Do they even speak English in Africa?

Someone asked me this again. A few months ago, during one of my trips back home to Atlanta, an American woman who had told me that she was interested in visiting Africa for the very first time – specifically contemplating Ghana – asked me, “do they speak English there?”

I calmly told her yes, they do. We do. We speak English. (Here’s a piece I wrote about linguistic diversity in Africa.)

I can articulate three reasons why I answered the call to be a journalist during my teenage years: 1) to explore my origin 2) connect with people across Africa 3) challenge the prevailing myths and stereotypes that many people have about Africa and Africans.

This woman’s question directly relates to that third reason. Her question is not uncommon. Growing up in America for more than twenty years, I heard variations of this line of thinking so many times. I moved to the U.S. from Nigeria when I was two years old and Atlanta was the only home I could ever remember – I had no pre-two-year-old memories of Nigeria at all. Even so, I still got comments about being African, about being “other.” One person told me that I speak very good English. Some ask if I speak African. I politely tell them that there’s no language called African. [There is Afrikaans, though].

Besides the ignorance on linguistics, there are other inaccuracies and outright fallacies. Here are some of the ones that I’ve come across:

  • African spirituality (anything outside of Islam or Christianity) is witchcraft / juju / voodoo / devil worship
  • “African witchcraft,” voodoo, juju and traditional herbal knowledge are all the same thing
  • Voodoo practitioners and people in Africa who practice religion outside of Islam or Christianity are “witch doctors”
  • Africans have wild animals as pets (lions, hyenas, chimpanzees)
  • Africans don’t wear clothes
  • Africans live in “huts” of straw and mud
  • There are no universities in Africa (“They got universities in Africa?” I heard this not too long ago)
  • Africans don’t have modern technology like iPhones, video game consoles, televisions, air conditioners, washing machines
  • Every where in Africa is a jungle
  • All Africans are great at running really fast or are marathon runners
  • Africans are sickly, dirty and diseased
  • Africans are generally impoverished
  • Every African wants to live in the West
  • There are no decent hospitals in Africa
  • There is no middle class in Africa
  • There are no professionals in Africa (professors, judges, engineers, dentists) – only farmers and evil politicians
  • Everyday is blistering hot in every single part of Africa
  • African communities do not have modern technology like elevators, multi-level buildings, cars, traffic lights, airports, banks/ATMs, malls
  • Africans live or sleep or just spend a lot of time hanging out in trees
  • Africans are usually starving
  • Africans are hyper sexual
  • African women are usually pregnant or breastfeeding or both, because they have so many children
  • Africans are generally uncouth in mannerisms and backwards in intellect
  • Africans don’t observe human rights
  • All women in Africa are oppressed and suppressed
  • African politicians are corrupt and despotic
  • Africans are always at war with each other
  • Africa is a country
  • Kings rule in Africa
  • The sunset in Africa is special because the sun in Africa is not the same sun that’s shining everywhere else in the world
  • Tigers come from Africa
  • Lions live in the jungle
  • African kings live in palatial mansions like the one Akeem from Coming To America lived in
  • Africans don’t know when it’s Christmastime (Thanks, Band Aid)

What stereotypes have you heard that I didn’t mention?

Journalism gives me a chance to do important information-sharing, myth-busting work that needs to be done continuously, to help shape attitudes and promote cultural understanding.

However, as much as I, or any journalist who is also reporting in Africa – I see you! – may want to educate folks, we gotta make sure that we’re not steering towards advocacy work or trying to promote a mission or a sociopolitical message.

I say this because, many of us have become so fed up with the one-sided portrayals of Africa, that some have embarked on seemingly goodwill missions to highlight “the other side” as much as possible while ignoring, or de-emphasizing, “the bad stuff.” Things like the lifestyles of the wealthy, the “Africa Rising” narrative, the plethora of startup founders, the chic urban centers and stuff like that. OK, that’s nice, but that can easily become advocacy work. Journalism is not supposed to be advocacy work. There’s a line, albeit a thin line at times. But it’s there. To make it more confusing, advocacy journalism is a recognized field.
But when you cross that line into advocacy work, it’s hard to get back to the other side of objective reporting. Our work is to tell many sides of a story, present complexity and context and by doing that, you’re indirectly addressing the numerous longstanding myths and stereotypes about Africans.
When Nnamdi Azikiwe, the respected historic Nigerian statesman, lived in America as a college student, the landlady of the room that he was renting assumed he was a cannibal and expressed genuine surprise about the thought of a cannibal going to college. The woman had five children to look after and she was wary of Azikiwe being alone with them.
“…because you may get hungry one day and I may miss one of my babies.”
Whoah! Did you follow that? She was indirectly saying that Azikiwe could possibly eat one of her children because he’s African and Africans are cannibals.

Sure, there are histories of cannibalism in parts of Africa. There’s evidence of cannibalism in Mesoamerica, prehistoric Europe, Oceania, South America, North America and Asia too. “In ancient China, human body parts would appear on Imperial menus.”


This Female Photographer Spent A Month With India’s ‘Cannibal Cult’

Aghori monks in northern India’s city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River live on the cremated remains of others
Good reportage would provide this kind of information. It’s the context that is so vital.
But context is sometimes taken out to reduce the word count and heighten sensationalism. The African cannibal mythology stands on centuries of information taken out of context.
It’s outrageous. Infuriating. I wish I could have seen Nnamdi Azikiwe’s face when the landlady said that to him.
Why do many people still not see us Africans as equal humans? I ask myself this question a lot. The ridicule from many people in the West can cut so deeply. I’m reminded of the tragic story of Ota Benga. A man from Central Africa who was captured from his home when he was about 21 years old and taken to America, where he was exhibited with monkeys at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Thousands of zoo visitors came by to gawk, point and laugh at him. (This year, that’s 114 years later, Bronx Zoo officials finally apologized.) Ota Benga killed himself at the age of 25, maybe depressed with his life in America and longing for home.
Ota Benga, a young man who was robbed of his humanity
You see, if someone doesn’t see your full humanity, when someone bases your humanity on disgusting, ridiculous, racist stereotypes, there’s no telling how far that person can go to degrade and dehumanize you. And it can happen in a myriad ways. It’s not always the blatant abuse like what happened to Ota Benga that should be condemned. It’s the subtle forms of indignities that need to be condemned, too. “Do they even speak English in Africa?” I heard these willfully condescending comments regularly in the schools I attended. Microaggressions, we call them now. They stress the psyche. They’re exhausting to deal with. But, oh my goodness, they must be dealt with.
I deal with them through my journalism work. It’s fact-based storytelling that brings nuance to simplistic narratives about a billion people. (Africa’s population is just over a billion.) It’s powerful truth-telling work. And it’s hard work. Necessary work. Work of passion. Work that builds bridges, restores dignity, heals trauma, corrects historic injustice, personifies dreary statistics, reveals hidden dangers, confronts systemic misrepresentation, illuminates beauty, captures hopes, presents complexities, defies bigotry and ultimately, enriches humankind. That’s the work that I’m striving to do, every, single, day.
How do you deal with harmful stereotypes?

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