How was Africa?

An American graduate student consciously attempts to preempt some of the problematic and ignorant queries from relatives back home.

Photo: Emilio Labrador, via Flickr CC.

A family member slapped my shoulder. “Welcome back to civilization. How was Africa?” That was the refrain I encountered most frequently upon returning to the United States after conducting a year of fieldwork amongst northern Malian internally displaced persons and refugees.

I had been away for all of 2013. During the first six months I went to the “hearts” of internal displacement in southern Mali, and to refugee camps in Burkina Faso. During the second six months, I went to Timbuktu – where I’d also conducted fieldwork in 2010 – to work with displaced individuals and families as they returned home following the French-led military intervention.

This was my third time to the continent. So, I consciously attempted to preempt some of the problematic and ignorant queries that I had received following my first two. I regularly sent updates to my family and close friends. In them, I acknowledged the events surrounding the occupation of northern Mali, the displacement of most of its residents, and the subsequent military intervention, while simultaneously historicizing and complicating them. I insisted that my family and friends consider the widespread ripple effects of colonialism and decolonization, global capitalism, the international “war on terror”, etcetera. Further, I expressed that as the anthropological discipline itself can create distance, we should challenge the self-other binary. So, I told stories of my Timbuktian friends working, hanging out; just living their lives.

I remember one email, for instance, where I described Timbuktu during Ramadan last year. Many fasted by day and prayed at sundown. Then everyone, including those who did not fast, dined together on dishes sent by neighbors and family in the evening. And at night, the youth partied, dancing to American and West African hip-hop and reggae, posting photos on Facebook and calling friends and family outside of Timbuktu with their cell phones.

Nonetheless, “Welcome back to civilization. How was Africa?” Despite attempts to educate through my correspondence, ignorant and exoticizing notions continue to fuel some of my family and friends’ questions and statements relating to the African continent and its peoples:

“What was the craziest thing you ate? Bugs? Monkey brains?”

“What tribes live in Africa?”

“Did you become one of them?”

“Did you ever see any lions? Do they attack people?”

“Did you know that for Muslims, a woman’s word means nothing?”

Such questions were disappointing, as I had expected a more sophisticated degree of inquiry. Unfortunately, I have been similarly disappointed in the classroom. One of my courses this past semester was “Africa: Society and Culture.” I taught the same lessons I attempted with my fieldwork correspondence. Only this time, I was able to approach it in a much more structured, much more formal way with an audience that had registered and agreed to listen and learn. We discussed the deep history of the continent, the diversity of its peoples, and the problematic ways in which Africa has been and continues to be represented. Nevertheless, one day in the middle of a discussion of Fanon, a student’s hand shot up, asking me:

“Do you speak African?”

A few classes later, while interrogating recent waves of urbanization and other effects of global capitalism, another student interrupted:

“Why are Africans always fighting?”

In response, I attempted to ask other students what they thought of the question and guide the conversation in a way that would reveal why the proposition was problematic. Nevertheless, yet another student—albeit hesitantly—queried:

“Do you think Africans were better off under colonialism?”

Reflecting on my “welcome home” and some of my students’ continued questions, I wonder where I—and perhaps, where many of us—are falling short in our endeavors to educate about Africa. I wonder what kinds of intellectual and ideological battles we are really engaging. And I wonder what the product of our educational attempts really is. Am I—are we—really changing minds? Or, are we just teaching political correctness? Indeed, on more than one occasion, I have had what I’d thought was a solid chat about Mali. After returning to the room, though, I would overhear one mutter to another, “Oh, Andrew’s back, you can’t say stuff like that anymore.”

I do notice some improvement in my students’ discourse concerning Africa. And, political correctness or not, I suppose that that is a step in the right direction. At least they recognize the problematic ways in which the continent continues to be represented, and perhaps they even recognize their own complicity in reproducing such representations. Further, they recognize that outside of private settings, some of their comments are ignorant and offensive. However, it’s clear that I must go further in my attempts to disrupt some of the entrenched and privileged positions that many of my students maintain and push them to rethink contemporary processes that continue to marginalize much of the continent. In my view, though, my current focus on history, power relations, social construction, and even everyday African lives remains insufficient. Superficially, such instruction disrupts discourse, but seems to fail to undermine years of ideological social distance and apathy. Therefore, to join the chorus of educators of global inequality, in addition to providing information and challenging presumptions, I contend that we must also attempt to teach something considerably more complicated: empathy.

Further Reading

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The meanings of Heath Streak

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Paradise forgotten

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The two Africas

In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.