Two and a half years ago, I entered the University of Ghana Legon as master’s student in African Studies. While most of my American peers were entering law or medical school in the USA, I thought of myself as a brazen cavalier trudging off into the unknown exotic country of Ghana in a charming West Africa. While I knew I had much to learn about Ghana specifically, I thought I already knew everything about Africa. First there was colonialism, which lead to war and extreme poverty across the continent which brought about the need for “developed” countries to give humanitarian aid to these poor African countries. I was naïve. I had fallen for the poor-war-torn-in-need-of-aid Africa trope.
Last night, President Obama reveled us again with this same old story of Africa in his State of the Union address. In his hour long speech, he mentioned Africa twice.
The first mention: “In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks”
The second: “Across Africa, we’re bringing together businesses and governments to double access to electricity and help end extreme poverty”
Judging from his speech alone, I could conclude that Africa is plagued with terrorism and poverty. But that’s just one story of Africa, a narrowly defined trope that fails to capture the multiplicities of Africas, peoples, cultures, and stories on the continent. There’s the barbie doll maker in Nigeria, the agricultural entrepreneur in Ghana, group of women proudly blogging about sexuality and sex on the continent, and the pan-African high school training tomorrow’s generation of African leaders. These are a just a few examples of African ingenuity, voice, and empowerment on the continent. Not to negate the current crises in the Central African Republic or South Sudan, but the story of Africa(s) is greater than political turmoil and bloodshed. There are many more stories.
If there is anything I have learned from my master’s program in Ghana is that there is great danger in saying Africa is (fill in the blank). Dear Mr. President, the next time you speak about Africa(s), leave the tired Africa tropes at the White House. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie contends in her TED talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Africa(s) has many stories to tell. Will you listen?