Why the Whole "Poor Africa" Thing Isn't Cool

During one rare opportunity to spend the night at a friend’s house, her father said something that stuck with me for years. “You need to eat all your dinner. There are people in Bassey’s family who don’t get anything to eat. Isn’t that right, Bassey?”
Publish date:
March 15, 2012
africa, kony, save africa

When I was in college, my father admitted that the reason my parents never taught me our native language was because they wanted me to have an “unaccented existence." I don't know if that's even possible.See, I was born in Ikom, Cross River State in Nigeria. I moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma when I turned 4 in 1980 and lived there until 8th grade. I got a green card when I was 9 years old, but I never felt like going the extra step to become an official American was necessary.

My English as a Second Language class consisted of me repeating dialogue from "Three’s Company." My parents were both in grad school when I was younger and they didn’t have the time to teach me our original language. Because we weren’t Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba (the big three of Nigerian languages) there weren’t other Nigerian families that I could learn from. So English was my only option.

Stillwater was a carefully and cautiously racist college town. My father saw how his thick accent kept him from opportunities. He had several degrees but worked as a janitor in the town’s movie theaters. He was told time and time again that he was unsuitable for any type of employment that involved him supervising employees. “They’re just not going to understand you." He wanted to make sure his American-raised daughter faced no such barriers.

But despite all that, I owe my “Naija pride” to my father. He taught me and my siblings that above all, we were Nigerian. We waved our green-white-and-green flag high. I made it a point to tell anyone I suspected of being African that I too was Nigerian. Because of my unaccented English, straight hair and general regular American kid demeanor, I was often challenged.

Most first-generation immigrants raised in this country are often reminded to the point of exhaustion about how much sacrifice and responsibility came with privilege of being in America. For better or worse, many of us became high achievers in order to repay our parents for this gift. But, while we were coached to be proud to be in America, we were rarely encouraged to actually be American. For every, “You’re so lucky to be here” speech we heard, there was the “but you are a Nigerian. Full stop” disclaimer. My father would say over and over that our duty was to make "the country" proud and he wasn't talking about America. We were to make Nigeria proud.

But not everyone was as proud of our homeland as we were taught to be. Elementary school was the height of the "We Are The World" -- Live Aid movement. Images of the poverty-stricken Ethiopian child with the swollen belly and flies crawling across their painfully emaciated faces were the norm. In my majority white community, I was asked about whether or not I felt lucky to have escaped that.

During one rare opportunity to spend the night at a friend’s house, her father said something that stuck with me for years. “You need to eat all your dinner. There are people in Bassey’s family who don’t get anything to eat. Isn’t that right, Bassey?” I was stunned. The answer was probably yes, but also no. I was too polite to correct an adult, so I nodded shamefully, forcing the dry macaroni and cheese down my throat. And those were the well-meaning comments. I had my share of the nonsensical yet hurtful "African Booty Scratcher" jokes hurled at me.

The recent Stop Kony movement felt no different. I could only stomach about five minutes of the video. It made my face burn. All I could think was, Where’s the rest of the story? What of the Ugandan people who have been working tirelessly to save child soldiers for a generation? What about the fact that Joseph Kony, at this time, is the least of their worries?

As an African in America, it’s difficult for me to dismiss this type of activism as “well-meaning.” Critics and supporters of the "movement" are debating whether or not it even matters if the people behind Stop Kony were 100 percent truthful when it came to factual information about the country they're trying to save. Of course it matters. It serves no one, least of all Ugandan people, to muddy the facts of such a complex situation just to manipulate people with charity propaganda.

All this reminds me of a story my father once told about an incident in our village of Ugep. When he was a little boy, a group of men from England had come bearing cameras. They were eager to capture the every day comings and goings of our small village. In late August, we celebrate an event known as The New Yam Festival. It’s like a carnival in other parts of the world. Everyone in the village assumed that the English men were there to take photographs of this rich and beautiful aspect of our culture. But they weren’t there for that at all. They were there to push their own agenda. When they saw anyone who fit their idea of what Africa was, that’s when their cameras switched on. They ignored the pageantry of the festival and zoomed in on a few young kids who were naked or dirty. These are the same images that go on to be used to represent all of Africa. Each village, each language, each country, each region gets clumped into this congealed pot of “poor Africa.”

That's what Stop Kony is doing -- perpetuating the notion that Africa is a place soft enough to land after a guilt trip. Furthering the myth that Africans are constantly in need of saving only serves to dehumanize its people. Nearly three decades after "We Are the World," I'm still fighting misconceptions about the continent.

For those of us who call a country in Africa home, constantly having to battle these misconceptions causes cultural fatigue. It's easier to change your accent and adopted an anglicized name than it is to constantly have your people and their lives invalidated. As happy as I am to live in America, I'm not here because the Nigeria of my birth was some horrid place. And that’s true of most immigrants. We shouldn’t have to choose between loving where we are and honoring where we came from.