Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Talk About Africa Without Sounding Like a Jerk

“Oh, you’re moving to Africa?,” mused the hairdresser, pronouncing it ‘Eh-free-ka,’ “Where are you going to live?” she snapped her gum thoughtfully, comb dangling mid-weave, “I mean, are you, like, gonna hafta live in a mud hut?”

Talkin' 'Bout Africa
I peered at her from under my tinfoil, keeping my tone as even as I could. “Um…I’m going to live in a house.” I was embarrassed by my obvious response. She seemed like a nice lady, here in the middle of the upper Midwest, making conversation on a normal, sunny Saturday morning. Sure, it was a silly question, but I could see she was just making conversation. I didn’t feel like cracking her mind wide open and pouring in my panoply of African facts.

I just wanted a touch up on my highlights.

“Oh.” The hairdresser blushed, realizing her underlying assumption. The conversation dropped.

The ignorance of Americans in regards to all things Africa is well documented. Ms. Hairdresser didn’t know a thing about Africa because, quite simply, she doesn’t need to. I’m not excusing wanton ignorance, but if you have no context or previous thought to a subject, it’s easy to say something that sounds ignorant, especially when just making small talk.

I’d love for this to change. I’d love for Africa to matter to Americans the way it does at the end the John Cusack disaster movie, 2012, where they land their arc in South Africa after the entire world is flooded. I’d love for our schools to teach the richness of African geography, history, art and literature. I’d love for Americans to stop being unnecessarily afraid of what G.W Bush called it “a nation that suffers incredible diseases.” (pssst – 54 nations actually and not that many diseases).

They only way this is going to change is if we find a way to share personal experiences, spark interest, and make Africa come alive for Americans outside of news stories and savior complexes. Sometimes there are openings for this, sometimes there are not. I don’t want to be that smug party bore who stands on her soapbox, lecturing about how the Tuaregs are a Berber people in Mali and not some Volkswagon SUV (because really, it’s a cool name regardless). But, I do want to help people stop sound so ridiculously ignorant.

The way that I see it is that talking about Africa has two parts. It starts with curiosity, and involves right-sized information.

On curiosity, I find it a little like fishing. You cannot capture the imagination of someone that isn’t interested in the first place; you must wait for them to approach the boat. So, that’s a big NO starting off a story by hiking up your khaki pants, throwing your scarf around your shoulder, adjusting your pith helmet and puffing “Well when I was in Africa…”

If it’s not central to the topic at hand, the idea of being in Africa can sometimes be distracting and off-putting. It looms large in the American psyche as a horrific Terra Incognito, and therefore, why would anyone go there? No matter if you were there by your shoestrings, it sounds exotic. Proceed with caution, warm up the audience first, and use this phrase sparingly (and for goddsakes, put the pith helmet away...)

On the other hand, if people are interested, right-sizing the information for the moment is crucial.  Small talk with my hairdresser? Not the place to launch into a mud hut discussion, but I might mention that hairdressing is a wildly popular career. I once saw a barbershop called Tupac’s Alive! and the Princess Diana Everything Is in Order Salon.

More open ended questions with close friends, I might press the envelope. Before moving here, I invited a bunch of friends at a dinner party to come visit. One of them told me that she was interested, but probably wouldn’t come. “Why’s that?” I probed. “Oh, well,” she flustered, “You know, diseases and all that.” Then she paused, “Actually, I don’t really know. It’s just a feeling I have, from all the things I’ve heard.”

That. That right there is an invitation.

The African continent needs to be removed from the Pity Pedestal, and normalized in American conversation. The only way for this to happen is to share stories and experiences, become that person who has travelled there and lived, and isn’t a bore to talk to about it. Once, a guy I’d met online said to me: “You’re much more party fun than I thought you’d be. I kind of thought you’d stand around talking about AIDs orphans all evening.”

That’s one of my favorite compliments (perhaps to the detriment of AIDs orphans).

Maybe after all this, you think I still sound like a jerk. That’s ok. Sharing news and information is not about being smug, or preachy, or keeping information from people because they are too ignorant to understand. It’s about being authentic, right-sized, and approachable. It’s about sharing something you love. It’s about changing perceptions in others that were once - blessedly, luckily - changed in yourself.

1 comment:

Jennifer Hyman said...

Right on! Great post.