From Where I Sit: Hamilton’s International Perspectives

By Neema Lema ’17

“You’re from Africa? Do you have a pet lion?” Why sure, I have a whole pride! We have all heard the stereotypes about Africa. I have always been amused and surprised to hear about the mental images that people have about Africa. I understand how non-Africans form these assumptions, and I dispel these myths by telling people to stop believing everything they see in the media.

I have been asked where I come from a number of times, and I always start by saying, “Mwanza, Tanzania.” Some people know where that is and look satisfied by my answer, but sometimes I add, “Which is a country in East Africa,” if I feel that I need to give more detail.

Occasionally this is followed by, “Wow! Your English is so good!” Well, I sure hope my English is good after studying in an international school back home and speaking English since I was four years old. This really gets me because I do not know how coming from Africa means that my English is not expected to be proficient.

When you type the word “Africa” into Google, the majority of the photos that you see are of the savannah. Documentaries about Africa are usually shot in national parks. From these sources, people come to the conclusion that all of Africa is like that. This is not true. There is a big difference between the national parks and the lifestyle in populated areas. All of the African countries have urban areas that have good infrastructure fit with public transit, internet cafés and even a KFC. The media portrays Africa as a monolithic land mass that is uncultivated and uncivilized. I do not blame people for wanting to believe in the circle of life story from The Lion King, but Africa is a dynamic, diverse and modern continent with many different countries which have their own distinct cultures.

When you research “African people” in Google, you get hundreds of images of undernourished and emaciated children. It is true that there are some children in Africa who do look like that, and there have been multiple projects that have been set up to help them. The purpose of these pictures is to attract foreign aid, but unfortunately they simultaneously mislead people into believing that this is universal to all African children. Another set of images that are displayed when you research people of Africa are the Masaai. These are people who belong to a small, specific tribe which lives in the rural areas of Tanzania and Kenya. Some paint their faces red and wear a lot of jewelry but minimal clothing, including animal skin. I am one- eighth Masaai (because my great grandfather on my mother’s side was a Masaai), but I do not follow the Masaai traditions. The closest that I come to painting my face red occurs on the few occasions when I wear red lipstick, and the closest I come to wearing animal skin occurs when I wear my gray and pink cheetah print shoes. There is no single image of an African. The main actress in Snow White and the Huntsman, Charlize Theron, and Victoria’s Secret super model, Candice Swanepoel, are both African.

Another thing that comes up regularly are the languages that are spoken in Africa. Some think that they are made up entirely of clicks. Yes, some languages in some African countries have clicks but there are other languages that hardly have any, for example my native language Kiswahili (which is Swahili in English). I bet many of you already know some Kiswahili words and you have never even realized it! If you are a Lion King fan then you already know at least ten Kiswahili words. The phrase “Hakuna Matata” means “No worries” in Kiswahili. “Simba,” the main character’s name, means “lion.” Also, the commonly used word “safari” means “journey.” Kiswahili is a beautiful language, and I encourage people to learn it mainly so that I can have people to talk to on the days when I have random Kiswahili outbursts! Africa is truly a beautiful continent and it is so much more than what the media makes it out to be. I strongly recommend going there, specifically to my home country, Tanzania. You will have the chance to visit the beautiful National Parks like The Serengeti, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, to relax on the beautiful beaches or to swim with the most breathtaking ocean creatures off the island of Zanzibar.  There is much to learn about the culture and the people there.

Go and see for yourself  just how amazing Africa really is and how different it is from the stereotyped images that the media offers as the “real Africa.”

And guys—I was joking about having a lion, as you have probably figured out by now. The possession I hold closest to anything lion-related is my family’s name, “Simbaufoo” or “Simba” for short.

All Features