It baffles me, this stereotype of an indistinct Africa. An Africa whose separate entities are not worth recognising or getting to know. Chicago can be Chicago, New York is New York; my television is currently talking about the US Democratic primaries results in Florida. No one presumes to think I don't know where that is, nor do they purport to enlighten me as to where it might be. I'm supposed to know, period. And if I don't know, that, frankly, is my own headache. The idea is that I ought to know Florida. Why then is the average Westerner excused from knowing about the parts of Africa that any educated person in the world should be ashamed not to recognise? Why is it only a mild educated joke that George W Bush once called Africa "a country"? Why didn't the Senate pass a vote of no confidence on him for the pitiful ignorance that should have rendered him unfit to rule the most powerful nation on earth?
I am tired of it. The West's lack of education, or the refusal to be educated, about Africa. The lack of curiosity about her except to the extent to which she reinforces deep seated stereotypes. Because of the unhelpful, unreflective language used to paint Africa, these attitudes seep into the collective unconscious and make their bed there. There's a book being promoted in London's bookshop windows right now. From the title, (Blood River) I can tell that it is about a journey up the River Congo (the same river on which Conrad's Marlow travels to the 'heart of darkness' to meet Kurtz); Blood River's subtitle reads: A Journey Into Africa's Broken Heart. First time I saw that subtitle, I gasped in the bookshop and my upper body jerked forward a little, as though someone punched me in the stomach. Africa's broken heart? How dire. Our heart, needless to say, is not broken.
So what do we say when literary editors who compile anthologies of writings by African writers go on the printed page and call Africa a "country"? That was my bafflement when I saw Winona Rasheed's foreword to a new anthology published by Author Me. Africa 2008 includes works by writers some of whom are not unknown to me, but Rasheed's foreword does those writers a disservice, to say the least. She compiled the anthology, and her foreword is not only an opportunity to rehash the most simplistic themes about Africa as exists in the Western imagination, but she goes on to describe Africa, somewhat condescendingly, as "this courageous country".
Honestly, I thought I was seeing things. Here was a book editor confirming in writing, in the most unambiguous way possible, what we have always suspected. From Winona Rasheed's name and her area of editorial interest (in this specific instance, Africa), you'd think she'd know better than to call Africa a country. How embarrasing.
Well, if you were thinking it was a one-off, a mistake, a slip or the printer's devil - think again. I clicked on an earlier African-themed anthology also edited by Ms Rasheed. Africa 2007 begins, "Africa, a vast country that is full of pain and suffering". Well, maybe we ought to thank God Rasheed knows Africa is vast; the "pain and suffering" we've heard before, so we can hardly sue for that. But Country?! Where's your radar, Ms Rasheed? Did you ever sit through a class in geography? I mean, what's going on here?
In fairness, it is not as though Winona Rasheed did not know of some countries in Africa. She does mention, after all, that the contributing writers come from Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and what have you. Yet she still calls Africa a country. So what happened? A Freudian slip? A terrible slip that will require some clever words indeed, to explain why this 'slip' occured in 2 separate books over 2 years. No ordinary Freudian slip, that. And we know that Freudian slips only expose deeper things...
So, here's a few take-away snappy facts about Africa for Winona Rasheed, from something I read someplace, sometime: Africa has some 50 countries; the continent is 3 times the size of the United States; and you could fit the whole of Western Europe in the Sahara Desert and still have room to spare.