The trouble with “Africa”

18 Sep

One of my funniest memories is being on holidays and meeting a good friend’s grandmother for the first time.

‘I know someone in Africa!’ she announced proudly.

‘You do?’ I asked rather facetiously grinning at my friend who was trying to figure out whether she had enough room to crawl under the couch and disappear.

‘His name is Michael McGinty, you must have heard of him, he’s lived in Africa for years!’ she continued in excitement.

‘The name sounds familiar’, I said kindly and off she went telling me about Michael McGinty as I was sure to bump into him “in Africa”. She was mortified when I gently explained that Africa was made up of over 50 different countries but to her credit she recovered very quickly and went on to become the biggest proponent of Africa as a continent.

The trouble with the broad reference to “Africa” is that it overlooks the rich diversity of the continent. Nigeria with its population of 150 million people has over 400 tribes, each with their own cultural norms. Similarly Senegal with a strong Arab influence and a mainly Muslim population is quite different from Zimbabwe.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m referring to “African women” and “African culture” when we know that African countries have vastly different cultures and the women very different experiences of being women within those cultures.

African women share similar challenges in accessing their basic rights and opportunities. Whether you’re in Cameroon, Ethiopia, South Africa or Zambia, the birth of an African girl is typically greeted with less enthusiasm than that of a boy. A girl is less likely to go to school than her brother. Her respectability in society will be determined by whether or not she’s married. She’ll have little control over her reproductive and sexual rights, even in the face of HIV and AIDS. In fact I can’t think of a single African country where polygamy and male promiscuity is frowned upon. Women are taught from an early age to excuse the bad behaviour of men because that’s just what it means to be a woman. There’s a high likelihood she’ll experience sexual violence at some point in her life and when this happens she’ll be quickly married off to her attacker (if she’s not already married to him) or shunned as a slut.

Of course a lot of the issues we’ll talk about are also true of women’s issues in developed countries. Women’s sexual servitude exists in western countries albeit wrapped in more palatable packaging that implies the consent of those women.

So our focus on Africa is not to suggest that women elsewhere don’t have challenges associated with being a woman. It’s simply because the African challenges are closest to our hearts.


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