Once known as the “Dark Continent” by people who forcibly came onto a land that they had just discovered and wanted to exploit, Africa has had its fair share of highs and lows throughout history. As the second largest continent on earth, it is highly-populated and home to over 1 billion people, with over 50 countries and hundreds of cultures. Famed for its beautiful fauna, wildlife and earthly people who are not found anywhere else in the world, Africa has experienced both negative and positive exposure.
One negative aspect is that of myths in relation to what Africa is perceived to be but not actually so. Myths make the world go round, be it about fairies, dragons, tokoloshes or sky spirits. Myths have captivated mankind for thousands of years and continue to do so. However, a fine line needs to be drawn between myths and stereotypes because it can be a very hard line to define at times. It gets me how certain perceptions become myth almost as if it is a legend that has, up to this moment in time, not been disproved. As a young African woman, there are certain myths that really drive me up the wall and make me question just how far humanity, and the West, has come with respects to actually really knowing and understanding what Africa stands for, symbolizes and is.
To that end, here is my list of 10 African myths that really grind my gears.
1. “Africa is a country, right?”
Um, no it’s not. As the image above clearly shows, Africa is a continent, which the Cambridge Dictionary accurately defines as being “one of the seven large land masses on the earth's surface, surrounded, or mainly surrounded, by sea and usually consisting of various countries.” And what would you know? The Cambridge Dictionary goes as far as giving us examples of what a continent is: “the continents of Asia and Africa.” Perhaps I missed that part where those who discovered Africa, the continent, made it into one massive country like North America.
We are not Australia which has the privilege of being both a country and a continent. Perhaps it is a first world privilege and being a third world continent, we do not qualify for this position. Why is it we do not hear Russia being referred to as a continent? It’s big enough for the title and if size is the determining factor, then it should definitely be that way. Oh, but wait. Russia is so big it touches not one, but two continents so it gets to form Eurasia (Europe and Asia). Or it could just be an easier way of getting African countries to unite and become the United States of Africa. I see you, USA.
2. “Are there dangerous, wild animals roaming in the streets?”
This could be interpreted as “are you still wearing loin cloths and sitting on lions’ backs when you go hunting?” Actually, the question here is “is it safe for me to walk around the streets in Africa?” If by roaming in the streets you mean the way a sausage dog or cat would just randomly roam the streets, then, sorry to disappoint, but no. Simba is a cartoon, NOT my pet lion. Sadly, due to globalization and industrialization, we are no longer able to keep wild animals as pets. It’s the same reason we no longer live in mud huts, light years away from civilization or cook raw meat over a makeshift stove comprising of stones, fire and sticks or wood on a good day.
Think the Big Five. Just in case you forgot what they were, the Big Five refer to the African lion, the African elephant, the Cape buffalo, the African leopard, and the White/Black rhinoceros. That name doesn’t just come from nowhere. Physically, they are, well, big, for lack of a better word. So let’s look at this logically. If an elephant can take up the size of a Hummer and a half (or two), where exactly am I going to house it in my suburban home with a tiny garden and security gates? Where would I house a leopard that’s prone to hunting nearby cats, dogs, and other livestock? Where am I supposed to put a buffalo that would be competing with me when it comes to temperament? Where am I supposed to keep a lion that prefers to eat raw meat that it has caught itself? Where would I house a rhinoceros that’s tragically now quickly becoming an extinct species? I am trying all I can not to get involved in illegal activities and then I must have my very own pet rhino to practically force those in the drug and poaching trades to come to me and negotiate how rich I will be after parting with Rhiny. No, thank you.
3. “Africans think they are better than black Americans”
I shall tread very carefully and cautiously as my response to this could get me lynched by my own people. The best response to this is yes and no. By this I mean that there is some truth to the myth but there is also some falsehood. Let me explain. Yes, because we are the original blueprint and black Americans are the copy having been relocated (for lack of a better political word) to countries far from the Motherland. No, because we are ALL black at the end of the day. Whether we are black Africans, black Americans, black Asians or black whatever, we are still black. We are still brothers and sisters, even though history and society would have us fighting and pit us against each other in an attempt to overthrow us. Which is a post for another day.
Nevertheless, black Americans have valid reason to feel Africans feel superior to them. It is hurtful and it undermines Ubuntu, or humanity as we call it. Africans strongly believe in who they are and are grounded as a result of knowing their roots. Most of us (cough) know that our ancestors traveled down from Nigeria or wherever, to Southern Africa and traversed the continent before settling down to what we now know and call home. A lot of black Americans do not have this kind of grounded feeling. Yes, they know they hail from Alabama, but ultimately, they do not know where their true origins come from, Nigeria, Zimbabwe or Mali. This is a shame. For me personally, I have nothing against my fellow black Americans. I do wish, though, that they didn’t view us as the enemy but rather as their brothers and sisters. As stated earlier on, there is a fine line between myths and stereotypes and it may be for this very reason that a lot of misunderstandings occur between the two sides.
4. North Africans are Arabian (i.e. NOT African)
Sorry to burst your bubble but North Africans ARE Africans even though they may not look like the rest of us. It’s sad that we even have to have this discussion. It stems not only from outsiders, but from the very North Africans themselves. Many Africans from elsewhere will tell you that there are times when certain ones have a superior attitude based simply on their looks. They fit in perfectly with the Middle East. No one would be any wiser at face value. That is unlike, say, West Africa where Africans are typically (but not always) darker and have more noticeable facial feature differences. They (that is, North Africans) do not feel like they are part of Africa and strongly associate themselves, their culture and looks with the Middle East. You may look like a butterfly but that doesn’t make you one.
This argument is strong especially when we consider the African Cup of Nations (or AFCON as it’s affectionately known by its people). North African countries that have won the African Cup of Nations include Egypt, Cameroon, Tunisia and Morocco. The first and last countries have the habit of going to the Middle East to celebrate their victories. Excuse me? That’s like borrowing money from a loved one you should be loving and spending it on someone else. North Africans are the family members that get on your nerves but you would never throw them away because they are family. We love you guys. Arabian looking hotties and beauties that you are. Even if you deny your African heritage, we all know you’re as African as the rest of us. If we don’t say it, your new friends will.
5. Africa is home to starving children and flies on the mouth
This one especially grinds my gears. Why does Western media always make it out like Africa is the only place on the entire planet where people go hungry day in and day out? Why is it that our poor, malnutritioned children are always shown with big Green Bomber flies flying in and out of their gaping mouths at will? Why do they always have distended, swollen bellies and their ribs are screaming against their food-deprived bodies like a pained work of art? Why, oh why God do they keep doing this to us? They fail to ignore the circumstances that bring about these pictures. These are war-torn countries with constant coups, death and rationing. No one is worrying about how fab they look when they need to get clean water and a slice of bread to share among six people. Come now. This must stop. Like seriously. It’s almost as if it is international journalists’ duties to capture the worst of Africa and ship it home to show what they perceive to be the real situation, but is not even the whole picture. It’s just a fraction.
They seem to forget that Australia was built with prisoners and they certainly weren't looking too good. When the Bubonic plague hit England, it did not look pretty at all. When the two World Wars ravaged the surface of the earth, no country could say, “We look great.” Even the great United States of America has homeless people bunking right by the ferry, by the symbol of freedom, The Statue of Liberty. What is that? Coincidence? I think not. Yes, we have staggering rates of diseases and malaria in Africa. Yes, we have chronic cases of hunger, starvation and droughts. Yes, we have less than favorable economic and political climates that contribute to this sadness, but which country hasn’t gone through these things or is even immune to these plagues even up to this very day? If Africa were really about starving kids, I would not be able to write this article from my HP laptop, using high speed internet from the comfort of my suburban home, in one of the best cities on the continent, with a roof over my head and food in my belly.
6. Africans all have big behinds and mammary glands
As a Southern African, I can definitely understand where this myth comes from. South Africans in particular, are known for having Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian-looking bodies. And guess what? It’s all NATURAL. It is not, however, the only body type we have in Africa. Like other continents, we have the very petite, the in-betweeners, and the very big. We are, after all, part of the human race. One just has to look at East/West Africa to realize that being slim is actually as much in our genes as being voluptuous. Think Iman (Somali), David Bowie’s beloved widow and model, Nikki Perkins (Sudan), from Jamie and Nikki, half of the the Australian YouTube vlogger couple, Jamie and Nikki, who also coincidentally worked as a model at some stage, and Lupita Nyong’o (Kenya) Oscar award-winning actress. Naomi Campbell is also another great example but she’s not African so she doesn’t count in this regard. Nonetheless, believing that all African women are endowed in abnormal proportions is untrue, distasteful and worrying. It brings to mind the sad, sad case of Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, the KhoiKhoi woman who was shipped off to England to be a performing monkey. Even pictures of her body are widely exaggerated. She was humiliated, ostracized and treated as if she were beneath a human. May her soul rest in peace.
The irony of this myth that all African women are voluptuous is that, even though it is not deemed attractive by the media, culture appropriation is happening because we have Kylie Jenners and others who are donning what is naturally African, big lips, hips and boobs. “All at whose cost?” we ask.
7. Africans are all dark
This type of reasoning really grinds my gears for a number of reasons. Firstly, the premise is that all Africans are dark in complexion. Even when Africans were being shipped to other countries, the people back then always painted them (literally and figuratively) as dark-skinned, big, red-lipped and bootylicious for days. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, we have the San people from Southern Africa, for example, who have rather sharp derrières and others from around the continent. However, this is not a matter of copy, paste. Africans come in all shades, skin tones and colors. We range from albino (yes, it is a shade of black) to black. It’s no longer about a certain number of shades of this or that but more like a rainbow of shades of black. I’m talking yellow, bronze, beige, honey, caramel, nutmeg, hazelnut, brown, and midnight blue. Thinking about all the shades and varieties in African black beauty makes me want to be poetic, flowing with the beauty of the words, the people, the skin, the everything. In the words of Chrisette Michele in Wale’s Shades, “Honey brown, caramel, coffee brown, chocolate, toffee, pecan, licorice, boy (girl) you're so beautiful.”
In most African families, colors range from the rather derogative “yellow bone” (very light, think Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj) to dark chocolate (think Alek Wek). I’m brown and I’m African. Iman is a brown-skinned African. The Bushmen are quite pale in comparison to other Africans but they are African. I think you get the point. Black is beautiful; more so when it comes in different shades and colors.
8. Africans speak one language
And that language is the strange clicking one they spoke in “The Gods Must be Crazy” (note: if you have not watched that movie, you definitely should. There were two official and three unofficial ones.) This one really grinds my gears for obvious reasons. How can we have a continent, not a country remember, with over a billion inhabitants and hundreds of cultures, all speaking the same language? The distinction is clear in Asia. Why should Africa be any different? The UK has a population of just under 65 million people. They all speak English, which is all well and good but even they speak differing dialects of English. We speak the Queen’s language because she colonized two thirds of the continent. Also, unlike other continents, English is an official language in many parts of the continent. Cough, cough Europe. English being one of the official languages of the African continent does not then mean that we all speak one united language of gibberish. You know what I mean. Those old Looney Tunes cartoons would have stereotypical black folk dressed in loin cloths, wielding deadly spears and screaming some language even we to this day do not know. I have opened another can of worms but the point is clear.
Just so you know, Africans speak at least two languages which makes us bilingual, if not tri- or multilingual. There are over 1,500 languages spoken in Africa alone, and some even say as many as 3,000. Whatever the case, this is a whole lot more than anticipated. So in short, no, we do not speak one language in Africa. We speak over a thousand.
9. “Africans all have AIDS”
Hate to break it to you, but we are not all dying from AIDS. While it is true that Africa suffers from some of the most tragic AIDS rates in the world, this is not to say that we are all sick and living with it. There have been a lot of initiatives to counteract this deadly disease. Clinics are now making it affordable for those of little means to be able to purchase the necessary medication in order for them to stabilize their health. Also, there has been a lot of emphasis over the last few years for HIV-positive mothers not to breastfeed their babies so the babies do not contract the virus. This has helped reduce mother-to-child transmission in some respects. Also, there are a lot of adverts on condomizing. Some places even go as far as to make them come in different flavors and make it out to be a really delightful thing to purchase. At universities, one can find condoms in the bathrooms which means universities are aware of the activities students engage in and there is no excuse to not protect oneself as the means to do so is free.
So no, Africans are not all dying from AIDS. We have other serious diseases like Ebola, which, thank God, appears to be under control (for now), cholera and tuberculosis. However, malaria is a killer. It affects half the population and claims as many as one to three million lives. Please help if you can.
10. Africans want to be American/British/Australian/etc so bad
We were, are and always will be proudly African. From our coily, break-multiple-combs afros, iridescent shades of black ranging from ivory to black and everything in-between, our African attire that represents each culture and tells a little story of humble beginnings, and bounces off us into the world, our athletic prowess and continued efforts to make a difference, no matter how small, in the world, from our Afro pop to our soulful dancing, tasty, colorful, mouth-watering cuisine, warm-hearted laughs and smiles, banter, loud crying at funerals to being able to understand five languages even though you can’t actually speak any of them fluently, we are proudly African. Why appropriate Western culture when we have our own?
Do you have any African myths that really grind your gears? Comment below.