There is an assumption in the western world that Africans do not speak English or, as commonly said, “Good English.” A second assumption is that somehow being from Africa is synonymous with being uneducated. Personally, I am extremely proud of my heritage and never miss the opportunity to introduce myself as an African. Some of the backhanded compliments I receive following an introduction indicating where I’m from — which I am sure the majority of Africans living abroad have received more than once — are “you speak good English FOR an African” or “really? You’re from Africa? BUT you speak really good English” or something along the lines of “did you grow up in Africa, because you sound well educated?” is another.
I suppose we owe the ignorance in part to the headlines in mainstream media that shrink Africa to no more than a place torn apart by wars, hunger, and diseases, a place where we live shanties and slums and are uneducated.
This is what renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie refers
to as the “Danger of a single story”: “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting for to be saved by a kind white foreigner.”
Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” talk here:
It is then not surprising that we are thought of as “uneducated.”
But we are also to blame as Africans, regarding this ignorance, because we are not telling our stories enough and we are not writing our stories enough. The late-Chinua Achebe once said, “if you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
I believe it is time we begin to write our own stories. The headlines will not change until we change them, and the rhetoric will not change, until we change it.
Yes, there are African stories out there, but they are not nearly enough. Our history is engulfed in slavery and our present in conflict. When we think of our history, we often stop at slavery and colonialism.
Our fluency in the English language can be credited to the White man who came in and declared his language more superior. Our education, however, dates as far back as 859, when the world’s oldest university, the university of al-Qurawiyyin (pictured top), was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in Morocco. The world’s second-oldest is Al-Azhar University (pictured above) in Egypt.
But how many know this? Where are the stories about the book trade in Timbuktu? It is time to change the rhetoric.
“Just think, that this race of Black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our art, sciences, and even the use of speech!” ~ M. Constantine De Volney (1787)
Listen to Writer Sanna Arman’s “Afrika’s Untold” spoken word poem here: