By Pia Fleig
I am a European. I have received a very good education, I have succeeded in my A-levels, I can go to any University I want and study more than a human mind can imagine. And yet, I feel like I know so little of reality. As much as my school tried to teach me about algorithms, the structure of cells and poetry, I feel like it has denied me a certain knowledge or unconsciously told me only half of the truth.
As Europeans, we are taught from the earliest childhood on that we are very well off and that Africa is poor. Utterly poor. In Kindergarten, I learned that Africans only eat millet gruel, live in huge families, have nothing to drink and live under a singeing hot sun. In primary school, we talked about dangerous animals and even more about poverty. I wrote stories about poor and sad African girls that I gave all sorts of tropical sounding names. Those girls had to carry the burden of their family, for they had to look after their siblings, were in charge of cooking and had to keep the family alive. My teacher even encouraged me in writing those stories full of struggle to stay alive, those stories full of pity and judgement.
Of course I judged: From my perspective, they must have sweated constantly due to the heat, they must have cried all the time for the little they had and the girls were obviously suppressed. And that image stayed with me, it was what followed me through high school just as well. We had charities raising money for Africa and we all felt very warm-hearted and kind for helping the poor. Every year we ran around a lake and asked donors to fund us. The school and the newspaper made a huge fuss about the pupil who raised the most money and some delegation from Burkina Faso came to transfer it to their country. We little children felt very important all of a sudden and our teacher told us about how fantastic the Burkinan found our food and how thankful they were for being here. I felt like a great human being.
It never got beyond that. I walked through my childhood and teenage years with a feeling of pity every time I heard the word “Africa” and yet I had a good feeling because of what my school did. We were the saviours.
Due to a lack of time, the chapter of European colonization in Africa was kept shortly. I don’t think anyone really remembers the content of those few History lessons. In English, we later learned about the “mean and inhumane British” and what they did to the Indian people, but not a word lost about France, Belgium, Spain and Germany and their doings. It is as if Europe wants us to believe only half of the story: We are now raising money for and awareness to child labour, famine, climate change, corruption, sexual abuse, AIDS, lack of school education, limited resources, poverty, illness, modern slavery… But we never actually think about who caused all of this.
Maybe I should revise my words: It’s not even half of the story, it is a quarter of it. While we learn to pity Africa, we aren’t taught that not the entire huge continent consists of weaknesses. We are denied the fact that yes, maybe they want a washing machine, but no, they are not entirely broken. They do not need all of our help. We aren’t angels – first of all because we caused a lot of the misery, and secondly because we weren’t asked to intervene.
Because our intervention, too, has two sides: While we love to adorn ourselves with charity work, we also buy chocolate, jeans and mobiles. Right. So, maybe, the “African misery” is only an eighth of the story… And we are denied the other seven eighths of it.
Well, I did learn in school about child labour and how we control it due to our consumerism. I learned that Africa isn’t the only poor continent, and I believe I once learned of “African” culture. There again lies yet another problem: While we learn to distinguish every little culture within the even smaller Europe, we cannot distinguish countries in Africa. In fifth grade, some pupils still mistake Africa for a country, not a continent… I never learnt about African Universities or Nelson Mandela (except for one obligatory presentation, during which my friend fell asleep) or the difference between Egypt and Nigeria or certain tribes or independence wars. No… Africa is one giant poor continent and we have to help and show our compassionate kindness and selfless care for otherwise it will cease to exist.
I do believe that all those problems I named are real, but I think that the image I got on an entire continent is far from right. We learned to feel pity, to make a single story the only one… And I feel like in my twelve year long career as a student, I was taught something very wrong. This mistake is bigger and has more consequences than confusing inductive and deductive reasoning (that, ladies and gentlemen, was a huge mistake I made, though!).
I don’t know a real solution to this problem – but I think it is never wrong to disillusion the “great saviors” a little bit. Let’s hope I’m not on a wrong path.
This blog post was originally created for UNICEF’s Voices of Youth. The post is shared through a partnership with the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth to further amplify the voices of young people.