Saturday, January 12, 2008

RETROJIVE: “So do your family back in Nigeria live in huts?”

RETROJIVE*: “So do your family back in Nigeria live in huts?”

After thirty minutes of scintillating conversation about global politics and the evolving dimensions of democracy, with an American undergraduate student I happened to sit next to on the London subway, she proceeded to exit the carriage with a parting question: “So do your family back in Nigeria live in huts?” Ordinarily I should have felt insulted but I was not. I was shocked. After the kind of intellectual conversation we just had, it was hard to believe that such a brilliant young lady could still hold a view of Africa that connoted primitiveness in our existence. No, my family does not live in a hut, we live in a six bedroom house in a nice suburb like other middle-class Americans. No, we are not the only ones and yes, we do have skyscrapers, shopping malls and multiple lane highways amongst others things, but you may never see these on television. It’s more sensational to show pictures of starving children with swollen bellies being rummaged by flies than that of an Africa that is starting to lift itself out of poverty into prosperity. We are not told that economic growth rates are doubling, nor do we see the modern side of Africa with a thriving middle-class of ‘Afropolitans’ living qualitative lives. All we see is poverty and conflict. Though, this is a huge part of Africa’s reality, it is only one side of a multifaceted continent. Professional news reporting is balanced news reporting, but this is a right Africa is hardly afforded. Most international news agencies cover Africa in a manner that projects the continent’s poverty and not its wealth; its failures not its successes; its weaknesses not its strengths. All we see is the constant assailing of the global populace with chilling pictures of the Conradian Heart of Darkness, where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: death, famine, war and destruction ride roughshod through Africa with reckless abandon. Is this all Africa is about? No, its not.

As I emerged from the annals of London’s subway and walked down its cobbled streets, I thought to myself, of course, I should not be surprised that my young American friend asked me that question when that is all she has been fed for years by the media. Not long after this experience, I debated a very popular rock star turned social activist with a penchant for Africa, and he proceeded to tell an audience filled with two hundred people that he had no respect for Africans and that if Africans had done anything to fix their continent that people like him would not have invest his time in helping us sort our problems out. Yet, he is one of the media’s preferred spokespeople on African development issues. I proceeded to tell him, amongst other things, that he could not genuinely help those whom he does not respect and he cannot cry more than the bereaved. I remember that, a few years ago the Economist magazine published a special issue on Africa with the headline Africa: The Hopeless Continent. Hopeless? How come suicide rates are lower in Africa than in the West then? Ever heard of an African suicide bomber? We don’t blow ourselves up , because though life may be difficult, hope is all we have. We are a resilient people, we trudge on no matter what. Hope is our elixir. Late last year, the highly respected talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, in a recent show on fraud, insinuated that all Nigerians were crooks. I always liked Oprah until then, but perhaps she had too many diet pills that day and of course she must have been reeling from the discovery that the head huncho at her school in South Africa, was taking care of the children in her school, well, a bit too much. That’s, right she went afondling , while she was meant to be teaching and protecting them. Oh, wait a minute, if we were to apply Oprah’s fuzzy logic, maybe all Oprah’s staff are child abusers? She did not highlight the fact that there are over a hundred and fifty million Nigerians , being Africa’s most populous nation, and this same country has the highest number of internationally trained professionals and PhD holders in sub-Saharan Africa. Surely they all cannot be crooks. Does Africa need people like this to speak for us? No, thank you but they always will, for as long as we keep quiet or muzzle our own spokespeople.

All the above only reflect an infinitesimal number of the examples of how a continent of 700 million people is misunderstood, misrepresented, misconceived, constantly berated and undervalued by large numbers of opinion makers in the international realm. The issue however is not necessarily about agonising about what people think of Africa and Africans, but how we can ensure that Africa is not just reactive, but proactive in making itself better understood. How can Africa reveal its strengths, its resources, its capacities and its successes to the world without denying its challenges and it weaknesses? How can Africa be better represented in global trade, media, politics, and the ever evolving phenomenon of globalisation? How can Africa better analyse and articulate its challenges in a manner that ensures not only better understanding by global stakeholders but also increased options for effective problem solving?

Africa needs to create platforms for international dialogue and cross-fertilisation of views and ideas on issues ranging from politics to culture, to art, to global security to human development etc. Africa must sit with the world and the world must sit with Africa on the roundtable of collective dialogue, based on mutual respect, in order for the kind of constructive engagement that can yield sustainable solutions to shared problems can be created. We cannot solve problems we do not understand and we cannot be partners with people we misunderstand. Dialogue is the only way to better understanding. By the way, our hut also has air-conditioning and my donkey is called Mercedes, surname is Benz. She galloped here all the way from Germany.

*RETROJIVE: This will be a regular feature in this blog, where I tell stories and share experiences from the past.


Nonesuch said...

Simply brillant. i like the way you write.'...she galloped all the way from Germany.' nice one.i'm adding you to my blogroll staright!

Jaja said...


Sometimes I wonder if it would have to take African starting International New networks to get a balanced presentation.

loomnie said...

Nice to have landed here. This post reminds of a certain incidence in Sweden. A really smart, very nice young man turned to me and asked, after a few bottle of beer, Do you guys have roads?

modupeoyewole said...

It is amazing to say, in the great New York city, the city that never sleeps, I got the same question of "do you live in huts in Nigeria?"! I think the excuse I could make is that the person asking me this was a kid in the volunteer class I teach weekly.

But needless to say, it is amazing how, in this day and age that is the picture that people still have of us. The media (especially in the US) doesn't help at all - forever showing pictures of starving kids and fly-covered food in dirty open markets!

N.I.M.M.O said...


I think the answer to that question should have been 'Yes we do. Actually my father's hut is as big as the White House. Wanna see a picture of it?'

Ignorance is a real disease and Americans are its greatest sufferers. Even Oprah.

I loved your posts on Lagos Bro.

Sandrine said...

I came here via Naijablog and love your writing.
Regarding the title.When I was going to University in Paris, I had a friend from Dakar who told me than another student had asked him if there were buses where he was from.I think this is the day I realized that reaching the University level does not prevent one from being ignorant.
I live in Miami now and the other day somebody asked me what season it was in France right now.I would have been upset years ago but I was mainly startled and it took me few seconds before knowing what to say.

To Modupeoyewole:
I agree with you regarding the media in the Sates.It is unfortunate because most people here do not have the means or the time to travel and mainly get their cues on foreign countries from T.V.I can not tell you how many times I had to tell someone that I do not smoke,nor wear striped shirts or a beret,nor like accordion!
Another thing really upsets me.When somebody comes from Africa and he/she is spoken about on T.V, seldomly is the country he/she is from mentioned.(it is really ironic because when an American meets someone he will always say something like "Hi, I'm John from Miami, Florida"). This has for consequence that a lot of people do not realize that Africa is actually a continent.


Aspiring nigerian woman said...

It is really crazy to think that in this day and age, you still get these question about weather we live in huts , have roads etc. I was in Mississippi in 2003 and someone actually asked me if I came to the U.S from the U.K via the highway.

We need serious funding and a different mindset to kick start an international news network.On the NTA International channel,transmitting from Lagos, you hear the news anchor trying to speak in an accent that is nothing like Nigerian. A mixure of British/Yoruba/Mexican accent!

I like you blog.

DO said...

This is to thank you all for your kind comments, truly appreciated.

Nonesuch: Merci beacoup
Jaja: Perhaps, I would cite that as sure way forward. However, starting is one thing, maintaining a high standard is another.

loomnie: Good to have you here. Next time try the answer: ." but DHL is ver big here. They deliver on branded donkeys."

modupsy: Shows us that information and education are two different things and both are lacking when it comes to what people know about Africa in general, not to mention Nigeria specifically

NIMMO: Nice one. I wonder what will cure this ignorance.

Sandrine: Could not agree with you more on points made and thanks for your kind comments. Ever had people speak English slower or louder because the assume it would help you understand them better?

ASW: Thanks for kind comments. You should have said that you flew down on the wings of the Great Voodoo Vulture which our ancestors trained over decades to ferry Nigerian monarchy and their entourage of witchdoctors to foreign lands. Its now been commercialised as part of the ongoing World Bank privatisation agenda.

nneoma said...

"he proceeded to tell an audience filled with two hundred people that he had no respect for Africans and that if Africans had done anything to fix their continent that people like him would not have invest his time in helping us sort our problems out."

Who is this rockstar who said this? Just wondering - i think i would be stunned by this statement more than that of the girl who wanted to know if you live in huts or something.

anyway, i enjoyed the retrojive....i look forward to more.