Africa is NOT a great country!

by Francis Matambalya and Henning Melber regarding the upcoming photo exhibition “Africa is a great country” by Jens Assur.

Africa is a big continent. It happens to be a pretty big continent with more than 50 countries. In fact, it is the second biggest continent after Asia.

Africa has some great countries – here greatness is not equated to territorial or population size. If you happen to live in countries that have evaded pervasive and significant troubles, such as Botswana, Mauritius, etc., you will probably feel great!

Some African countries are – despite being big in terms of territorial or population size - less great for many of the citizens. If you happen to live in Zimbabwe, in Somalia, in the DR Congo, in Mali, the Central African Republic, in the Kordofan region of Sudan, in Libya, and indeed in some other places, it might not be so great!

We have Tanzania and Namibia respectively as our African homes. They are doing not too bad (depending on the criteria and what your living conditions are in terms of your social and economic position).

Africa is not a great country. Neither is Europe a great country, nor Asia, nor Latin America. The difference seems to be, that nobody would even consider calling these continents a country – Why then Africa? Jens Assur is an acclaimed photographer. We have no doubt that he is sensitive in selecting motives. His pictures on display from cities such as Maputo, Dar es-Salaam, Kigali, Lagos and Accra present some of the fascinating urban spheres of life in parts of the African continent. But they do not add up to a “great country”, as the title of the exhibition (“Africa is a Great Country”) - to open on 13 April at Liljevalchs in Stockholm - suggests. Photos from Stockholm, Vienna, Rome, Budapest, Berlin, Athens and other European cities would most likely not be exhibited under the heading “Europe is a Great Country” either.

The exhibition is beyond doubt arranged with an open mind, reportedly to introduce to the visitors the variety of African realities in the big cities mainly among the middle classes there (a different reality from that of the slums in the same cities). However, using a title ‘Africa is a great country’ is unfortunate, because it may – unintentionally – help to feed the stereotype, where Africa, a continent, is equated to a country! This comes in the background of the fact that, in the real life situation, Africa has indeed been referred to as a country by many ignorant people. Few Africans of our age have not encountered a situation, in which, upon mentioning the names of the countries, e.g., Tanzania, they have not been asked at least once in their life time, whether that ‘place’ is in Egypt, or probably a Bantustan in South Africa!

Coming from a continent of diversity, but also a continent that has been very much misconstrued, we are weary and worried by a potentially denigrating language, as calling Africa a country, even if this narrative is done with the best of intentions. Factum is, it amounts to a bad joke! Surely, there are many Africans out there, black and white, who like us, feel embarrassed and upset by abstract stereotyping, which in many ways, may be interpreted as an expression of contempt and a lack of recognition for our various life styles, identities and cultures. Carefully thought formulations, such as ‘Africa is a country ….’ may end up conveying a subtle message of discrimination, reminiscent of the old perceptions of the “dark continent”, the amorphous mass, the exotic bush.

Certainly, Africa does not lack genuine individualities shaped by specific environments. It is natural that people from this vast continent can have as much or as little in common, as the Sami and the Catalans have in common as Europeans, or as the inhabitants of Paris have in common with those in Bucharest or Helsinki. Even the middle classes in the urban centers differ as much as they might have in common. ‘Africa is a … country’ suggests that we, the Africans, can be lumped together as a pack, disregarding the diversities of our people, countries and identities!

Yes, we are proud to be Africans. But we have our dignity and pride also in sharing many commonalities while also having our differences – to which we are as much entitled as the inhabitants of different places and parts in Europe or any other continent. So please note: Africa is NOT a great country! We know that Jens Assur means it well, but it is a bad joke!

Francis Matambalya is Senior Researcher at The Nordic Africa Institute and Professor at the University of Dar-es-Salaam.

Henning Melber is Senior Advisor/Director emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State.

This is the personal opinion of the authors, not the institutions they are affiliated to!

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