From outward appearance, there is no reason why I should be an African studies major. I grew up in Denver, Colo., in a middle-class suburb where only three kids out a class of 500 were not some variety of white. I had never been to Africa before coming to Yale, nor had anyone in my family. So, it’s high time that I ask myself the question that everyone has been asking me for years: Why Africa?
For me, the answer is simple, as I hope it will be for you this week, during Africa Week at Yale. Africa is interesting, and it’s important. But even more, we all think about Africa unconsciously anyway. We walk by anti-genocide rallies in Beinecke; we read about global poverty in our political science classes; and AIDS, malaria and TB are words on the tips of our tongues. We should start thinking like we mean it.
Africa is more than just a discipline. It may seem obvious to say that Africa is a place — with people, governments, cultures, languages and landscapes — but all of this too often gets lost in the discussion. Africa is backwards, underdeveloped, impoverished, disease-ridden and desperately in need of help. Or that is how the story goes.
But let’s think about why. For the last half-century, since the end of colonization, African governments have been playing an impossible game of pick up the pieces, get developed, eliminate poverty and get your government together. It is the impossible task, and would have been even before Cold War-era dictators like Mobutu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire). Such a task would have challenged any nation with years of democratic institutions, let alone nations that were barely on their feet after a century of colonization.
None of this is to excuse the present situation. It is to eliminate the excuse of looking at “Africa,” and the many causes attached to it, out of context. So to think about AIDS without thinking about migration, or to think about corruption without thinking about debt, is to miss the point. If you need more convincing, a few examples should pique your curiosity.
Let’s talk economics, and how involved the United States already is in the region. As the United States tries to wean itself from any one source of oil, it is moving fast and furiously into Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa, to develop resources. Remember your mother’s wedding diamond? Chances are it came from Angola or Sierra Leone, two of the largest diamond exporters in the world.
Likewise, we have enormous military investments in Africa already, whether we are aware of them or not. American military bases lace the Sahel desert — they are scattered across western and northern Africa. We have strong intelligence relationships with the Khartoum government in Sudan and the Algerian government, to name only a few. And the United States pays for more than a quarter of the U.N. peacekeeping budget of $5 billion annually. The two largest missions of U.N. peacekeepers are in two African countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, with nearly 20,000 troops each. If we send peacekeepers to Darfur, the numbers in Africa will grow.
And all the students at Yale who are taking Chinese? This week, Beijing welcomes representatives from almost every African country, including 40 heads of state, in a China-Africa Forum expected to yield business deals left and right. Already, signs of China dot the African landscape: a football field in Senegal, a presidential palace in Togo and Chinese medical boutiques (run by Chinese immigrants) in every town big enough for a name. Africa and China are in the game of development together, with Africa looking east for examples and China looking west for markets.
Beyond all that, there is a reason to think about Africa on top of the material consequences that it may have on our lives. That is, because you care about things beyond yourself. Why should this illusive “Africa” be any different? If you care about people, about culture, about economies or about government, Africa is already within reach.
Genocide, female genital mutilation, polio, AIDS, malaria, civil war, peacekeepers, forced labor, child soldiers — what’s the next word in this series? If you said “Africa,” you’re not wrong. But you’re not right either. “Africa” — and your understanding of it — can’t stand without context. It’s worth more.
Elizabeth Dickinson is a senior in Pierson College.