As part of a new series to dispel stereotypes, we speak to non-African students about hitherto impressions of the African continent and what they really experience when they visit Africa. This post captures Alex Koran’s visit to Tanzania in the summer of 2017.
Alex is a globalization development geography major who focuses on Africa. She had decided that experiencing what she was studying in the classroom first hand was an important decision for her global career. This drove her to pursue a study abroad opportunity that took her to Tanzania. She chose Tanzania because she has more interest in East Africa as compared to the other regions of Africa. Her two advisors work in Kenya and Tanzania respectively. Though Alex says they had no direct influence over her choice, it is interesting noting that Alex also studied Swahili prior to her trip to Tanzania.
We begin our conversation with Alex by addressing the initial cultural shocks she experienced. She promptly told us about how impressed she was about the drive, innovation, and creativity the people in her Tanzanian community possessed. She notes that unlike what is presented in the media about people in Africa waiting on the West to come fix their problems, that assertion was far from being the reality on the ground. The narrative was very different from the depictions of barrenness and dire need in the news.
Below are some stereotypes of Africa Alex had before leaving the United States ;
- A stereotype that kept occurring was ‘orphans’. When people would see my photos with the children I was teaching, they would say “it’s so amazing of you to take time and help orphans”. However, the children I was working with were not orphans, every single one of them had at least one parent. Not only did these children have families, but they also had uniforms and their own notebooks. I could not believe how many people had just assumed the children were orphans because I was in an African country. I was upset that people were using this term so I immediately would correct them. I felt defensive because people calling the children I was working with orphans, also felt like they were indirectly calling them other things too, and belittling their abilities.
Another common misperception I ran into was one of language. Everyone thought that people in Africa couldn’t speak any English and that was why I had to teach. In reality, the people I worked with including every teacher at the nursery school was fluent in English. Of course, I cannot generalize for the entire African continent and say that every single person knows English, that’s not true. But a lot of people know English, it is a critical skill for people to gain more opportunities.
A misperception that I had going into this trip was that I thought the people I was going to meet would be sad. I thought this because they were in a situation where they needed help. However, the people I met were the happiest people I have ever seen. They were also extremely innovative. I was in shock at how much I learned from them. How much they had to offer me. I thought I would be the one teaching them things and I was very wrong about that.
When I returned home, after 5 weeks in Tanzania, I didn’t leave my bed for 5 days. Between missing Tanzania, reverse culture shock and jet lag I didn’t want to do anything. I felt like no one could relate to me except the people I’d spent my time with in Tanzania. I was sad knowing that life there would continue on without me being a part of it. And when I had finally started talking to people, they asked me “how was Africa” and I would say it was amazing, ready to go on and on about my experiences. But most people didn’t want to know anything else. They were satisfied with “it was amazing”. If someone did want to talk further they would only want to hear about my safari. This made me frustrated as I knew Tanzania/Africa was more than just a place to go on safaris.
Eventually I started to become really frustrated and I just stopped talking to people about my experience. I didn’t want to share about my time in Tanzania because I felt like no one genuinely cared. But my friends told me no, that I have to share so I can break down the barriers that have been portrayed to the people in the media. From then on I let people ask me questions and I started to give them real answers or maybe tell them something they would have never known. It’s opportunities like this that I enjoy, where I can really speak about the true Africa and not just say what people want to hear.
I’ve been trying ever since I returned to the states, to find a single sentence that could describe my trip when people ask “how was Africa”. A sentence that could capture all of my wonderful time spent there. But now, almost 4 months later I still cannot come up with anything. And even to do so would be an insult to Tanzania, to the people I met, to the school I worked in, to generalize all of them like that. The time I spent in Tanzania could never be diminished into a single sentence. In all honestly, I could go on for the rest of my life trying to explain what I experienced there.