Hilltop Voices: 54 countries, 1 stereotype

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Mary Luber, senior, spent a summer studying responsible community engagement and service in Cape Town, South Africa. She reflects on what she learned about the diverse continent and offers a new lens for thinking about Africa.

The continent of Africa is composed of 54 vastly different countries. The residents of this continent speak almost 2000 different languages and adhere to a myriad of belief systems, cultures and practices. Biodiversity and cultural identities are arguably the most impressive and varied of any other region in the world, and development is on the rise across the board. Like every other continent, its borders and governmental systems can sometimes mean corruption and other times shine with unbridled success and plenty. Yet, when I mention my study abroad experience in South Africa, I am met with the most disappointing of questions that oversimplify the organization of an expansive land mass that millions of valuable, wonderful people call home.

I’m sharing my experience with one tiny piece of that land mass because I think her citizens deserve our understanding and respect.

We of the well-meaning Western World generally associate Africa with foreign aid and AIDS, but, Jewell community, there is so much more to these 54 nations, especially my treasured South Africa, than what our ignorance allows.

“So what was it like? Seeing all of that poverty . . . it’s just so sad over there.”

Although I enrolled in courses detailing the intricacies of poverty and development through my study abroad program, my class days were not spent peering at impoverished Cape Tonians as if they were museum exhibits or case studies. My peers and I were not there to “fix” anyone or provide solutions to problems about which we had little understanding. My professors organized meals with township families, lectures from political party leaders and opportunities to learn from – not teach and make decisions for – persons of many socio-economic situations and community structures. I stayed with a family of brilliant, dedicated educators who were revolutionizing their entire school system. I spent a weekend swapping stories with the very first female South African boxer, who quite literally fought her way into a man’s world. I ate the best vegetarian meal of my life in a farm-to-table restaurant that rivals any one of which I have been a patron in the United States. And the most important part of these experiences is that, while these wonderful people are unique, their trajectory for success is not. South Africa, and by extension, her neighboring countries, do not simply dwell in poverty, sadness and disease as many Hollywood depictions, international nonprofit marketing campaigns and viewer-hungry news sources would have you believe. Her people are not sad sacks of socio-economic despair; on the contrary, the new friends I made abroad are going to be some of the best lawyers, fashion designers and activists the world has ever seen. That’s because they’re students just like you and me, and they’re damn good ones.

“I just really want to go to Africa and help people, you know?”

This is a tricky one. Our community is comprised of some of the kindest, most compassionate people who want to love and serve our fellow human beings; but, if I have learned anything in my time studying nonprofit leadership here on the Hill and abroad, it is that good, authentic intentions do not always equate effective, actualized change. Sustainable development comes from within communities, not through outsiders determining needs and solutions for them.

I drove past countless informal settlements (massive groupings of aluminum, temporary structures made permanent by the many South Africans on the list for government housing) every day on my way to volunteer at a home of safety, or orphanage. So, of course I witnessed immense hardship and deep-set poverty, but that is not because I was in an African country. There is poverty and opportunity inequality everywhere. Yes, in Langa, Cape Town, South Africa, but also in Kansas City, Missouri, United States of America. I work with Kansas City nonprofit organizations and chose to study abroad in Cape Town in order to understand and counter inequality from many angles, not to pity those caught in its clutches.

No one is meant to be pitied or made into mission trip success stories. They are to be listened to, understood and valued for their humanity. People who live in African countries are simply people who happen to live in African countries, nothing more unless they choose to identify themselves as such. Let us not cast our international neighbors as tired, belittling tropes. Let us not make assumptions that anyone from an African nation is automatically connected to a refugee, Ebola patient or track & field prodigy. When we do meet people, especially children, who live in different conditions than we do, let’s not use them as fundraising gimmicks or new profile pictures.

Africa is not just a gigantic photo opportunity. Africa is not an example. Africa is not a picture of poverty. Africa is not a country.  Africa is a continent, and from the little bit I’ve seen of it, a beautiful one that is worth more than our stereotypes. Visit an African country to take in its jaw-dropping national parks and landscapes. Travel to meet incredible people who have experienced life a little differently than you. Go to globe-trot. Go to listen. Go to learn.

“The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely richcosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

― Ryszard KapuścińskiThe Cobra’s Heart

ebola from Anthony England, Washington Post

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