How was Africa? I hear this question from friends and family on a regular basis. There's nothing really shocking about this question because I do travel to Africa all the time. But imagine for a second if I went to Mexico - would they ask me how Latin America was?
Language says a lot about how we collectively perceive reality. If Kanye West
can't resist calling Africa a country - at least the rest of us mere mortals, privileged enough to discover the cultural differences across Africa, must pay attention to the language. Otherwise in the minds of many "Africa" will remain a nebulous entity that's rising from diseases, crimes and poverty to the status of a land of new possibilities and opportunities. Where everyone now wants to dig without really knowing what they will find.
Ebola outbreak, apart from taking away many lives, brought to the world's attention a disturbing geographic glitch. A few days after returning from Kampala, I attended a social gathering in London. A rather smart looking gentleman withdrew his handshake once it was mentioned that I've just completed a short mission in the capital of Uganda. He then proceeded to enquire about the risks of Ebola. I asked him whether he would consider travelling to Moscow if a plague would take over Lisbon?
Until you start travelling across Africa, you remain oblivious to how in Europe, very little is known about the geographic locations and cultural identities of individual countries on the African continent. We hear about African fashion, African prints, African voices and African music... As if an entire continent composed of over 50 countries was one single state with common culture and history.
I'm not a tourist; I travel to East Africa for work, so my time for careful observations is very limited. But even during my intense sprints I've discovered that despite a common landscape of colourful one-stored shops, terracotta roads and whizzing motorbikes - Africa is anything but connected and monolithic.
Each place has its unique striking features: the Congolese flamboyance in Kinshasa, so beautifully conjured in their sapeurs or Afro-dandies; the hilly curves of Kigali that shyly hide the beauty of the city yet once you give into the journey it grips you for life, almost reflecting Rwandan temperament; the sky scrapers of crowded Nairobi, which I call the New York of East Africa...
But also think of the top and bottom of the African continent with landscapes and lifestyles so contrasting from the rest of its body that we almost forget it's "Africa". North Africa, with its mint tea, tajines, deserts and souks is closer to the Middle East in our collective minds than Africa. Many don't realise when they travel to Morocco that they are actually in "Africa". South Africa's progressive development and infrastructures has set it aside from the rest of the continent. Both worlds that sandwich the continent highlight its fascinating diversity.
Africa is also logistically disconnected. To my generation, brought up during the peak of European inter-railing and exchange programs, it is incredibly striking to see how difficult it is to navigate within the continent itself. To fly from one neighbouring country to another in Central Africa, you need to do a five-hour detour via Nairobi or Johannesburg. A journey that would take longer than going somewhere in Europe and back. This prevents the continent from merging on many different levels.
People are further disconnected through linguistic barriers. Uganda, for example, counts over a dozen various spoken languages with some groups unable to communicate together within the frontiers of their own country. If two Europeans meet, we automatically speak English (some with more enthusiasm than others). The lingua franca of two Africans is slightly more problematic - it could be English, Swahili or French depending on what part of the continent they come from...
Africa is monolithic to people on this side of the world only out of convenience, maybe fear, lack of information in mainstream media or our prevailing sloppy attitude to language. Only imagine that once we start breaking the continent into individual countries, it will open the flood gates of unknown knowledge that for some may be beautifully eye-opening and for others painfully petrifying.