Once again, in English 1117, I was required to write up an essay. Here it is;
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight! You’ve missed out on the American experience if you aren’t able to place those iconic lyrics where they belong. Lion King was what Hamlet would turn out if it took place in Africa with talking animals. It depicted Africa as one large rolling wilderness, filled with beasts and devoid of human civilization, with the oppressive heat constantly beating down on your neck. Fun for a pack of wild animals- not so much for human beings as civilized as we say we are.
As I grew older, I came across so many more ideas of what Africa was like; one enormous country where all the residents lived in mud huts and suffered painful deaths from exotic diseases that sounded like tropical islands- malaria, ebola and bilharzia. The streets all carried that sickeningly sweet stench of rotting garbage, the citizens all suffered from nutrition deficiencies that caused their children’s stomachs to blow out like the bubblegum so many little girls snapped in their mouths, and their ribs becoming so prominent you could play a xylophone on them. In my head and the heads of so many others; Africa was less of a real place and more of one giant ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ fantasy landscape. So, I’m pretty sure you understand why I wasn’t pleased when my mother told me I was moving to Africa.
I was met with horror when I discussed this with people; the janitor, my second-grade teacher, the teenaged boys who sat around, practicing how to chuckle and so many more. They swore I was going to go through ‘daqan-calis’– a Somali term which has an innocent meaning (returning to your culture) but terrible connotations. It meant that you were out of control and they would drop you in wilderness and leave you there. They swore I would fight hyenas off to eat my dinner and there would be monkeys climbing through my windows. They swore that I would be a witness to terrible crimes, such as genocide and rape, but since I had money, I’d be safe. After scaring the daylights out of me, they’d reassure me that I wouldn’t die, but it would be terrible. The doctors reassured me that I wouldn’t die when they pressed the fifth needle against my skin, and threw me so many colorful pamphlets about how to survive in sub-Saharan countries. Don’t drink tap water. Don’t eat food sold in open spaces. Don’t walk barefoot. Don’t use public toilets. Be aware of your surroundings and belongings at all times.
The news is a perpetrator as well. For some reason, we humans adore bad news. And Africa, like everywhere else, is filled to the brim with all sorts of news- Western journalists are trained to handpick the most shocking news and portray it in the most dehumanizing manner. A few hours in on reading all the terrible headlines in Africa, I ran away from the desktop computer. They gave the most graphic and violent details, phrases like ‘mass genocide of women and children’, ‘terrorist attacks on cities’, ‘outbreak of ebola-reston in Uganda’ painted the imposing image of Africa; the dark and uncivilized continent into my dreams, in shades of terrifying blacks and violent reds.
We landed in Nairobi, Kenya, in the middle of the night and the first thing I realized was that there was so many people and that I hadn’t ever been a place with so many people who looked like me. It was the first time in my life I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb and I found myself counting how many women were wearing headscarves, and gave up when I reached 56. I began to relax and thought that living in the wild wouldn’t be so bad if I had so many people like me to share it with. Oh, how ignorant I was.
Stepping out of the airport, and into a minivan with my cousins, we were shuttled off to a terrible hotel with mosquitos everywhere. I couldn’t sleep for hours because I could hear their nasal whining and it drove me insane. Everything about them was spindly- their legs, their torsos, their proboscises. I saw one land on my sleeping sister’s bare arm, parade up and down, and then suck blood and become twice in size. I gave a little piercing shriek and had nightmares about mosquitos for a very long time.
We woke up the next day and were shuttled into another minivan; we were heading to the town we were moving to. It didn’t help much with my burgeoning view of Africa. There was this stench that was a mixture of rotten fruit and burst sewage pipes. The streets were so dirty they were lined with black mud. Everyone seemed to be so foreign, from the way they talked, in loud voices with laughs thrown in, to the way they walked, arms swinging violently. The only familiar thing was Mariah Carey crooning ‘Touch my body…’ on the radio. But, quickly things changed. We moved through the capital and it was huge. It was filled with people of all sorts of colors wearing the most colorful things you’d ever see. I saw two little boys in school uniforms chasing each other and something in me began to change.
We spent the next eight hours driving down the most picturesque highway we’ve seen. Filled with trees and mountains, zebras and the occasional lion, savannah and scrubs; it was the mighty jungle I was expecting. But there were people; so many clothed, articulate people! We drove through towns and villages; seeing schools, churches and mosques; with stunning architecture and mud walls.There was this contrast throughout this ride and I didn’t understand what that meant at the time. Upon entering Eldoret; the first building we saw was this huge house with glass windows. We all gasped and our collective surprise was so overwhelming that one of my cousins muttered under her breath; ‘Africa isn’t so bad after all.’ We got out at our house which had a gate and we had so much space to run around and play in. Outside the walls of our house was a river with a bridge and dark blue coursing water. There were farms behind our house and cheerful whistling men with donkey carts. If anything, it felt more like I was dropped into 1800s England rather than 21st century Africa.
School started a few months later and I felt uneasy in the pressed blue uniforms we wore. I didn’t know what kind of ignorance to anticipate and neither did my teachers, ironically enough. They had been bombarded with so many stupid American children, who didn’t know or care enough about the continent they resided on. I surprised them but they surprised me. Unknowingly, I began to slowly break down my misconceptions. It hit me, in the fourth grade, how much I changed when I automatically corrected someone who asked how living in Africa was and why I wasn’t disease-ridden yet. I told them that they were extremely ignorant and then proceeded to buy street food and eat in front of them, so I could laugh at their horror.
I felt guilty soon; because I was as ignorant as they were- and I couldn’t be acting utterly brand-new. I was filled with the desire to make a change, but there is nothing sillier than a ten-year old trying to make a change. I shouted at people, paraded facts in front of them and continuously shook them up. Best case scenario was that they called me cute. No one would take me seriously, so I gave up fighting against these stereotypes of Africa being one dark, uncivilized country and decided to try to educate people. Currently, it’s a nearly impossible battle, trying to change everything that a person has been taught to believe, but it’ll be worth it one day. It is our duty, after all, as human beings, to teach each other so we can understand one another.
Let it be noted that this was mostly written as a satirical piece and not to offend anyone.