Sunday, November 9, 2008

Palin thought Africa was a country

Yep, apparently defeated US Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country, rather than a continent. I honestly don't know if this is really true or whether its based on a slip of the tongue that someone took out of context, but it's pretty funny either way. And honestly, I'm not surprised. America's religious right keep offering up these politicians to the world, based on the idea that its okay to be an ignorant fool so long as you have the right ideology. Fortunately, most Americans decided that the real George W Bush was bad enough, so they didnt need to hire the female version.

But before you laugh at Palin (and why else did God create ignorant hicks if not for the rest of us to laugh at them), ask yourself this: How many countries in Africa can you name? (There are approximately 53 of them.) How many African heads of state can you name?

Granted, you probably knew that Africa was a continent rather than a country. But try answering these 3 questions without resorting to google or wikipedia.

1) Other than English, what is the most spoken language in Zimbabwe?
2) Julius Nyerere was the first president of which country?
3) Which is the only country in Africa that was never colonised by a European power?

Now let me say that those should not be difficult questions to answer. If you couldn't answer them, maybe you shouldn't be laughing too hard at Ms Palin. See, I have noticed that a great many otherwise educated and intelligent people basically know jack about Africa, and indeed, treat it as if it is one big country. I have a number of African friends and this is the thing that seems to piss them off more than anything else. Asking a question like "Do you speak African?" is almost guaranteed to make them hate you.

It's interesting that Africa is seen as monolithic by many. It contains more countries than any other continent. It's people are more genetically diverse than in any other continent. Consider a Somali, a Dinka from South Sudan, a San (Bushman) from the Kalahari, a Moroccan Berber, an Egyptian Arab, a Congolese pygmy, a Merina from Madagascar (with Indonesian/East African genes) and a Kikuyu from Kenya. All look very different and are culturally very different from each other. Yet a shameful amount of people seem to see Africans as pretty much all the same. And while I don't like to throw the word racism around willy-nilly, it's hard to argue that racism is not an underlying reason for this ignorance.

An example of how this manifests itself, from about Congolese NBA basketballer Dikembe Mutombo: "Mutombo is fluent in 9 languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and 5 African dialects." This is pretty much a standard description of Mutombo's linguistic talents, and it pisses me off on 2 points. Firstly, why not bother to mention by name any of the 5 African languages? Secondly, the use of the term dialects (meaning a variant within a language) implies that they are not as distinct from each other as European languages are, thus carrying this assumptive subtext that Africans are pretty much all the same. Imagine it mentioning the 9 languages and describing English and Spanish as European dialects.

Since I am a community worker, I often deal with migrant communities and discuss them with others. 9 out of 10 times if I mention Eritrea, for example, the next question I hear is "Where's that?" or "Eri-what?"
And when I have often extolled the virtues of Melbourne's delicious Ethiopian restaurants to people, I can't tell you the number of times I have heard "Ethiopia? Gee, I didn't realise they had food." If you have ever uttered that (and this does include several friends of mine), allow me to snort contemptuously at you.

So come on people, ignorance may be bliss, but it ain't a good look. Learn a little something about the world around you.

Oh, and by the way, the answers to the questions I posed earlier are: (1) Shona; (2) Tanzania; and (3) Ethiopia. But you knew that, right?

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