(Pics: Gallo)

Dispelling stereotypes about Africans

(Pics: Gallo)
(Pics: Gallo)

What makes an “authentic” African? Who is an “authentic” African? I often spend hours asking myself : Will I be an “authentic” African if I put away my biological individualism and refer to myself as one? Will I be an “authentic” African when I become familiar with all her countries? I speak fluent Hausa (the most common language spoken in northern Nigeria), I wear pants from Senegal, walk in Moroccan slippers and eat South African pap, yet I am not starving. I did not witness genocide. I have never suffered from drought. I do not cook using firewood and I do not live in a shed. I’ve had malaria more than three times and I am still alive and healthy. Am I not “authentically” African?

Upon my arrival at the African Leadership Academy, between feelings of excitement and expectation, I carried my single stories bundled in a sack, imprisoned, yet striving to get out. In this fictional sack, a South African was demanding an HIV test to declare her negative status and a Nigerian was swearing upon his sister’s grave that he had never been in possession of drugs. Also in my bag was a Kenyan, whose entire life was spent trying to get a long-distance medal because, apparently, true Kenyans have speed in their DNAs. Then, the all too familiar prey: a Muslim woman was caught up between covering herself as the  Qur’an instructed, or wearing less clothes so as not to be referred to as a terrorist.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “To create a single story, you show a people as one thing and only one thing over and over again and that is what they become.” Of course we cannot say that these widespread stereotypes are completely fictional, but they are just pigments of the truth. As I unpacked this sack during the course of my first term, I made friends with Kenyans that were proudly Maasai, who spoke fluent Swahili, but never even attempted to run. I met many South Africans who were HIV negative, but had in mind that Nigerians were drug addicts. I was born a Nigerian Muslim, and so I represent all the perceptions about both Nigerians and Muslims. However, I am neither a drug addict nor a terrorist.

People of my generation are defacing their natural forms just to feel accepted into the society. In Nigeria, it is very conventional to think that the noble people come from the Hausa tribe, while the people that seem to be after almost nothing but money are of the Igbo tribe. Stereotypes are the over-generalisations created towards a particular group of people due to class, race, gender, country, religion, looks and any other feature we may not openly relate to. This behavior comes with a belief that whatever we do not immediately identify as “normal” should be recognised and, possibly, corrected. It emphasises how different, rather than similar, we are from one another. Stereotypes can be used to create or destroy us, but we must not let them define us as a country, race, gender or class.

During my African studies class, we were asked to conduct research on African countries we had never heard of and observe the image and information being given to people that have never been there. The dominant images were of indigenous people, mostly naked or half -dressed women with black, sagging bosoms who lived in huts. Natives who suffered from famine and many easily identified diseases such as malnutrition, malaria and HIV and Aids. There were images of African mothers, in tears, deciding between which child to feed and which one to let go. Child soldiers, genocide and slums represented the “accurate” definition of what our beloved African continent is really all about. And of course there were pictures of wild animals, which many in the West believe are the only appealing thing in Africa.

I did not see a picture of Wole Soyinka, the first black man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, or Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for the freedom of his country. I looked for Haile Selassie, who resisted the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the 1930s and saved the country from colonisation, but not a picture of his was found. What of Dr Christiaan Barnard, the South African who performed the first heart transplant in 1967? Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry that produces more movies annually than Hollywood, striving to promote the African culture, was not even acknowledged.

Mandela once said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes even more naturally to the human heart than its opposition.” It is very easy for us to intensely dislike people for the stereotypes that they have, but we must also understand that they are only acting upon the single stories they are exposed to. What if they had heard differently? What if we give them the truth, rather than pigments of it? What if they learn about the earlier civilisations of African countries before the ruthless arrival of the British? As a society, we can seek to dispel stereotypes through education and a social action. We can seek to give the world the full stories of Africans – how many children actually attend schools and sit for both the SATs and the Cambridge International Examinations, for example.

Another Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, said: “If you do not like someone’s story, write your own.” I will write my own stories because I do not condone the oversimplified image of Africa. Stereotypes divide us as countries, continents, cultures, nations and most importantly, as individuals.

Khadija Sanusi is a first-year student at the African Leadership Academy.


  1. Yasmin Abd says:

    Fantastic article! I can’t get over the ridiculous and over-simplified images that exist of Africa as a continent and African peoples in the sphere of international media. I’m currently living in Turkey and I can’t get over the IGNORANT comments I receive from people when they find out I’m of African descent. If anyone talks to me about safaris or genocide once again, its a wrap. Great read!

  2. Dante says:

    “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
    evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief. Negrophobes exist. It is not hatred of the Negro, however, that motivates them; they lack the courage for that, or they have lost it. Hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognized guilt complexes. Hate demands existence and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate. And it is clear that in the colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possible coming to terms; colonization and decolonization a simply a question of relative strength. When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”
    ― Frantz Fanon

  3. Sterling Ferguson says:

    @Sanusi, when talking about black Africa one must show the good and bad in Africa. In Africa today there is widespread poverty and famines in Africa along with failed states so, these issues shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

    • Kay the Man says:

      The rug must also be recognized in the same breath as the thing we want to sweep under, it themt he room – Africa – will be known for what it truly is good place where very wonderful things can happen and happen on the nice rug, though just like the rest of the world there are unpleasant things undre the rug

      • Sterling Ferguson says:

        Most black Africans are in denial of the bad things in Africa. For example, i asked a person from Somali about the famines in that country and he says he never heard of a famine in Somali. In the US the biggest critics of Americans are Americans themselves and not outsiders.

    • Karabo says:

      Nope we are not denial. One person’s opinion does not speak for the entire continent. Like Kay said, the rug should be recognized. We are not in denial, we know full well what is going on. Having said that, there is nothing wrong about talking about the good and excluding the bad.

      When bad things are talked about Africa, they usually do not include the good as well. When talking about famine in Africa, I do not think it is appropriate to talk about for example the 2010 World Cup.

      Or when talking about Nollywood, to take a detour and talk about the famine Somalia.

    • Sophie Umazi says:

      @Sterling Ferguson,

      First of all what is Black Africa? That statement in its own nature is ignorant to the fact that there is no such thing as black Africa and that such a label is something that the world came up with to try and justify the racial disparities across the continent. Africa is Africa. A whole continent. Do you hear people referring to parts of America as Black America?

      Secondly, every place in the world has poverty and disease including ” great nations” such as the United States. But is that all there is to that particular country?

      No one is denying that yes there are many unsolved problems through out the whole continent but why portray one side of the story and ignore the other side. There is also a lot of good that has come out of the continent that the world has ignored and still chooses to ignore. This is what Ms Sanusi is trying to say.

      • Nneka says:

        There is a black Africa Umazi, not acknowledging it is undermining the struggle for land in Africa, the black’s land. white’s and blacks can’t unite because they are not equal. It’s like being colorblind. And yes, black America is a term that is used ALL the time. like… everywhere. like there are documentaries with that title. CNN did a multi-part series on it. It is something u hear everywhere there are black people. Because black america and black american culture is so different from black french people and black french color. or black english/british people. etc.

    • Quakouman says:

      @ Sterling. You are a typical example of those who go about stereotyping this continent. Kindly advise whether Famine and poverty are unique to Africa. Across the world you will find many people dying of poverty whereas only those affected by the vices in Africa make news for people like you. Sanusi acknowledges that Africa has these challenges like any other continent of the world but want the bloody western propagandized media to stop stereotyping our continent as Africa has much interesting stories they can as well narrate. ,

  4. Ray Inggrey says:

    I can see what problems Africans have in finding their identity.
    However I am sure that what ever we find today has been distorted by Colonialism and not as the article implies only the British.
    I am a Brit but as a teenager back in the 1950’s I became aware of Africa and Africans as real people.
    Ever since I have watched various political and religious entities interfere and mess with both the country and the people.
    My greatest wish is for Africa to unite into Federation of Africa and in so doing provide a powerful lobby for the individual African.
    Forming a Pan African Federation will give ordinary African people a chance to decide what being African is without all the outside pressures of religion corporations nations states who want Africa for its resources.
    Maybe I dream the unattainable but as a human being that owes my existance to Africa I hope that we find who we all are before we are destoryed by those outside forces

  5. Phillemon Sithole says:

    One agrees to a larger extend what you are saying. Here is part of my abstract in one of my articles:
    “The question of knowledge production in Africa is a much pondered issue amongst African scholars, academics, practitioners, commentators and thinkers alike. The phraseology of ‘African solutions for African problems’ implies utilization of knowledge produced in Africa by Africans, for African solutions. This begs these questions: do we as Africans consume our own knowledge? Does the international community consume knowledge produced by Africans in Africa? It is quintessential in this regard to highlight the impact of colonialism on knowledge production and consumption with regard to the African continent. Colonialism has portrayed Africa as a backward and generally a barbaric continent whose knowledge has no basis nor value, which is pathogenic if consumed. As Ndlovu-Gatsheni put it, “what is seen as the ‘self-ghettoisation’ of African scholarship, taking the form of ‘territorialisation of the production of knowledge’, is in fact a genuine effort to counter imperialist thought that pushes African knowledges to the margins of society”.

    However, part of the reason why Africa’s problem when it come to identity is that we have wholeheartedly adopted and embraced the colonialist definition of an African. We have inherited the boundaries that were created by colonialists, we speak the languages of colonialist even when they have long left our shores. Having said that, the reason why you did not find the likes of Samora Machel, Nelson Mandela, Eskia Mphahlele, Chinua Achebe, Robert Mugabe, Kamuzu Banda etc on your search mainly because our African history is been told by outsiders. They tell the stories according to which Africa must be depicted: as a backward, chaotic continent. The invasion and barbarisation of traditions, custom and culture was purely aimed at confusing us in terms of our identity as Africans, to instil inferiority on us. If you observe across the African continent, there are visible traits of Africannes, despite our geographical separations. Had we not adopted or had we abandoned these completely foreign customs, you would probably not be writing about the question of African identity.
    All said, thanks for your thought provoking article.

    • Sterling Ferguson says:

      There is nobody stopping African leaders from using their home grown knowledge. In my opinion Africa rot didn’t start with colonialism, but with the slave trade that lasted for four hundred years. Africa had a holocaust where million of people were shipped out of Africa, and many of them died.

  6. dan says:

    You can say the same for distorted images of other countries presented in Africa. Cowboys, American gangs like the Locos, whose slogan i saw on a bus stop in Cape Town, hip hop — and in West Africa I have seen admiration of bin Laden and jihadis, regardless of what just happened in Timbuctoo, and honour killings of females, that never happened in Africa before the Arab invasion, that deracinated most of West Africa. So it is a bit outdated to list the only foreign influences as being British colonial.

    I totally support African film, African literature — but Indian (Bollywood) culture, Arab culture and black American cultures can be found all over Africa these days, and not much interest in developing actual indigenous religion or culture –

    Wole Soyinka is well known internationally, but people like Samora Machel, and Robert Mondlane are not known much even in their own countries – whose African elites are now writing the history.

  7. Richard says:

    Your comments are interesting. Your own description of yourself begs many questions of identity, for instance, your calling of yourself “Nigerian” (a colonial creation, incorporating many warring kingdoms into one country) and Muslim (a religion imposed onto the region as much by the sword as by trade). In other words, some parts of yourself that are “un-African” (in the sense of having been imposed from the outside) you have naturalised, and others, not. Presumably much of what you think of your identity comes from the education you received in Nigeria, which picks and chooses to create a montage of what it means to be African? Some parts are rejected (presumably for political reasons) whilst others are embraced (presumably also for political reasons).

    In the bigger picture, many practices Africans take with them when they go abroad do not help their image much, but then those are African practices. Simply because they do not fit in with the ideas others have of what is right or wrong does not make them any more or less African.

    In South Africa, people do not wrestle with this identity, since they have undergone so many centuries of (successful) colonisation and decades of isolation, that they feel remote from Africa. They define themselves by citizenship, rather than by their continent.

    In any event, interesting and thought-provoking!

    • Joe James says:

      I truly agree. As Africans sometimes we are guilty of carrying baggage that only us are aware of the the world does not care about. The writer could have just identified as black African female and few, very few people would have asked about nationality or religion because the majority does not care.

      The writer may also be guilty of trying to sell her beliefs and who she is to the world under the guise of an article. To the writer I say. The world does not care about who you are and where you come from but what you do.

      I am a black Zimbabwean living in Cape Town by the way and I have been mistaken for a South African, Mozambican, Batswana, Zambian over a five year period. I

      • Ewa says:

        as the previous commenter wrote(“As Africans sometimes we are guilty of carrying baggage that only us are aware of the the world does not care about”) I think this is very true

        Colonialism was so long time ago we don’t need always have to go back and blame it for all our current problems, I am African myself and now I am so tired of people complaining too much of slavery as if we are still in that era. Its about time we acknowledge that slavery was in the past and identify ourselves as human beings who are supposed to use their environment to come up with solutions to the challenges they are facing.

        To take a line from the article itself “If you do not like someone’s story, write your own.”
        where there is a truth it must be told its true some parts of Africa people are killing each other for no reason at all and its also very true there are parts of Africa people have never experienced famine or war (I for one being raised in the urban area)

        So having said all that I think when we stop think of the oppression which we want to always become victim of , then that is the only time we are going to know who we really are and going to unlock our full potentials to solve our problems(famine, war and diseases included)

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