog…..Hopefully we can start people thinking a bit more about how cutting corners can aid in reinforcing stereotypes and misinforming some people…..if nothing else, you can have a good giggle.

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

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3 thoughts on “Society

  1. Hey Kirsty,
    Thank you for writing this comprehensive piece. There are so many other instances…we could, unfortunately, just keep a running tally. In order for the world to gain a full understanding of how common and insulting the countryfication of Africa is, we must continue to question and educate the people who do this.

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