My earliest introduction to Africa was through books. High school History and Geography curriculum and to some extent Social Studies and Religion covered key topic about Africa.
The Africa I got to know through these subjects and through my teachers was an Africa that I admired. I learnt about a people who had a unique culture. I read about a people humble enough to welcome strangers who later colonized them. I read about a people who suffered due their generosity. I read about a people courageous enough to demand and fight for their freedom.
This was a beautiful Africa.
Though this Africa was materially poor, it was rich in kindness. Whole village raised children and everybody was a brother. Then came the age of modern media. It changed everything. It shook what I knew about Africa.
I watched documentaries about past and current dictators in some African countries. I watched coup de tats taking place in some countries in Africa. I watched famine claiming lives of children and women in some countries in Africa.
This was a chaotic Africa.
As an adult I have gotten opportunities to read books about Africa. These books are mostly written by journalists (most of them are foreign), social workers and expatriates. These books have documented what Chinua Achebe calls ‘Africa’s tortured history’. It does not matter whether they are writing about politics, economics or social lives of the people of Africa, the image is always grim – of course there are few exceptions. These books are reinforced by the occasional feature articles in major newspapers and television magazines on cable networks.
Economically, I have come to know Africa that cannot feed its people. It is an Africa where people live below one dollar, children breast feeding from dead mothers etc.
Politically, I have to know Africa where tribalism is the bloodline of politics. By default all African leaders are corrupt and the electorate ‘stupid’. Socially, I have come to Africa as a country. Though most journalists and writers have what I can call fairly good education, they constantly ignore the facts and realities in Africa for instance, that Africa is a continent and not a country.
This is a tortured Africa.
But there is an Africa my heart knows and understands. I call it mother Africa. It is an Africa that I was born into and perhaps I will die in. It is an Africa with diverse people with different cultures. A people conversant with the challenges they face from day to day. A people that never give up amid all these challenges. An Africa that like any other continent has a good story waiting to be told. An Africa that is developing just like any other continent.
Reading books about Africa, watching television about Africa and reading magazines such as National Geographic introduced me to a strange Africa; an imagined Africa. There is a time I felt that I should move far away from the ‘tortured’ Africa and never return. But then I grew up and discovered that not everything we read in books or consume from the media is true.
I searched for my Africa, the Africa I knew as a boy growing up in rural Kenya. It is a beautiful Africa. Not because of its wild animals, though it might as well be, but because of its people.
This is the Africa I know.