Understanding Africa

What if Africa isn’t the place you think it is?

Wildebeest stampeding across vast expanses of desert. Dusty mud huts and deadly diseases. Brutal civil wars and overflowing refugee camps. For many, these are some of the scenes that come to mind when the word ‘Africa’ is mentioned. But what if Africa isn’t the place you think it is?

It is true that the vast majority of Africans still live on or below the poverty line and one in three sub-Saharan Africans are undernourished. It is true that 75 per cent of the world’s poorest countries are located in Africa. It is also true that there are parts of the continent with a staggeringly dramatic landscape – the continent is home to the world’s largest desert, longest river and largest known land mammal. But there is indescribably more to Africa than its landscape and its poverty.

After a few years of travelling to and from various African countries, I’m still learning how to talk about Africa. Here are some pointers that continually help me towards understanding this wonderfully diverse continent:

Listening to African voices

  •  There are some excellent African photographers and film-makers out there. The work of Ghanaian photographer Nani Kofi Acquah and Ethiopian photographer Michael Tsegaye are great examples.
  • The annual Film Africa festival in London hosted by the Royal African Society is a wonderful chance to see films by African film-makers.
  • There are also lots of fantastic African authors. Here is a reading list of books by African authors published between 2010 and 2014. A few personal favourites are “One Day I will write about This Place” by Binyavanga Wainana and “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
  • The Everyday Africa Instagram feed hosted by photographers from all over the world, attempts to give an understanding of what Africans experience on a day-to-day basis.

Challenging the view of all Africans as victims

In her talk mentioned in my previous post, Nigerian author, Chimamanda, explains an encounter she had with her roommate, “Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronising, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” As Christians, God calls us to go one step beyond treating people as equals and commands us in humility, to value one another and serve one “another above ourselves (Philippians 2:3).

Working towards transcultural communities

We can actively seek and pray for opportunities to reach across cultures, including African cultures, in our own churches and communities. Warmly welcoming other cultures into our own is the first step of many in understanding them. For an insightful and uplifting short talk by Leonce Crump, an African-American pastor about the importance of transculturalism in church listen here. In 1980, John Stott wrote in Down to Earth (an article about Christians and culture), “The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is that God has taken ours seriously.” He explains that when God communicates with particular people in particular cultures he uses vocabulary which those people were familiar with. We see the ultimate embodiment of this understanding in the person of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

On the Day of the African Child, take a moment to reconsider this wonderfully diverse continent.

To borrow Sidney Muisyo’s (Compassion Africa Vice President) words, “The Day of the African Child is a powerful reminder to pray and remember not just all children in Africa, but especially those in poverty and vulnerable situations. This day is an invitation for us to reconsider the wonderful gift that each child is – every child deserving of our transforming love!”


This blog was originally published in October 2015. The photograph was taken during Compassion’s Day of the African Child celebrations held in Kenya last year.

Ella Dickinson

Words by Ella Dickinson


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