- Tsion Berhanu
This Is My Africa
I am an Ethiopian. Born and raised in the capital city of Addisababa. I grew up in one of those boring, middle class, suburban towns in the city. You know the kind; it's the kind of town they make American TV shows about. Like Riverdale or Mystic falls. If you're a series buff like me you know what I'm talking about. It's the kind of town where everybody knows each other and has that one special place where everybody hangs out all the time like pop's Chock’ lit Shoppe or Mystic Grill. The only difference between my town and those towns, is that one day out of nowhere red headed teenage twins didn't go missing and two ridiculously hot vampire brothers didn't show up and like the same girl. But to be fair we are black, so the red headed twins thing was out of the question. And as for the hot vampires, well some of us are still patiently waiting. The point is, nothing drastic or interesting ever happened here. The way I looked at my town and my city and even my country as a whole was as though it was one of those towns minus the drama. Sure, some places are dirty, some places don't have as impressive infrastructures, some places are richer than others and some need a lot of help and improvement but most places are very much like one of those towns. The people and their lifestyles are very similar.
Parents would go to their boring old jobs, kids would go to their dramatic school lives, then both would come back home, have dinner, and go to sleep. Just like the first few scenes in the shows before everything drastically changes. And then it would be summer break, or to put it in correct terms winter break because in Ethiopia those two and a half months every kid impatiently waits for are actually during our rainy season. My family and I would go on these two weeks or one week vacations to another city or region in Ethiopia. These cities look a little bit different, sometimes even better than Addis and the people sound a bit different as well and sometimes not even the same at all. They had their own languages, the food was a little bit spicier and their clothes would be a lot different yet very beautiful in their own ways. It was an amazing experience and at the end of the day or week, I would leave that city thinking that we are the same people, with the same live styles, but with different clothes and different languages and sometimes cultures.
I think from everything you've read so far you would've guessed that I'm pretty much western influenced. Amharic was my mother tongue thought to me by my community, but I learned English myself by watching American movies. And I didn't follow any Ethiopian or African media. I would often go to my room when my parents opened their 8 pm news, or as we Ethiopians call it, Zena. I have never been to another country, not even neighboring ones, so the only access I had to the world was through the western media. And consequently, the way that I viewed African countries and the continent as a whole was through the eyes of white people that didn’t live here. So in my head, Africa was a dusty, dirty, poor, non industrialized village with people of only one kind of skin tone, the really dark skin tone that is, and kids that have little or no clothes on, that are all suffering of malnutrition and all have flies and dirt covering their face and bodies. And somehow through all of that stereotype that formed in my head, Ethiopia managed to be the only country that wasn't like the rest of "Africa". Ethiopia was still that boring middle class town with normal working class people while the rest of Africa was a swamp with people that only relied on white volunteer workers to survive. Ethiopia and the rest of Africa managed to stay that way in my head because I had experienced Ethiopia for myself, I had seen it through my own eyes and I had only seen Africa through my TV screen.
And then I saw a movie about a bunch of pregnant ladies. I'm sure you've heard of it, it's got Anna Kendrick, Cameron Diaz, Elizabeth Banks, and Jennifer Lopez. It's called “What to Expect When You're Expecting”. To be fair the movie is pretty nice and honestly, I've watched it probably a few more times than any person should, but this is not a review so I'm not getting into the details. What I am getting into, however, is this scene in the movie where holly, the character played by Jennifer Lopez and her husband go to Ethiopia to adopt a child. It was a really emotional scene as the child is handed to Holly and immediately after, leans on her chest. Honestly, I might’ve shed a few tears here and there in that part.
During that scene there is vow ceremony conducted by a priest and the priest is speaking in Amharic which is the national language of Ethiopia and he is wearing the actual traditional clothes that Ethiopian priests wear, there were even people around him that were holding the beautiful traditional umbrellas for him as that is the custom of the church. Everything up to that point was beautiful. However, as the camera zooms out and I saw the place they were shooting in, I remember thinking: wait a minute this doesn't look like my Ethiopia. The land around the church looked dusty and deserted and quite frankly like the stereotypical "Africa", but with a lot less exaggerations as there weren't any malnutrition-ed kids going around with no clothes on and all the natives didn’t have the same dark skin tone but rather diverse ones. But even though it wasn’t exaggerated to that extent, it was wrong. The reason being that most churches in Ethiopia were built during ancient times where there were more trees and less urbanization and they are known for keeping their lands and natural resources conserved, so even though I can’t say that all churches in Ethiopia are green, I can say that most of them are. So for that scene, when they could’ve chosen one of the many beautiful green churches in Ethiopia, they chose to pick a deserted one that reinforces the usual African stereotype. It also had some culturally incorrect aspects as the translator and the girls holding the babies were dressed in something that was supposed to represent Ethiopian dressing culture but was actually not from any one of Ethiopia's 83 diverse ethnic groups. This is to say that they could've chosen from 83 traditional Ethiopian outfits but ended up choosing something that was typically African even though it wasn’t part of Ethiopian culture, reinforcing that one African stereotype.
By the end of that scene I was left wondering that if I had never been to Ethiopia, that place in the scene was the only way that I would associate Ethiopia to look like. And those dresses are the only looks that I would remember Africans by. This is how I realized that everything I believed about Africa was incorrect. It wasn't that Africa was completely poor and Ethiopia was a little bit better, it was that Africa including Ethiopia was only portrayed in that way. The only reason that I thought of Ethiopia being any different is because I had the chance to know it for myself. As for the rest of the world, they will keep on knowing that one side of Africa with the same backward traditions and poor, dusty, non industrialized villages when the real Africa is actually a place with over 2000 ethnic communities and languages and types of clothes, a place which is poor and needs volunteer workers but is also home to some of the fastest growing countries and economies in the world, a place with nomadic, non technological tribes as well as countries that have faster internet and better banking systems than some European and Asian countries, a place that is home to the largest desert in the world but is also home to the world's second largest equatorial rain forest, a place with malnutrition-ed and dehydrated kids as well as morbidly obese ones such as myself, a place with people of really dark skin tones as well as with people that would normally be considered middle eastern or white.
These are the realities of Africa, these are our diverse lives and stories, these are our heterogeneous identities, yet only one of these realities is shown to the world. Only one of our 2000 faces are known. What To Expect When You’re Expecting isn’t the only movie that has done this to African countries and cultures, there have been and will be many more. And it’s not even only movies that have enforced negative stereotypes upon us either. It’s magazine articles, it’s news broadcasts, it’s music videos, it’s photography shows and all other platforms that have international coverage. And the way to combat this image is to use those same platforms that have diminished us all into one single look and dominate them with all of our beautifully diverse ones. The world's Africa and ours are very different. They don't know Africa like we do. They don’t know the honest diverse versions of our continent. So it's time for us to tell them. It's time to reclaim our wrongfully stigmatized identities. It's time to wash over our negative stereotypes. It’s time to stop them from choosing that one version of us that they want to know. It's time to show all of our faces, beautiful or ugly. It’s time to stop the world at its course and say this is the Real Africa. This is My Africa and you’re going to respect it.
Photo by Daggy J Ali on Unsplash