Dismantling misrepresentations of my country
by Thabiso Ratalante
I have not been home in a while. Home is now a distant memory helped by the small glimpses of the old furniture in my mother’s living room seen through a computer screen during our monthly Skype sessions. She still hasn’t gotten rid of that ugly yellow loveseat I hate so much by the living room window. I miss the bi-monthly weekend traffic boom downtown as people salvage month-end specials and empty their hard earned two-week wages. I miss the walks on the long, winding dirt roads in the village teeming with screaming prepubescent girls playing tag, and I miss taking the long way home in an attempt to avoid my loquacious neighbor who lives two houses down from mine, wasting another hour of productive time. All this is home for me—humanized, alive, but no one ever asks to know about these small, everyday things that make up my experiences because of my home’s location.
My name is Thabiso and I am from Lesotho, Southern Africa. This is how I used to introduce my home to people, but often times I was met with, “Oh, you are from Africa? That’s so cool.” Notice the omission of the first two qualifiers to the word Africa. This reductive response somewhat summarizes my first encounters with my soon-to-be friends at the college. Either that, or the quintessential, “Do you know a friend of mine, _____? He’s from Africa, too” question, often followed by a slew of questions informed by uneducated stereotypes which reference not my home country, but the continent. I am going to skip the didactic speech about why you should stop referring to a diverse continent —three times the size of the United States— in such a diminutive manner and instead explore why the negation of the existence of independent states within the continent of Africa is problematic and enforce the master-slave narrative purported by the 19th century continental philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
In “Lordship and Bondage,” Hegel explains the need for the master to constantly negate everything in order to assert his lordship over his subjects. It is only through negating the other that the master can assert his primacy over the subject. Negating my country of origin and reducing it to an image riddled with negative stereotypes of Ethiopian famine, cadaverous infants and the bloodied bodies of a war-torn Congo basin is demeaning. It asserts an often misplaced messiah complex informed by excessive privilege afforded by first-world status.
The thing with privilege is that people do not know they have it; often times, it’s hard to recognize it and be more sensitive toward the people who do not have it. The privilege I am addressing here is that of first-world countries being properly recognized for their distinctive cultures and statehood. This is not the case for developing countries or underdeveloped economies. My friends tell me of their travels abroad, dropping names such as France or Italy, but I am often disappointed by those friends of mine who would not fail to use Africa as a placeholder, instead of specifying their travel to a country within the continent.
Stereotypes hinder learning and promote an unhealthy image of an otherwise complex issue. The Western media’s coverage of any African country’s fiscal issue is usually overplayed and gravitates towards stories of suffering and helplessness, stories that enforce what we are already told and hold to be true—now that’s a selling story. One usually hears heart-wrenching stories framed in the context of a continent, detracting from informing the reader about the issue at hand, instead letting the reader practice prejudiced readership. The double standard here is that the recent German airplane crash or the massacre of six million Jews was never phrased in the context of Europe or typified in that context. These are German problems, yet statements like “children are still starving in Africa,” “African leaders are corrupt” and “African dance” are casually thrown around without reprisal. This lack of specificity is classist and racist.
Not knowing about the country of my origin is offensive to me, and I am expected to be complacent to this apparent denial of my heritage. Why is it that minorities are put in a position of the educator and not the other way arround, especially when developed nations have immediate access to this wealth of information at their fingertips? I expect to tell someone about my home country and have them know, at least, where it’s geographically located and the socio-political issues of that region.
Whenever I relay information about my origin, I am met with an air of fascination and misplaced pity. Gimlet stares eagerly await a sad story of overcoming. If I’m unlucky enough, I’ll get the heavily loaded “How did you get here?” But I digress; the point I am making is my home has been negated by the people I count on to validate my existence.
In a plea to reclaim my individuality and cultural agency, I propose that the word “Africa” be omitted in favor of stressing a specific country. Such as how you refer to France as France, a specific country with a culture and heritage. France is not Europe, and if you tell your friends you are going to Europe on your study abroad trips, they will prompt you to mention a specific country because they understand the vagueness of the first term. Why can’t the same be true for minority countries? It reflects poorly on the renowned world-class education status proclaimed by the first world.
While it is true that the biased images fed to you by the capitalist media to donate ten cents a day to help Basenji go to school inform one’s opinion, it is false to assume a constant and unchanging image about a diverse continent. I guess it’s just easier to imagine a desolate place, somewhere out in the world, where one can absolve one’s gluttony by parting with their monthly dollar.