Due to my desire to obscure my location (and thus preserve my anonymity) a recent post contained some clumsy phrasing: “Africans from [one] country … those from another [African country].” The implicit generalisations in such awkward phraseology ironically obscured the point I was actually trying to make about the diversity of cultures within Africa.
I hope my readers may be prepared to forgive me such unintended implications, but the greater commentariat are often given to take issue with broad generalisations about Africa or Africans, e.g. this, this and this, although these are far from the worst examples, just the ones that popped up first on my search just now. I recently also got involved with the debate about the impact of such generalisations with J over at Tales from the Hood. The complaints generally centre around two points: that Africa is a big place with a huge diversity of people (over-simplification), and that the generalisations normally convey a bad impression (over-negativity) and/or propagate unrepresentative stereotypes (the poverty porn charge). These complaints all have merit, not least for how they impact on political support for aid, and therefore bear making. However, I also sometimes think: “Guys, get over it!”
It is part of human nature that we are constantly making generalisations and constructing stereotypes: Americans are over-bearing, the English cannot cook and are useless at romance, the French are the opposite of the English, the Chinese are inscrutable etc. We all know some Americans who are not over-bearing, some English folk can actually cook very well, some French cannot, and I’ve met some completely open and engaging Chinese people, but we also understand where the stereotypes come from. We recognise that they are not entirely undeserved, even if we wish we were not tarred with the same brush. We also all know that the best response is simply to fail to live up to the stereotype. Unwanted reputations can be hard to shake off, but complaining loudly and repeatedly is not the best solution.
I think Africa is no different. I think there are generalisations you can make about Africa and African people which have more than enough truth in them. By and large its people are quite poor (with many mired in poverty), many of its governments are corrupt, and there is some fantastic wildlife to be found here. Journalists (and bloggers!), masters of the overworked cliché, are certainly going to use these characterisations. In the same way we think that national leaders (of any country) who get tetchy about the least bit of criticism need to just grow up a bit, so Africa and its commentariat should not get so worked about the odd generalisation. Real improvements, real economic development is the best way to dispel these sorts of myths.