Africa could fit all of the US, China, and Europe inside its borders. Yet on many maps, Africa is smaller than America.
(Thanks for the image, Jacquelyn!)
In history, it’s the winners who write the past. In mapmaking, it is the mapmaker that chooses the size and name of each place. What else is misrepresented? When Africa was shrunk down on the map, what else was erased?
There are also at least 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. Some of them include clicks and whistles, and several are sign languages. Nigeria has 250 languages, one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world. Swahili, the most common language in Tanzania and the one I have been studying for two semesters, is spoken by millions of people, and its influence is spreading. It has become the lingua franca of much of East Africa. One of the reasons I love Swahili so much is because of its inherent flexibility and diversity. It is a Bantu language, but about 35% of its words are Arabic. English, French, German, and Portuguese words have been adopted into the vocabulary over centuries of contact with foreign traders, colonists, explorers, and tourists.
The natural environment, cultural traditions, and histories of Africa’s nations are similarly expansive and diverse. I know much less than I’d like about these aspects of the “Dark Continent,” which now gleams so bright in my future (and past). We hear and see so little of this huge continent, the cradle of humanity. We speak of it as a homogeneous place of poverty, war, and disease. Or the far-off birthplace of the animals in our zoos. I include myself in the numbers of the mis- or under-informed. I’m sure at one point I referred to Africa as a country rather than a continent by mistake. But now I’m determined to give Africa the respect and interest it deserves.
I think most people assume I am going to Tanzania on a humanitarian mission. I am. Something fundamental in me yearns to bring whatever relief I can to those who suffer. But more than that is my equally inherent urge to be relieved. And by that, I mean I want to be relieved from my “privileged” American existence. I want to be refreshed, enchanted, awed, charmed, and humbled by the strangeness of a different place, the unflinching optimism of a different people. I want to learn new ways of being, feeling, and doing. My first experience in Tanzania taught me that for all I thought I had to give and all the knowledge I wanted to impart, I had exponentially more to learn from others and I would be offered more than I could ever give in return.
It is not charity and much more than gratitude that takes me back. It is love.