Africa is NOT a Great Country!

franc m, melber

Comments icon 5 comments April 8, 2013

by Francis Matambalya, Senior Researcher at The Nordic Africa Institute and Professor at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, and

Henning Melber, Senior Advisor/Director emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State.

Africa is a big continent with more than 50 countries. In fact, it is the second biggest continent after Asia. Africa is not a great country. Neither is Europe a great country, nor Asia, nor Latin America.

The difference seems to be, that nobody would even consider calling these continents a country – Why then Africa? Jens Assur’s fine pictures from Africa do not add up to a “great country”, as the title of the exhibition (“Africa is a Great Country”) – to open this week at Liljevalchs in Stockholm – suggests.

Coming from a diverse continent that has been very much misconstrued, we are weary and worried by a potentially denigrating language, even if this narrative is done with the best of intentions.

Africa is a big continent. It happens to be a pretty big continent with more than 50 countries. In fact, it is the second biggest continent after Asia.

Africa has some great countries – here greatness is not equated to territorial or population size. If you happen to live in countries that have evaded pervasive and significant troubles, such as Botswana, Mauritius, etc., you will probably feel great!

Some African countries are – despite being big in terms of territorial or population size – less great for many of the citizens. If you happen to live in Zimbabwe, in Somalia, in the DR Congo, in Mali, the Central African Republic, in the Kordofan region of Sudan, in Libya, and indeed in some other places, it might not be so great!

We have Tanzania and Namibia respectively as our African homes. They are doing not too bad (depending on the criteria and what your living conditions are in terms of your social and economic position).

Africa is not a great country. Neither is Europe a great country, nor Asia, nor Latin America. The difference seems to be, that nobody would even consider calling these continents a country – Why then Africa?

Jens Assur is an acclaimed photographer. We have no doubt that he is sensitive in selecting motives. His pictures on display from cities such as Maputo, Dar es-Salaam, Kigali, Lagos and Accra present some of the fascinating urban spheres of life in parts of the African continent. But they do not add up to a “great country”, as the title of the exhibition (“Africa is a Great Country”) – to open on 13 April at Liljevalchs in Stockholm – suggests.

Photos from Stockholm, Vienna, Rome, Budapest, Berlin, Athens and other European cities would most likely not be exhibited under the heading “Europe is a Great Country” either.

The exhibition is beyond doubt arranged with an open mind, reportedly to introduce to the visitors the variety of African realities in the big cities mainly among the middle classes there (a different reality from that of the slums in the same cities). However, using a title ‘Africa is a great country’ is unfortunate, because it may – unintentionally – help to feed the stereotype, where Africa, a continent, is equated to a country!

This comes in the background of the fact that, in the real life situation, Africa has indeed been referred to as a country by many ignorant people. Few Africans of our age have not encountered a situation, in which, upon mentioning the names of the countries, e.g., Tanzania, they have not been asked at least once in their life time, whether that ‘place’ is in Egypt, or probably a Bantustan in South Africa!

Coming from a continent of diversity, but also a continent that has been very much misconstrued, we are weary and worried by a potentially denigrating language, as calling Africa a country, even if this narrative is done with the best of intentions. Factum is, it amounts to a bad joke!

Surely, there are many Africans out there, black and white, who like us, feel embarrassed and upset by abstract stereotyping, which in many ways, may be interpreted as an expression of contempt and a lack of recognition for our various life styles, identities and cultures. Carefully thought formulations, such as ‘Africa is a country ….’ may end up conveying a subtle message of discrimination, reminiscent of the old perceptions of the “dark continent”, the amorphous mass, the exotic bush.

Certainly, Africa does not lack genuine individualities shaped by specific environments. It is natural that people from this vast continent can have as much or as little in common, as the Sami and the Catalans have in common as Europeans, or as the inhabitants of Paris have in common with those in Bucharest or Helsinki.

Even the middle classes in the urban centres differ as much as they might have in common. ‘Africa is a … country’ suggests that we, the Africans, can be lumped together as a pack, disregarding the diversities of our people, countries and identities!

Yes, we are proud to be Africans. But we have our dignity and pride also in sharing many commonalities while also having our differences – to which we are as much entitled as the inhabitants of different places and parts in Europe or any other continent. So please note: Africa is NOT a great country! We know that Jens Assur means it well, but it is a bad joke!

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Themes in this article

Botswana, Congo-DRC, Egypt, Namibia, Somalia, South Africa, Zimbabwe
  • Heron Zethiopia says:

    Intellect and the dissection of words, Africa is/is not… africa is what it is.

  • Stina Gyldberg says:

    But that’s the whole point Jens Assur is trying to make. Its not a bad joke as this article is trying to argue. Its a brilliant way of trying to put focus on the simple way Africa is covered in the media.

  • priffe says:

    You were ill advised using irony for headlining an exhibition, mr Assur.
    Next time around, why not give your product a name that you really mean and stand up for?

    I could add that _generally_ speaking, irony doesn’t work well as an instrument for communication in Africa. People tend to take things ad notam, which I for one very much appreciate.
    Europeans suffer from ironitis.

    • Terry Musyoka says:

      Actually I completely got it when I saw the title and I appreciate the irony. If people don’t get the irony or their ignorance prevails that’s actually the point: it points to the problem and Mr Assur shouldn’t make any apologies for it especially since few non-Africans ever defend or joke about their people’s ignorance about Africa being a continent and not a country. For the commenter that assumes irony does not work well in Africa I am afraid you are the ill advised in this case. Africans KNOW Africa is not a country and seeing the title should spark the conversation about Africa’s diversity. If you don’t see that then perhaps you need to meet more Africans who KNOW their continent.

  • Adams Bodomo says:

    I want Africa to be a country:
    I respect people who go about trying to show that Africa is not a country but I think this is a misguided cause – they unknowingly play into the hands of the Berlinists (that’s how I call people who like dividing Africa into minute entities, like what the European powers did to us in Berlin at the end of the 19th Century). Actually, I am happy for Africa to be a country. I sometimes jokingly tell people that I am from the Ghana region of the Republic of Africa. This, indeed, is a pan-Africanist dream. We those of pan-Africanist conviction don’t think the various 54 countries are any important, Africa is more important. Before these neo-colonial creations were Africa was! Africa is indeed a country in the making…

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