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Africa is not a country

Two African women in traditional clothing standing on the beach.

I was 10 when I first set foot on a plane, a plane that would take me to my new life in Belgium. 

My name is Ella, I was born in Togo, raised in Benin, moulded in Belgium and currently live in London. Of all the four places I mentioned in my previous sentence, there are probably only two that most people reading this will be able to pinpoint on a map. If you are one of those people, don’t worry you are far from the only one. 

As a 10 year old little Black girl moving to a white western country, I all of a sudden became visible in ways I never knew possible. Being the only or one of the few Black kids at the schools and boarding schools I attended, I was met with many inquisitive and probing questions from fellow classmates and teachers alike. There were the usual questions about my hair, my skin colour, my accent as I was starting to familiarise myself with the Dutch/Flemish language.

But the hardest for me to navigate were the ones that were posed to me as if I were the representative of an entire continent– Africa.

A young girl standing in front of a tree.

Image source:Ella Paradis: Me at 10 ready for school

When asked where I was from, I’d reply Togo and Benin (as those were the only two places I’d ever known up to that point) This answer would quickly be met with

“Oh Africa!”

“Did you hunt lions in the wild?”

“Were you living in a mudhut?”

“Did you have to walk for miles everyday to get water?” 

“How did you get here? Did you have to walk all the way from there? That must have been hard”

No matter how much I described my very spoiled city girl upbringing in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin, I was met with stares of disbelief. For some reason, the image my interlocutor had in their mind of “Africa” didn’t seem to match with my lived reality. They wouldn’t believe me when I said I’d never seen a lion in my life and that the first time I did, was in captivity at the Antwerp Zoo. I’d never had to walk to collect water, because I’d just turn the tap open and there it was, flowing out. I didn’t live in a mudhut, but in a 3 story house with lots of space to run around and play hide and seek with my siblings. We had a driver that would take us to school and back, and moving to Belgium actually meant a decrease in the level of comforts I was used to back home. 

Over the years, throughout my travels, I would and still continue to get similar remarks and questions. Upon mentioning that I am born in Togo or grew up in Benin, more often than not the following reply would be something along the lines of 

“Ah Africa, I went to (fill in any other African country not remotely close to my countries) once, it was wonderful. 

If in the other direction my conversation partner had said

“I’m from France” and I replied, 

“Ah Europe, I’ve been to Prague once, it was wonderful”, I’d rightfully be met with looks of bewilderment. But why is it that when it comes to the African continent, that line of thinking is so widely accepted?

Truth is, we know why…

A woman and a child sitting on the beach.

Image source:Ella Paradis: With my aunt at the beach in 1992

The first 10 years of my life spent in Togo and Benin are my most cherished years alive on this earth so far. I was lucky and privileged to have a very sheltered upbringing. I was the first born of my generation followed by a half dozen younger siblings and cousins. As long as we kept our grades up, we were afforded anything our little hearts desired. We lived in a multi-generational family home and were brought up by a community of women, mothers and aunts helmed by my matriarch grandmother. 

I was happy and never left wanting. Sure, I didn’t live in a utopia and I knew bad stuff happened all over but nothing that looked any different from the life dynamics of my European counterparts at the time. 

Once in Belgium and in the West however, I was bombarded with a one-sided, trauma-ridden image of “Africa” that I could not recognise. Time and time again, the image the West loved to sell was one of poverty, disease, war, famine: one built to inspire pity towards the poor African children dying of hunger. Over time, when talking about Togo and Benin, I’d quickly follow it with “ah you’ve probably never heard of them because nothing bad enough happens there to report on the news here. No news is good news right?” My sarcastic tone was rarely picked up on and just met with laughter and agreeing nods. 

As time went on and I travelled around more and more, I started to despise having conversations about my countries of origin. I had enough of the conversation always leading into generalisations of an entire continent. I cultivated this weird shame when asked questions about other African countries I had absolutely no knowledge of, because it made me seem uncultured to not know every and anything about “the continent I obviously know like the back of my hand because I am black”. Ugh… 

A photo of a group of children posing for a picture.

Image source:Ella Paradis: Growing up with all by younger siblings

I took more and more offence at the representation of Africa as time went on, and at the incessant need of mainstream western media to paint all African nations with the same lazy brush. As a travel agent, I had to swallow my anger daily when selling African travel packages that claimed to offer an authentic “wild African experience” which were of course limited to the safari and gorilla trekking on one hand and bush encounters on the other hand, wrapped in stays in accommodation with “colonial charm”. I must have gagged so many times uttering those words, because to me and to most of the colonised world there was and still is nothing charming about colonialism.

What of the beaches of Dakar and their world-class surf culture? What of the street foods of Abidjan, the nightlife in Accra and Lagos, the unique architecture in Ethiopia, the wonders of the Namib desert meeting the Atlantic Ocean in Angola and Namibia, the art scenes in Rwanda and Zambia? 

A woman standing in front of a green door.

Image source:Ella Paradis: At the mosque in Porto-Novo – 2021

If mainstream media wasn’t going to step up and provide more nuanced representation of Africa and its 54 diverse nations, then I realised I’d have to take it onto myself and join the growing voices of Africans and the diaspora taking charge of our own narrative to shine a light on ALL our stories. From this never ending frustration, not only the The Black Explorer was born, but also our latest issue, the first part of a trilogy that we aptly titled Africa is NOT a country!

We decided to do what western media still fails to do and provide accounts of Black African travel and exploration that celebrates the true diversity of our continent. By giving a voice to writers, travellers, explorers and creators from each of the 54 African countries and their diaspora, we are reshaping the narrative one story and one country at a time.

We don’t shy away from the less glamorous subjects and definitely are not taking a rose-tinted glasses approach. But we are steering very clear away from trauma porn narratives. We are choosing to embrace Black joy, Black travel, Black exploration, Black African expression in all its varieties. 

Africa is not a country – Part 1 takes us to a kitchen in Uganda, a Gambian adventure, a cruise on the nile in Egypt, a community skate park in Ghana, an art fair in Lusaka, a roadtrip in Namibia and many more as told by us, with love care and appreciation for the land that raised us. 

So next time you want to refer to Africa as a monolith, take a step back and question why you are defaulting to generalisations. Then, I hope you’ll have the decency and grace to name the individual place you are referring to. It really does matter.

Ella is the founder and editor of the Black Explorer Magazine. You can buy a copy and become a member, here.