"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
January 22, 2013
Africa: Canards and Stereotypes
by Imo Eshiet

Stereotypes and canards of Africa in the United States are simply hilarious. As I got off the plane someone asked how I escaped from lions and leopard to get here. I teased that big cats don’t bother me because we are buddies.

I joked that interacting with wildlife over time made them respect rather than prey on us! Though I winked as I said this, another asked if I rode elephants to school. I replied that I did especially when adults were home to hold up a ladder for me to get on, but often I got on a python to slither me to school! An outrightly ludicrous host asked if I ever eat bread and ice-cream in Africa. A colleague bent on scaring me from my religion asked if I knew the Church believed Africans had tails. I answered no one checks my backside at meetings!

As I was teaching class one day at college, a student wondered if Africa had airports and how I got to the States. Initially I felt to say I swam eight thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean. But I changed my mind and considered something more likely to tickle the student’s fancy. There are no airports in Africa, I replied playfully. From what followed I realized the student missed the sarcasm.

“How then did the plane that brought you land and take off”, the student hotly demanded? Since Aristotle claims learning is a pleasurable activity, I decided to play along with my inquisitive student. I asked him if he knew Africans live in tree houses and he responded vigorously in the affirmative.

I cashed in on that assumption. The same trees which give us shelter in turn act as a runway for planes. That was too much for conventional wisdom and I could see disbelief boldly expressed on several face.

For many, no illogic is too much for Africa. I do not know if he was serving me with my own medicine, but the student who popped the question remarked he didn’t know technology had advanced to the point of landing planes on tree tops. Whether he was turning the table or not, I pushed the banter to see who could ridicule whose ignorance the most.

I argued that if scientists could land rockets on rough surfaces in space and on water, one didn’t need to stretch too far to assume they could do the same on trees. That sounded smart to some students who saw an African with a thick accent, teaching them English, something of a curiosity! Exploiting the gullibility, I led them on to find the truth by themselves.

Another student, undecided whether to take me at face value or not, wanted to know how passengers got on the trees with their luggage to board the plane. That was easy, I said. I began by asking if they knew Africans lived on treetops. Again the answer was in the affirmative. Seeing an opening, I claimed that what pilots do is to land the planes on our door steps and we embarked.

As some gawked, another student asked, “How you guys move about them tall trees without falling?” I answered that the law of gravity was a respecter of Africans. I asked the class if it believed that the human race originated in Africa and they responded with a resounding “No”! I then asked them to Google the information from their laptops. Some found it incredulous that anthropologists believe so.

I then proceeded to explain that over centuries of living on treetops Africans have managed to defy gravity. I said the same way we lived on trees without falling was the same way we got on planes. When asked by an incredulous fellow if I could give them a demonstration by climbing one of the tall trees on campus with the same ease and facility I used to do in Africa, I found a way out by claiming I needed to clear it with college authorities as I wasn’t sure of their insurance policy.

In fairness, I have met young and enthusiastic Americans perhaps even more knowledgeable about Africa than some Africans. During my first visit to the States in 2007, I met a family who invited me home. As the father drove me back to where I stayed with my folks, I struck up a conversation with his middle school daughter. I was impressed that she knew that Africa was not a country but a continent. That to me was against the grain of perception prevalent among many people here.

Before then I had met many friendly and intelligent looking Americans who, when I was introduced as Nigerian, would say things that shook my frame with suppressed laughter. On occasions some claimed they had friends “in some parts of my country” and wondered if I ever ran into them. When asked which part of my country, they said, “Ghana or some town that used to be called Dahomey or what do you guys call it now?” and I obliged, “Benin Republic”. Unmindful I’d said republic, they said, “Oh you folks change the names of your cities a bit too frequently”. To get the conversation going, I claimed their friends were nice folks who lived just down the road from me!

So it was disarming hearing that kid talk about Nigeria knowledgeably. From the back of her father’s car she told me Abuja, the Nigerian capital city, is centrally located. She knew Abuja, and not Lagos, was Nigeria’s political capital. She also knew the ostensible reasons the seat of government was moved from Lagos to Abuja. She further surprised me with demographic stats, the number of states in the country and even the money accruing from oil annually. It was interesting she knew the Niger Delta from where oil--the main stay of the economy-- is drilled, is poverty-whipped because the bigger tribes in the country just gobble the oil, leaving the environment devastated and its people in suffering and humiliation. It felt good knowing foreigners were at least aware of the trauma and negation of these minority people.

Many well-meaning Americans are not to blame for thinking Africa is a primeval jungle. The media and movies have done a fine job spreading that dreadful misconception. Worse, our consummately artful and congenitally stupid politicians unfailingly regale Western media with revolting images as they profit from turning the continent into a perpetual war theater and berserk madhouse where famine, drought, disease and a steady flight of refugees are the order of the day. When told that Lagos, on the other bank of the Atlantic, is somewhat like New York, except that the chaos in the Big Apple is more organized while disorder in Lagos is free for all, my students hardly believe me.

I know that stereotypes die hard, but if American schools and colleges wanted, they could gain from hiring Africanists. Their services can help in rethinking about Africa. Since the world would very likely continue setting its sights on Africa as its source for cheap raw materials for some time, it helps to see it in its total aggregation, its warts and sores, gold and diamonds, fountains and oils.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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