Getting the facts straight
According to Wikipedia, Africa is the second-most largest and second-most populous continent. With 1.1 billion people, it holds about 15% of the world’s human population. There are 54 fully recognized sovereign states, nine territories and two de facto independent states with limited or no recognition. The largest country by population, Nigeria, has 177 million inhabitants, whereas the smallest country, the Seychelles, has about 90,000 people living within its borders. Well over a thousand languages are spoken on the African continent and the climates range from tropical to subarctic on its highest peaks with in between everything from desert to wetland and from savannah to jungle.
And yet, since I started living here, I realised that too often we refer to Africa as if it were one place, with similar peoples, cultures and problems. Of course, we often refer to Europe as a whole but somehow it feels different. Maybe it is because I am a European living in a European country, but it feels to me as if when referring to Europe, we are not necessarily referring to all the countries on the European continent but to something else. The EU maybe, or just the land mass, but then without generalising. Let me give you an example. A lot of people asked me whether I am worried about Ebola. Though I appreciate people’s concern for my well-being, the map above shows that I had nothing more to worry about than the people who were asking me this question. I am directly above the upper of the three lakes.
A little bit of nuance never hurt anyone
When telling people I was moving to Uganda for a year, many wondered whether it would be safe. Knowing only news items on the abovementioned Ebola, revolutions in Egypt, rape in the Congo and death in Sudan I do not blame anyone and once again, the concern for my safety is much appreciated. But even though two of the countries mentioned here are directly neighbouring Uganda (technically, Uganda borders on South Soudan in the North, which is no longer a part of Sudan anymore), this does not mean that I have to be worried about rebels burning down my house in Kampala. Just as when living in the Netherlands, I do not worry about… ok, this is useless, you need to cross at least two countries to get to Ukraine but hey, you get the idea.
Ever since Idi Amin fled the country in 1979 and Joseph Kony took his Lord’s Resistance Army to the Central African Republic, Uganda has been relatively quiet. Obviously, also here some nuances are appreciated but more on that some other time maybe. Sure, being a muzungu comes with some risks only because it implies that you have money, power and jobs to give away like candy. Just last week a woman I had a casual conversation with while walking towards the supermarket told me she had two children and then asked whether she should give me one. WHY?! Other than that, I can go running and get lost without worry. Sometimes I even dare to cross the 400 metres to the Thai restaurant around the corner in the dark (living on the edge, I know). By the way, calling every white person a muzungu works along similar lines. Even though I am as white/rich/smart/handsome (or at least some of the above) as all the other expats, I would also like to be appreciated for my individual personality you know!
Appreciate the diversity
The diversity on the African continent also applies to economic development, poverty and disease burden to name a few topics. There are upper-middle-income countries, just as there are low-income countries. The African country with the highest gross domestic product per capita is Equatorial Guinea ($20,582 – ranking 41 out of 182 countries) and the country with the lowest GDP per capita is Malawi ($226). Hans Rosling held a wonderful Ted talk on the differences between and within countries on how they are affected by the HIV epidemic.
So going forward I will try to refer to Uganda, sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa or anything that respects the wonderful variety on this enormous continent instead of just ‘Africa’. Before coming to Uganda, I had been on the African continent and had seen the Nile before. But except for the Nile, Egypt bears no resemblance whatsoever to Uganda and nothing in Morocco could have prepared me for the green hills and red dust here. Either way, everything I have seen so far in Northern and Eastern Africa has been sheer beauty. So I will try to see much more of it in the limited time I have left and after that. In the meantime, enjoy Binyavanga Wainaina’s hilarious advice on how to write about Africa.