Mention Africa to many Americans and two images will often come to mind: Serengeti-like wildlife and starving people living in despair. Very few realize the beauty of the continent that lies beneath those misleading images.
While wildlife and poverty do exist in Africa, a deeper look into the second-largest continent of the world and its people reveals there is much more to Africa than elephants and starving children.
Marvin Boateng is the vice president of the African Student Organization at CSUN. The 22-year-old business administration and Pan-African Studies major was raised in United States from age 6 by his parents who came from Ghana via Germany, where Boateng was born.
Boateng said people get the wrong impression about Africa from watching television.
“They don’t believe there are any cities, hotels or rich people,” Boateng said. “It’s just desert and starvation. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions, that Africans are just starving people.
“It’s always something negative on TV,” he said. “The only image people get of Africa is the impoverished conditions that they live in. (You) don’t get to see the beautiful cities that we have or the wealthy people who were born and raised on the continent and made it,” Boateng said.
There are over 1,000 languages spoken in Africa, and it features some of the most historical places on earth, including the pyramids in Egypt and the ancient city of Timbuktu, which was known not only for its place as a commercial trading center, but also as a place where scholars gathered and universities were built. By the 12th century, Timbuktu, Mali today, had become a celebrated Islamic center and was home to three universities and 180 Quranic schools – Islamic learning institutions.
Ethiopia, which many people associate with the horrific images seen on television during the severe drought in 1985, is often hailed as the “cradle of humanity.” Ethiopia is also the only country in Africa that was never colonized by the Europeans.
Another misconception some Americans have about Africa is that it is just one big country. With its 54 countries, Africa has more countries than any other continent in the world.
Babatunde Ola, 21, electrical engineering major at CSUN, was born in Nigeria and came to the U.S. with his family when he was 11 years old. He said the only television programs about Africa focus on the wildlife and people living simple lifestyles out in remote villages.
“Don’t only look at the village aspect (of living) and use that to classify Africa,” Ola said. “Go to the cities and see how we live there.”
Before Ola came to the United States, he had his own television-influenced preconceptions on what he expected to find.
Ola said he thought there would be skyscrapers everywhere and that he would get to see celebrities all the time.
In Nigeria, Ola lived with his parents and four other siblings in a large five-bedroom house and had a comfortable lifestyle. At the age of six he was sent to boarding school with his brothers and sisters until he turned 9. One of Ola’s older brothers was the most enthusiastic about coming to the United States. Tragically that brother died in a drowning accident the same year Ola’s family moved here in 1994. Ola had mixed feelings about the move.
“A lot of people that I see from Third-World countries love to come over here, but America is not really all that when you think about it,” Ola said. “I wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t like America.’ I think it’s pretty cool, but I wasn’t like, ‘Wow, I’m going to America’.”
Ola said a common view of the United States in Nigeria is that you can come here and get rich easily.
Ola has learned firsthand that is not the case.
“My view has changed because my family’s class kind of dropped,” Ola said.
Boateng said some people come to the United States thinking there is money everywhere and all you have to do is come here and grab it.
“That’s not the case, you have to work hard,” Boateng said.
For some people, the mere opportunity of having a shot at success is enough to make them leave their home countries for the United States.
Boateng moved to the United States in the late eighties with his parents and older brother for just that reason.
“To have the opportunity to be successful is what attracted (my parents) to America, just the opportunity,” Boateng said.
Today both of his parents are registered nurses.
Opportunities exist in Africa as well, with business flourishing in many countries. “The potential is endless,” Boateng said. “There are a lot of opportunities to be successful there.”
Boateng said many black Americans who visit Ghana end up buying property there. Not so much for business purposes, but because they love the connection they develop with the people.
“One compliment Ghana always receives is the warmness of the people, the respect that they give you and how friendly they are,” Boateng said.
“When you are in Africa you can just knock on anybody’s door without calling before and say, ‘Hey, I’m coming over,’ and they will easily welcome you with cooking and the whole nine yards,” Ola said. “Not to say that Americans are not welcoming, but it depends on your relationship with them.”
Ola said that with Nigerians it doesn’t matter if you are family or not, they always greet people with open arms.
CSUN student Thaddeus Mensa is a 47-year-old accounting major who came to the United States in 1997 from Ghana. Mensa has been to several other African countries such as Libya, Nigeria, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire and said “even the poorest Africans will make you feel like a prince.”
Mensa said they do this because the African mentality is to treat people the way you want to be treated, and that is why whenever you are in trouble there are people there to help you.
Boateng and Ola encourage people to visit Africa.
“You need to get firsthand experience and see what’s going on for yourself,” Boateng said. “You can contact the members of the African Student Organization, whatever country you want to go to, we can tell you the great spots and direct you to different places.”
“Experience is the best teacher,” Ola said. “If you have the proper funds, actually go there yourself and witness the culture. If you can’t (afford) that, then try to make a friend out of someone with an African background and actually go to their house and witness their lifestyle and culture.”
Ola plans to stay in the United States after he graduates, but he will always make time for Africa.
“I’m definitely going to have a house in Nigeria and visit as often as I can,” Ola said.
Boateng said he is going back to Ghana as soon as he finishes college to spend four months there.
“My goal is to give kids an opportunity to succeed in life,” Boateng said. “Everybody wants their kids to go to school, (but) the opportunities are not always there.”
Johan Mengesha can be reached at email@example.com.