In Africa Is Not a Country: Notes on a Bright Continent, Dipo Faloyin contends with an issue he summarizes this way: “For too long, ‘Africa’ has been treated as a buzzword for poverty, strife, corruption, civil wars, and large expanses of arid red soil where nothing but misery grows. Or it is presented as one big safari park.”
Faloyin, a Nigerian currently living in London and writing for Vice, is a smart, often scathingly funny writer. In a chapter on Hollywood movies about Africa, he offers a brilliant sendup of the persistent stereotypes needed for a film to seem “realistic”: open savannahs where lions roam, rather than cities like Lagos, Nigeria, with its 24 million residents, “loud and plagued by joy.”
In another chapter, Faloyin mocks “white saviour imagery” such as crying superstars pleading for donations while holding Black children with flies in their eyes. Yes, the impulse is kind and worthy, Faloyin acknowledges. But the assumptions carried by these well-meaning “White Men In Khakis,” out to save a failed continent, are demeaning.
Where did these assumptions come from? One point of origin was an 1885 conference in Berlin where European and Northern American powers met to divvy up the wealth and resources of Africa without resorting to war among themselves. At the time, 80% of Africa was independent and self-governing. Yet these great powers drew new borders around their areas of interest on a large map, ignoring the religious, ethnic and cultural differences of the locals. No African governments were invited, of course. The American representative wondered aloud if what they were doing was illegal and unethical, which it was, but that was ignored. And in short order, beginning with horrendous brutality in the Belgian Congo, colonization began.
While much of the history of Western involvement in Africa is sordid and depressing, Africa Is Not a Country is not. It brims with the sort of outrage that speaks of hope, of change. Faloyin points to the younger generation of Africans: educated, business-savvy, united by Afrobeat and Nollywood, moving toward a leaderless revolution. In a late chapter, Faloyin writes about the friendly competition among African nations about who has the best Jollof rice, “a proxy for national identity and regional status” and, through enslaved Africans, the basis for America’s Southern cooking. Throughout, the continent of Africa—home to 1.4 billion people in 54 countries where more than 2,000 languages are spoken—comes alive as a diverse, creative and complicated place.