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Misconceptions About Africans
Not everyone’s poor and, yes, we wear shoes
Aissata Kebe
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“Do you raise lions and monkeys as pets in Africa?”

When a boy in my 11th grade English class asked me that question, I was so angry and surprised that I didn’t know what to say. Why would someone ask such a silly question about my beautiful continent? I told him that I’d only seen lions and monkeys when I went to the zoo with my family.

I’m from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a country in West Africa. The only animals we raise as pets are cats and dogs. Some people like to raise chickens, and in the smaller villages, some raise cows and sheep. Wild lions are rare in West Africa, and monkeys only live in the wild.

It hurts me to know that so many people are clueless about Africa. And I am especially disappointed that my classmates—most of whom are also immigrants from other countries—have ignorant ideas about the continent too. Africa isn’t just made up of wild animals and poor and sick people you see on TV. It’s a beautiful place comprised of more than 50 countries where people speak hundreds of different languages.

One Big Jungle?

Luckily, I wasn’t the only African student in my class at Brooklyn International High School. My friend Tidiane is from Guinea in West Africa, and he told me not to bother answering stupid questions. He said sometimes he answers by making up scary things about Africa, saying it’s all one big jungle with elephants and many dangerous animals.

But it’s not just high school students who ask ignorant questions. My cousin Bachire, who came to the United States to attend college, also gets asked ridiculous questions. His classmates asked him how he got here, maybe thinking that we don’t have airplanes in Africa.

My cousin told them that he swam the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S., and he said they believed him. Even the best swimmer in the world can’t swim from Africa to the United States. The flight from Senegal takes eight hours!

One day at my sister’s braiding shop in Brooklyn, one of her clients asked us if we wear shoes in Africa.

Of course we do! In Dakar, people wear Nikes, Jordans, and other brand names. It irritates me that people think that Africa is still like it was 200 years ago. Everything you can buy here in the U.S., we can buy in Senegal.

Skyscrapers in Senegal

Still, when people have questions about Africa, I think it’s better to answer them truthfully—
or at least not make up ridiculous answers. That doesn’t help educate them about the place I love.

image by YC-Art Dept

One day, I brought pictures of Dakar to school. I told my classmates that more than two million people live there. Apartments and office buildings are tall and modern and every house in my neighborhood is two stories with front or back yards. There are cafés and clubs that pick up once the sun goes down.

Because my family is relatively well off, we’ve been able to help other people. When I was about 8, a lady who neither of my parents knew would come to our house and we gave her food, water, and clothes to wear. Senegal’s nickname is “Reewu Teranga,” which means “generous country” in my language, Wolof.

After many years, she became like family and started calling my mom her sister-in-law. Calling someone your in-law or your sister or brother, even though they aren’t, is common in Senegal.
We eat sitting on mats on the floor with our legs crossed, eating with our hands from big shared plates. We eat thieb bou dienn (rice and fish with vegetables) and yassa (chicken cooked with onion sauce mixed with white rice).

A Mild Climate

In Senegal there’s a short winter from December to February, but it never snows. Winter feels like the beginning of spring in New York. It only rains in summer, which is from June to November. Many people in Dakar have balconies, and they sleep out there on hot nights.

Although it bothers me that people don’t know all these good things about my country, I can’t really blame them for thinking the way they do. What they see on TV influences them. If they’re not watching shows about lions and antelopes on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, they’re seeing programs about the ugly parts of the continent that have many hungry and sick people.

I know there is great poverty in Africa. Not all rich people help the poor. We need more government aid to feed people and get them jobs. But that’s not all there is to know about my beautiful continent.

Not Like TV

I understand how TV influences what people think about Africa. It influenced what I thought about the U.S. before I got here. When I was in Senegal, I watched a lot of American movies and TV shows that made me think the U.S. was a place where people partied a lot and everyone was rich.

But after being here for four years, I’ve learned that the U.S. can be a hard place for many people, especially immigrants. Getting to know the country and learning the language is difficult.

If I go back to Senegal, I’ll get to teach other people who didn’t get the chance to come here. I’ll teach them about the good and the bad parts of living here, so their impression is realistic. I also think my experience in the U.S. will help me to be more open-minded when it comes to other countries.

And as long as I live here, I realize I’ll always have to teach people about my country. So the next time someone asks me if we wear shoes or live with animals in Africa, I will show them pictures of me in Africa. Hopefully, the more I teach, the fewer people will ask those kinds of questions.

Reprinted from the January/February 2006 issue of NYC (now YCteen).

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(NYC-2015-03-08)

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