A few months ago I read the blog of a Christian woman on a missions trip to Africa. In the blog she expressed disbelief that she was around a city and that there were middle class people, and people who weren't starving or in need of her "American" brand of Christian service. I read the blog and felt angry. I was angry at the woman for being an "ugly American" and an "ugly Christian," but then it occurred to me that I actually know very little about Africa. As fate would have it I was introduced to Gessye, a grad student in Washington, D.C. who has experienced firsthand the ignorance of beliefs about her continent and decided to actually do something about it. Below is the story of her new documentary The Africa We Know and a conversation in which she addresses the three biggest misconceptions she has faced about the continent of Africa.
First, could you share with me a little about who you are, and about where you come from?
Hi! My name is Gessye, and I'm from the Republic of the Congo. The United States kindly sponsored my Masters degree, so I am currently a graduate student at American University, graduating this year.
Wow! You must have experienced some culture shock when you got here!
More than anything, I was surprised to see how little the western world actually knows about where I am from. Back home we are aware about the rest of the world, especially the music of the West. So as I spoke with my African friends here and experienced some of the questions Americans and Europeans were asking in the classroom, I came to the conclusion that most people I am around here don't really have a clue about what daily life in my part of the world looks like!
I'll be honest and say I am one of those people that knows very little of your country. I've only ever seen it in Hollywood movies, so would you paint a picture for me--what is life like in the Republic of the Congo?
I can tell you my family is doing better now, but we have not always been that way. We have had our low days, we have lost people to bad medicine, we have had to sell cakes my mom was making or okra she was growing to make extra cash, and we have had days where there was nothing to eat but rice. But believe you me, we were not waiting for aid, nor were we looking the part of the "African" portrayed in movies. Even so my memories are so much more positive than negative, and the bad times only made the good times that much sweeter for us.
I've been wondering why there is such a great divide, why there are so many negative notions. It seems like all you see about the continent of Africa is negative though. And the truth is, I have seen some pretty bad things here in the USA and in France. I think we all struggle and all prosper in our own ways at our own times.
Would you say your mission here in the United States has broadened?
Absolutely! I have decided to share my story with my school and present another perspective of my life experience and of my home. I shot a short documentary style video which I hope will provide a good balance to those who are interested in knowing the continent better. I am grateful for the support I have gotten from my fellow students and from the school.
What are the three biggest misconceptions about the continent of Africa that you've encountered since being in the United States?
The first misconception and the basis for this documentary is that "Africa" is the place for all the horror and sorrow imaginable in the world, that by Western standards there is nothing good that can be talked about there. A criticism we received after showing our documentary trailer was that it was "idealistic," and "Why don't we show the suffering of the poor, the terrorism, famine, child mortality, and mutilations, etc.?" But who would make the same statement if a positive video of the USA was made? There is suffering here, too, and there are horror stories in Asia and poverty in Europe as well. Africa also has a positive story to tell that is not fiction! I've been wondering what part of the trailer was not real? The Middle class family? The laughter? Children playing in the field, happy but barefoot? Educated youth? This exists on the continent too!
The second misconception is that Africa is a disconnected place. Today in Kenya, mobile banking and the mobile phone industry are booming. Social media as well! People watch TV and travel all over the world, and the youth are keeping up in current affairs and participating in their communities. Innovative entrepreneurs are creating African made products, and investment in the continent can bring amazing returns. Long before I came to the USA I knew about this place. We watched western movies and wore Levi's. Yes there is a part of the continent that is not as connected, but we should recognize the place Africa is today. Africa is very connected to the world.
Lastly, and the most annoying thing for me, are the stereotypical questions about lions and gorillas! This stereotype is deeply rooted in the minds of people here, especially those who do not work or study in development. I was disappointed when the directors of a real life television story decided to include stereotypical scenes in the movie's trailer about child soldiers coming to the USA, that had to be taught what "ice" is and acted afraid to be eaten by lions outside of their homes. It might be true in certain parts of Africa, but I have never seen a lion in my life outside of the zoo. They are not walking the streets! And because people already have the mentality that Africa is this one big monolithic place these scenes just reinforce the current ignorance about the region.
Tell us a little about the documentary you've produced and how people can check it out.
The documentary seeks to provide some of the positive realities and potential we have and are experiencing as people from Africa. It is not seeking to show a utopian land, but we believe it is good to have a balanced view. The Africa We Know, beyond the tears, has smiles, too, and we would like to show and focus on that for a change.