BY WANG XIAOZHU
What is the first thing that pops in your mind when you think of Africa?
I asked this question to many of my peer countrymen, friends in real life and online, colleagues, family members, and even random diners I shared a table with in restaurants.
I got two very contrasting basic images of Africa.
The good one includes rare animals and vast grassland, tribes that are exceptionally good at singing and dancing, safaris, and pyramids in Egypt.
And of course, the “bad Africa” of scorching heatwaves, violence-plagued failed states, poverty stricken villages, AIDS and epidemics, etc.
While many hold one of these images, some do hold both.
But what I also find is how little their understanding of Africa is.
Few could tell the difference between countries Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. Some don’t even know countries like São Tomé and Príncipe or Cape Verde, and one mistook Guinea-Bissau with Papua New Guinea in Southeast Asia.
“They sound the same. They are just countries in black Africa,” one of my interviewees admitted.
How ridiculous and how absurd!
When there is little understanding, there is a tendency to make sweeping generalization about the entire continent. Many tend to conflate a single country with a 1 billion-strong vast continent which has 54 countries.
For example, most people know Africa is extremely hot, but don’t know many African countries are actually cooler than most southern Chinese cities.
In this past summer, a 28-year-old Ethiopian went popular online in China, for being not able to bear the scorching heat in southwest China’s municipality of Chongqing.
The performer at a local theme park was given a 25-day off to go back home in Africa to avoid Chongqing’s sweltering hot days.
Average temperature in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, is just 15°C. Known as one of the “three furnaces” in China, typical Chongqing summer temperatures easily soar above 40°C.
“Africa if you ask me has the best weather … We do not have seasonal changes, we do not have winter, and we do not have summer,” Eric Biegon, reporter of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, said, according to China Daily.
“We have the best weather in the world.”
Also, many think Africa is impoverished. We tend to think Africa is very underdeveloped. Some of my respondents even label the continent as “pre-modern”.
This is absurd again. It’s true that some countries, like war-torn South Sudan and Somalia, are suffering from extreme poverty.
But not all African nations are poverty-stricken.
Three African countries, namely Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, and Mauritius have higher GDP per capita than China, according to the IMF data, published in April.
Africa is also actively embracing the age of technology. It has its own unicorn startup, and its own version of Alibaba.
Launched in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2012, Jumia is Africa’s first unicorn, operating in more than 20 African countries. The company is Africa’s largest ecommerce ecosystem, and a startup valued over $1 billion.
As part of the team’s vision to become “Africa’s biggest ecommerce ecosystem,” Jumia began to expand the focus from electronics and fashion into travel, cars, jobs, and food.
Africa is fast becoming home to a dynamic tech sector.
Also, many of the interviewees, including my parents, think the continent is dangerous, with endless wars and social unrest.
I still remember the nervous faces of my parents when they knew I was to have a business trip to Sudan and Ethiopia back in 2011. They urged me to buy insurance, get vaccinations, and, the most important, avoid places where people gathered.
But what I had in Khartoum was actually sitting by the River Nile after the sunset, sipping tea with my local host. Beautiful experience I will never forget.
I’m not saying all places in Africa are safe as Hong Kong. I did have friends robbed by armed gangsters in Nairobi, capital of Kenya.
But it’s wrong to exaggerate the danger.
In addition, we have some other ridiculous misunderstanding of Africa and the people there.
Many people in China, for example, still think all Africans have dark skin. When they see black people in the street, they automatically think they are from Africa.
Many of my interviewees don’t know that North Africa is totally different from sub-Sahara Africa, in terms of skin colour, ethnicity, religion, language, an so on.
The sweeping generalization they tend to make is irresponsible and misleading.
In a 2009 Ted Talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke on the dangers of a “single story,” the idea that an entire culture can be summed up in one narrative.
This problem does exist in China.
As commercial ties between China and Africa boom, hopefully people-to-people exchange will grow simultaneously.
More interaction could help eradicate some ridiculous misunderstanding and bring us a true Africa.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst