Africa is not a country

Mahesh Sharma took an anecdote from South Africa to make a point about Congo. What gives?

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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Mahesh Sharma says the fatal attack on the Congolese student in Delhi was “unfortunate”. But India’s minister of culture also reminds us that even Africa is not safe. “When I went to South Africa, I was stopped from going for a morning walk at 6am by the hotel people citing security reasons. My post-dinner walk was also dropped for the same reason. It’s not fair to say that India is unsafe.”

What was truly unfortunate was the minister did not see the distinction between a general law and order concern that might affect all hotel guests versus a law and order problem accompanied by very specific chants of “Go back to Africa”.

But let’s set that aside. What was even more telling was how easily the minister took an anecdote from South Africa to make a point about Congo. If an Indian had been attacked in Australia, and a minister there had told us about being mugged in Beijing or even Karachi and said “Asia is not safe”, would Sharma not have bristled?

Europe is a continent but in our imagination, and that includes the Minister for Culture, Africa is a country.

India’s relations with Congo go back many years,” said the spokesperson for India’s Ministry for External Affairs to soothe ruffled feathers. Chances are most Indians — and perhaps many at the ministry itself — would be hard pressed to place Congo on the map. It’s just somewhere in Africa.

Africa, the world’s second largest and second most populous continent has 54 countries but to most of us, it is one undifferentiated blurry landmass.

It’s not just an Indian problem. Sarah Palin, once America’s vice presidential candidate, was confused enough about Africa’s status to ask an advisor if South Africa was part of the country. Bill Clinton obviously has no such confusion. But even he tweeted “Just touched down in Africa with @ChelseaClinton”. Factually that’s absolutely correct, but as The Guardian noted it is “as meaningless as announcing that he landed between Calgary and Buenos Aires”.

In 2014, The Guardian analysed its own coverage of the previous two years for Africa and Asia. It found 2,948 references to only Asia, but there were 16,090 references to China and 8,829 references to India. There were 5,443 references to only Africa while South Africa and Nigeria got 6,824 and 2,169 mentions.  That does not even take into account the fact that a story that mentions Tunisia while going on at length about African issues being discussed there will not make into these statistics. The report said, “Guardian journalists don’t use ‘Asia’ when talking of Hyderabad or Shenzen.”

Put another way, we don’t bat an eyelid that Isak Dinesen’s memoir (and the Meryl Streep film) is called Out of Africa not “Out of Kenya”.

What makes it more egregious in India is that we, unlike Sarah Palin, have grown up with the Non-Aligned Movement, which involved the heads of state from African countries. Our shared history of colonialism has clearly had little impact on our sense of geography or geopolitics. We think it perfectly acceptable to describe a person from Botswana or Congo as simply African. I must shamefacedly admit that until Masonda Ketada Oliver was killed, I was not sure that Congolese was the word for a national from Congo.

The interchangeability of one African with another can prove not just annoying, but deadly. Earlier this year a Sudanese man driving a car ran over a pedestrian near Bengaluru.  In the angry conflagration that followed, hours later, a Tanzanian woman was attacked, beaten up and allegedly partially stripped. This is not to suggest a better-informed mob should have sought out another Sudanese, but merely to point out that for an angry mob, any African will do. There might be reports of Nigerians being involved in drug peddling but landlords will refuse to rent to all Africans.  To be fair, this time around many of the headlines have been more specific, if horrifying, as in  “After Congolese lynching, Nigerian girl thrashed in Hyderabad“.

Racial stereotyping is that much easier if you think of Africa as a country. World music collections have albums devoted to “African music”, whatever that means in a continent with 2,000 languages and none of them called African. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once described her first encounter with an American roommate in an American university. She wanted to listen to Adichie’s “tribal” music and wondered where Adichie had learned English. “My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe,” said Adichie.

This single story, this country-fication of an entire continent leads to damaging and insidious stereotypes. Alcoholism studies in Kenya can balloon into “Africa’s drinking problem“, blithely ignoring African countries with large Muslim populations where alcohol is banned or severely restricted. Ebola becomes a pan-African disease in our imagination. And of course, there’s that same lonely acacia tree that popped up in as many 36 covers for books set all over the continent from South Africa to Nigeria to Zambia, as documented by the blog Africa Is A Country. “For that vast continent, in all its diversity, you get that one fucking tree,” said designer Peter Mendelsund.

Mostly it’s lazy shorthand rather than mala fide intentions.

Ansari to fill Africa hole in Modi govt’s itinerary” says one headline for the vice president’s intended visit to Morocco and Senegal, as if the countries’ individual identities do not matter beyond being African. When Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete visited India, the Prime Minister’s Office tweeted, “My government has the pleasure of hosting him as the first Head of State from Africa on a State Visit to India.” Apart from the tweet giving the impression no other African head of state had come on a state visit to India until 2015, it imposed the burden of a continent on a bilateral visit. Could Kikwete not be allowed to represent Tanzania, the country he heads, just as Modi goes abroad to represent India?

African leaders too don’t always help, as when a Jacob Zuma thumbs his nose at the world and pitches for ‘African solutions for African problems’ (read: ‘Don’t tell us what to do’).

Sometimes though “African” is, in fact, the right word.  If Narendra Modi is meeting with the heads of 19 African nations as he did in December 2015, it is an India-Africa summit. When the African heads of state complain of “Afro-phobia” in India, they are acknowledging the fact that the bias is not just about students from Congo or Nigeria, though they may have been the latest victims.

But when Narendra Modi planned to visit countries like South Africa, Kenya or Mozambique, all the experts quoted in a LiveMint piece kept talking about Africa as if it was a country as opposed to a continent with 54 sets of bilateral relations. “In terms of business outreach, Africa is favourable ground, meaning you don’t have to compete like you need to do in advanced societies like Japan,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. Note, he did not say Asia and lazy reading of that statement makes it seem that as a business opportunity South Africa versus Mozambique versus Congo are all equivalent.

If the media and the ministers don’t get the difference, can we blame the mob for not knowing better?


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