Saturday, April 3, 2010

Mistaking Africa

In the past two weeks I have heard two children say that "whites" are better than blacks. It broke my heart to hear them say it, and to think that they really believe that! Neither of them were taking to me, I just happened to overhear it both times. I had quite the heart-to-heart with both of them about racial equality. They perceive whites as better because our country is more economically advanced. Unfortunately it seems that many Americans seem to have the idea that we are better for that same reason. Or that Ghanaians are stuck in some childlike mindset, incapable of progress and efficiency of business and government. Such opinions are never stated directly of course, but rather are implied by the way that they often just seem to know better or tend to speak down to locals.

Tommy brought me a book when he was here last titled "Mistaking Africa." It addresses all the misconceptions and stereotypes produced and reinforced in American media and literature. Most of it is consistent with what I have found of people's assumptions of my life here. I get asked questions about wild animals, tribal warfare, running water, etc. The national geographic photographs have permeated the American mind to the point where many Americans think of nothing else when they think of "Africa" than mud huts, wild animals, starving children, and tribal conflict. The truth of "Africa" is so much deeper. I just started the book, but it is already quite thought provoking.

We tend to stereotype things and people we do not completely understand, in order to put some sense of association or placement. Africa is a big place, but it tends to be lumped together as one singular country with a single history and culture which is so untrue. Even in Ghana there are 57 different languages and a whole variety of tribes and cultures. Their background is so diverse, it is not so simple as learning Ghana's history, let alone the rest of Africa.

I am so thankful that I am teaching social studies here. It has given me the opportunity to look in depth at the history and national development of Ghana. It has given me a great understanding and appreciation for their struggles. They suffered much at the hand of Europeans, and it has crippled their economy and perspectives in economic progress. As a relatively new country (53 years old) they are still working to develop their government and economy.

Reading the book has caused me to stop and analyze my own perspective on Ghana and Africa as a whole. I want to make sure that I am not allowing any negative conceptions to be part of my mindset. I never write stories on my blog about interesting events or stories to be told at the expense of locals. I am not poking fun at the differences in culture, merely sharing my experiences but I want to be careful not to perpetuate any stereotypes. It is true that most of the stories that you hear coming out of Africa are negative or condescending in some way. I want to make more of a point to tell you success stories of Ghana. I will never be able to fully understand Ghanaian culture, but I am enjoying the pursuit of a greater appreciation for who they are as individuals and as a nation.


  1. Good reflection Chester! I agree about the stereotypes about Africa. It's been amazing to show my pictures to people here and listen to responses.. people ALWAYS expect lions, elephants, and mud huts!

    I'll have to check that book out.

  2. PS. When do you have TIME to read?!?!?

  3. I remember a scene from a movie about segregation in America where a sociologist was interviewing little black girls about their attitudes about themselves. He had two baby dolls, one white and one black, and asked them to touch the beautiful baby doll. They all reached for the white doll.

    Don't forget the negative stereotypes created and reinforced by Western visitors to Africa. Missionaries, pothead vagabonds, development workers, and everybody with a wad of cash and a big idea about how to fix Africa have all left their mark. We've mined Africa for gold, copper, and diamonds, but also for adventure, warm fuzzies, and guilt-abatement.