Reflections: Sometimes I feel like .... I need Africa more than it needs me
Seven months ago in JFK airport on our way to Accra, we met a church group from Florida, mostly Caucasian youth, also on their way to Accra to spend a week painting a school. What caught my attention was the t-shirts they were wearing, which had the following phrase printed on a map of Africa: 'Sometimes I feel like I need Africa ...more than it needs me’. The words on their shirts upset me but I wondered if I was being too sensitive. I brooded over it for what seemed like too long, then turned to Shawnee to ask what she thought. She agreed that the words didn’t sit right with her either.
When I asked what their shirts meant, a middle aged woman’s response was: ‘It meant God will use my time in Africa to teach me something and I feel like I need the experience more than they do’. One woman explained that she had been to Ghana before, she couldn't imagine living in the conditions she saw there, and the experience changed her life. I responded that she did not need to travel to Africa for that experience as there are people living in worse or similar conditions here in North America.
I told them their shirts were offensive. It sounded like what a mother would say to her child. And to me, an African woman, the phrase seemed condescending. Even more because we were sitting amongst highly educated Africans and Ghanaians, on our way to Accra, one of Africa's most sophisticated cities and, in my opinion, to have had that phrase written on their shirts was rude. She cut me off by saying that I had chosen to interpret it in that way. I got even more upset and told her she wouldn’t have the luxury of explaining what it means to everybody she’d meet before they’d interpret it in a way that's different from their intent. I was very irritated and ended the conversation abruptly. By the time we were boarding, I noticed that some people in the group had worn their shirts inside out, others had taken theirs off, but majority of them still had theirs on.
After living in Ghana for 7 months, I have had several conversations about Africa, most of them difficult. Being African and working in development as an expatriate, I have had a unique opportunity to discuss Africa, in the most unbiased way, if that is even possible. Even with Africans, some have bought into the perception of Africa as that poverty stricken continent and places it as a continent that needs help. Today, on my way back to Canada from Ghana through JFK, I am reflecting back on that experience. Now that I have more clarity and I am committed to change the perception of Africa and show the other sides to her, I recognize my responsibility to be tactful and to keep the conversation pleasant.
There are only few opportunities that present themselves where I can influence the picture people have in their heads. And I have learnt through questioning ideas, disagreeing with each other, and listening, I can do this. We can build consensus and together we can paint a new, truer picture. I just hope that the group I had the opportunity of meeting on our way to Accra, got my message that this phrase portrayed their perception of their relationship with Africa. More importantly, I wonder if I was able to get them to think deeply about their actions and did not just leave them feeling upset and defeated.
Given another opportunity, I certainly would not have made the conversation only about how inappropriate I thought their shirts were. I would have commended them for going to Africa to paint a school. And then, encouraged them to travel through Ghana, explore the Greater Accra Region, go to a disco club there and enjoy some good African music and food. Learn a little bit about African history on tours of the slave castles in Cape coast or Elmina, while vacationing on the gorgeous beaches along the coast. Or better still, go shopping in West Africa's biggest market in Kumasi to experience the African style of bargaining, to enjoy the colors in Africa, the fashion, the African fabrics and beads. This way they can experience a different Africa, a reality that may also change their lives by challenging their perception of this beautiful place.
- Christi-Anna Durodola