Blame the media for the stereotyping of Africa, author says.

I followed with interest a recent campaign that started from the Harvard University called “I, Too, Am Harvard.” It was in response to the stereotyping and other challenges faced by black students or more generally, to use the controversial term, “people of colour” on the Harvard campus.

The students were protesting the treatment they received from colleagues, friends, tutors etc for being black or non-white. Soon, the campaign became viral and students from Oxford and Cambridge joined the bandwagon to protest the misrepresentation of blacks – particularly the thinking that you have to belong to a certain race in order to belong to these elite institutions.

However, I am afraid, it is not just at Harvard or Cambridge or Oxford that being an African or black comes with stereotyping. In almost all aspect of life, the concept of Africans and Africa is shrouded in misinformation, ignorance, mystery, stereotyping, and at worst, discrimination.

I was once told by someone, “So black people do PhD”.

Sometimes you laugh, other times you explain, and on some occasions, you get angry. What is even more interesting is that the media often reinforces these stereotypes.

One of the most common false perceptions about Africa is that it is a country. A lot of people approach you, excited that they will be travelling to Africa. When you ask them where in Africa? They start murmuring and stammering, trying to figure out what you mean.

The first time I experienced this was in March 2004. I was dressed in a white babanriga. It was a brief visit to London at the time and I was trying to get to a bureau de change on Oxford Street, when I heard a voice across the road shouting, “African brother, African brother.”

The man crossed the road and came towards me. “I like your dress. Please, how do I get one? Can you give me your address in Africa so that I can send you the money?” he said.

My address in Africa? I was confused. I told him that I was from Nigeria in West Africa. He didn’t have the time to listen to my lecture and so we said goodbye. Interestingly, he was a fellow black guy, who told me that his ancestors were from Africa. Yet, he had consumed the stereotype that Africa is a country.

Sometime in 2005, I was approached by the kids of one of my friends in Sheffield; a very nice family. The children were so happy to see me, and so was I. “We have been to Africa on holiday,” the young kids told me. “That was great,” I responded. “But where in Africa?”

Instead of answering my question, they looked at their elder sister, with their father watching by the side, “Which part of Africa have we been to?” they asked her. After a little silence, she responded, “Gambia.”

Don’t blame the local people for not understanding the African continent. Sometimes, even among the educated people, some of whom are supposed to educate us, you will be shocked by their perception of Africa.

Here is a story that causes me to laugh out when I remember it. It was at the BBC World Service when the language services introduced Premier League commentary in local languages. One of the best commentators worked for the Swahili Service. He had an excellent mastery of football commentary in Swahili. He had become a household name in his region. In fact, you don’t have to understand Swahili to know which team is performing well because when he says, “It’s a goaaaaaaaal” – almost everyone in the African hub would stop work or at least smile at the skills of our friend. Then one day, one of the journalists – in fact, a senior one – asked whether Charles could do the commentary for Hausa and other languages.

(If it were possible, I would have been very happy because that would have saved me from struggling to translate certain football terms in Hausa language. Luckily, we had my friend, Aminu Abdulkadir, who came up with such excellent terms like “bugun lauje” for corner-kick.)

Still, the one that remains fresh in my memory was in the autumn of 2012. I was teaching a course on the impact of propaganda and distortion in the media so I had pictures of two locations, Nairobi in Kenya, and Harlem in the US. As an introduction to the topic, I displayed the picture of Harlem and asked the students to identify the city. Unanimously, all the students said it must be somewhere in Africa simply because it looked like a deprived area populated by black people.

I then displayed the picture which provided an aerial view of Nairobi and asked them to identify the city. “This must be somewhere in Singapore,” one of the students said. “It looks like somewhere in California,” said another. When I asked the students why they thought Nairobi looked like California and Harlem was somewhere in Africa, the answer was obvious; that was how the media represented Africa.

So, if I were to advise the black students in Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, I would have told them to take their peaceful campaign to the doors of the news media because, among other factors, their colleagues think they don’t belong to Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge based on what they see on their television screens.