Going Beyond The A Word

January 7, 2011  |  

by R. Asmerom

Kate Middleton has done it. Oprah, surprisingly, does it all the time. And those who you would assume would know better than to take part in fueling the ignorance, also do it. What is it? It’s the constant refusal to address African countries by name and, rather, reference a place or country within the motherland, simply, as “Africa.”

Even though Oprah Winfrey touts the Leadership Academy she established in South Africa as one of her most important achievements, often on her show, she’ll refer to the school as being in Africa. This may sound innocent enough but the fact of the matter is that only the second largest continent in the world gets this sort of treatment. If Oprah’s school was in Spain, there’d be no doubt that she would refer to the location as Spain, not Europe.

When princess-to-be Kate Middleton took part in a press conference that captivated the world’s attention, she explained how she and Prince William were vacationing in Africa when he popped the question. How difficult would it have been to say Kenya?

The emphasis on labeling all 54 countries of the continent as Africa gives the impression that Africa is actually a country and not a continent. After all, we don’t refer to China as Asia or Brazil as South America so why is it so easy not to recognize African countries by the name of their country?

“Most Americans were raised hearing “Africa”, not the specific names of different countries,” said Shay Olivarria, a financial education expert. “I work as a speaker and travel across the United States. You’d be surprised how many students, and some adults, really have no idea that there are individual countries with individual cultures, histories, and practices.”

Valerie Gaimon believes that the lack of news coverage and business relations with the continent influences America’s naiveté. “African nations are in the news in the UK more often, and country names are used,” she said. “We don’t trade as much with many of the countries, unlike with Japan or China, and there’s not a strong sense in pop culture of what defines many African nations. They are lumped into colorfully-clothed dancing, kwanzaa-celebrating, same-race faces.”

Many say that they use the term Africa to make it easier for people who don’t understand where Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe or Angola are, but to do so simply deprives many of the opportunity to learn something new.

“It’s not difficult, just unfamiliar,” said Olivarria. “That’s why it’s imperative that those of us that know better make an effort to be specific when discussing the goings on of the African continent. How can you appreciate something or someone if you can’t even see that they exist?”

Going forward, we can only hope that those who claim to care about the continent do the easiest thing to help it: say Ghana, Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan, Libya or whichever country one is referring to and allow the public to recognize the multitude of countries and cultures that compose the African continent. It sounds simple, and, indeed, it is.

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