Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Every culture or nation has characteristics that set it apart from others. But this truism seems lost when speaking to people who’ve never experienced Africa. There’s an almost universal tendency to forget that this vast, vibrant land is a continent – the second largest in the world. It’s not just celebrities (and the occasional world leader) who tweet of their excitement at visiting the continent as if they’re hitting all 54 countries.

Yet despite the misconception it implies, one can almost forgive the lack of distinction – because despite the diversity, there is a collective heartbeat that defines the rhythm of Africa. Whether you’re born of African soil or transplanted here, you can really feel it where the continent converges – as it does at African Leadership Academy.

We asked ALA’s staffulty to reveal any preconceptions they had about different parts of the continent before their experiences here – and whether it had been confirmed or overturned. Here’s what we learned…

Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Hatim Eltayeb, Dean of the Academy

The idea that heroes are the same everywhere – that we have a shared mythology – isn’t as universally true as I thought. (Former Libyan leader) Gaddafi is hailed in one country and reviled in another. (Late Egyptian President) Nasser is recognizable to some and alien to others. Consider Adicie.

(Award-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie is vocal about the danger of viewing a culture through the lens of a single story.)

Confirmed: That there is a genuine seed of pan-African potential, shared intention for collective betterment, scattered quite widely and needing only some deliberate watering for it to flower. That by and large, many of us want to embrace a sense of Africanness that is demanding and optimistic and promising. Also, that the music is great – all over. And that, like it or not, the American cultural empire is pervasive.

Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Maya Schkolne, African Studies Teaching Faculty

I assumed that Year One students would have extensive knowledge of apartheid South Africa because of what the anti-apartheid struggle represented to the continent. Nevertheless, many students recognized that they had only a basic understanding of apartheid. This opened up a discussion on the curricula in Africa – across the board – and its general lack of emphasis on issues and history in the continent.

This in turn directed attention towards ALA’s unique purpose and potential.

Confirmed: The ways in which young people identify with this continent, with what it means to be African, and with their vision for change is as complex as I had imagined. I’m especially encouraged by the constructive reflections from students about possibilities for bridging divides between North- and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Dashen Naicker, Writing and Rhetoric Faculty

A quite misguided thought I had prior to coming to ALA was that colonisation was a uniform process throughout the continent. After hearing students’ stories and views from across the continent – Niamey to Nairobi, Lomé to Lusaka – I now understand that negotiations of colonialism differ greatly throughout the continent.

The manner in which a black South African negotiates race and class (blackness) and the manner in which an Angolan student negotiates race will be different due to their dissimilar contexts.

Confirmed: My deep belief that this is a continent of intellectuals, despite its rich history at scholarly and philosophical thought, Africa is presented in much discourse as at anti-intellectual context. ALA disproves this through the daily engagement and examination of ideas and ideologies by its staffulty and students alike.

Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Mopati Morake, Writing and Rhetoric Department

Prior to working at ALA, I did not have the same lens about the continent that I do now. If I ever wanted to travel in Africa, it would have only been to places popularly conceived of as “safe, drama free.” I would not have imagined wanting to stroll the beaches of Sierra Leone, exploring the northern hills of Malawi, or the ancient city of Carthage. I think working in this community and engaging with people’s stories has opened up the continent to me. Sierra Leone is more than just a post-war society, or a post-Ebola country…

There is much more to the texture and rhythm of life than media portrayals. This community exposes you to the multiplicity of stories about the continent, highlights your own biases and preconceptions and makes you confront and eventually overcome them. I am now more comfortable venturing into more of the continent, comfortable to experience more of the sights and sounds, stories and struggles.

Confirmed The wealth of meaning and cultural complexities. A student shared a story about where her umbilical cord was buried: at birth, the cord is cut, given to a respected elder in the community – one that the parents hope the child will take after – a small ceremony is performed in the family’s home and the distinguished elder buries the cord in the ground. A tree is then planted in the spot – symbolically and literally placing that child in a larger context; connecting physical + spiritual + natural worlds. What beauty and meaning. I always knew there was such a depth to the culture, the meaning and the social fabric on the continent; this confirmed it.

Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Lisa Simelane, HOD African Studies

Before teaching at ALA, I definitely used to think of Africa as being Sub-Saharan Africa. I would have told you that Ghana, not Libya, was the first African country to gain independence. My sketches of the continent would not include Madagascar, the Comors, São Tome, Cape Verde or Mauritius…

I am now more expansive and more inclusive in my definitions. I also had never met people from such a range of African countries before. I remember observing my first lesson at ALA, with the students introducing themselves: “My name is Manqoba and I am from South Africa”, “My name is Naira and I am from Mozambique”… Zambia, Morocco, Tunisia, DRC… almost every student was from a different country – so definitely my conceptualisation of African has been challenged and reframed, I now understand Africa in broader lenses.

Confirmed: There is much to be celebrated about our continent. The food, the music, the languages, the landscapes, our youth, our capacity for innovation, our potential, our cities, our humanity, our shared values, our resources, our indigenous knowledge, our hope and dream for the future…

Africa is NOT a Country: What Teaching at ALA Taught Me

Jeremy  Keen, African Studies Faculty

I don’t know whether it is a preconception, but something that working at ALA has highlighted is that Africa is not lacking in the ability to be innovative.

Confirmed About the continent: there is a sense that it is rising, rising, rising – and this is exciting.

DID YOU KNOW? In 2013 The Guardian developed an app (called Africa isn’t a Country) to alert journalists to just how widespread prejudice against the continent actually is, and encourage “sensible reporting”. See how many times “Africa” becomes the “all-purpose word to describe anything from Tangiers to Cape Town” here.

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