By Daniel Patrick Welch
It is well known that American kids traditionally score well below their foreign counterparts in geographic knowledge, and Africa seems to be perennially at the bottom of what they know. The reasons for this shameful lack of interest or insight are many and varied, especially given the US’ current position in the world, but a few problem areas are easy to explain.
It is unlikely in any society, for example, that kids would outpace their teachers, parents, reporters, history texts and authority figures in exploring and accurately obtaining knowledge about the rest of the world. And our kids face an uphill battle through a fog of distortion, ignorance, smugness, disinterest and flat out racism. Bad press, yellow press, sloppy and ignorant press—these are all as old as the hills. But there is often a palpable resistance, a sort of willful ignorance—almost a vehemence—against knowing too much about the continent in whose exploitation we share such a disturbing complicity.
From our parents’ generation, there is an understandable, if a bit ugly, fuzziness about The Dark Continent. There were no "countries" in Africa, after all—just chunks of colonial possessions on puzzle maps laid out by European imperial powers: French West Africa, the Belgian Congo. Lines were often drawn across traditional kingdoms, homelands and territories of long-established societies; the point was effective administration and exploitation of vast natural resources, not stability or respect for the people living there. The fact that these artificial divisions were creating unavoidable tensions that would haunt the continent for generations was of no concern whatsoever, and the resulting violence is perversely used as "evidence" that such people cannot govern themselves.
Popular culture sustained and deepened the official myths, if African managed to register at all on the cultural radar. "I'd be just as sassy as Haile Salassie" was a throwaway rhyme in a popular song. Much later, Bob Marley balanced the scale by setting to music the salient parts of Salasse’s challenge to the League of Nations: "Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war." Did Marley know about the song "Shantytown?" Who knows? But sometimes culture surpasses history in setting the record straight.
At the time of independence, press reports were routinely and unabashedly pro-imperialist—-that is, if they had any clue what was going on at all. Jonathan Kwitny, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, recalls this phenomenon in his book Endless Enemies. He remembers the repeating phrase "rioting Congolese" from his youth, and then goes on to document that footage in almost every case shows crowds of Africans running from Belgian troops.
The sad thing is how little times seem to have changed. We are still shockingly ignorant about the world in which we play so dominant a role, and our children's future may rest on ending the cycle. Teachers, schools, reporters and opinion shapers are still too often in the grip of the colonial mindset. Some even still use the embarrassingly outdated lexicon of imperialism: tribe, clan, dialect, and the works, all constructs of deliberate or dismissive attempts to delegitimize conquered peoples. Even the myth of journalistic "balance" should require the abandonment of such sloppiness-—or invoke standards that are patently absurd. Are the Serbs a "tribe?" The Czechs? Even Liechtenstein and Monaco get the respect that seems to elude Africans. No one refers to the Windsors as a "clan." Hell, even a few Superbowl wins in a row qualifies as a "Dynasty." And the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italians don’t speak "dialects," even though their languages are far more interrelated than the hundreds of complex and varied African languages.
In arranging a recent visit to our school by the Queen of Buganda [see http://www.greenhouseschool.org], we were shocked to find one reporter actually question the fact of the monarchy, a bit of retro cavethink I thought went out at the turn of the century. No one uses qualifiers when writing that Lucy was female, or that dinosaurs once roamed the earth. But when it concerns Africa, suddenly there's no such thing as carbon dating or forensic anthropology, oral history is not "real" history, and written western history is sacrosanct (like, say, the ride of Paul Revere, or Betsy Ross' flag?) Even when the accurate references are presented to reporters, some will often simply ignore the press release and revert to type, like playing old tapes in one’s head.
Americans are too often insulated and isolated from the rest of the world. But an ostrich only feels comfortable, blissfully and dangerously unaware of the reality he is hiding from. The way we think, feel, talk and teach about our past sets the tone for our present and our future. If we keep making the same mistakes in a sort of Groundhog Day time bounce, we are depriving our children of the very tools they will need to join the greater community as citizens of the world.