There had been moments before when I had thought of a book on the image of Africa in the West with a certain hesitation, until the scene described below occurred. It made me change my mind. Because I realized reaching people might have to be a process, I decided on beginning with something simple such that an individual like my main character below could be interested in; hence the idea of questions and answers. This scene was the last straw that triggered me into action, and it took place in a restaurant - Bucca di Beppo — years ago in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
''When I think of Africa, I think of huts, lions, zebras,'' laughter, ''no, it's true, that's all that comes to mind,'' stuttered an acquaintance at a dinner table where I happened to be a guest.
My neighbor at the table, a noble lady of English descent, suffered from, and protested against, the remarks, but was pleasantly surprised to see me smiling instead.
''It's alright,'' I said to my neighbor, ''I'm used to that by now.''
''I'm so sorry,'' the sweet and gentle lady went on apologizing.
What a portrait for a continent so resource-rich, diverse, welcoming, and so potentially powerful, but unfortunately so derailed, abused, exploited, and slighted, mostly because of how the majority of those who have written about Africa have decided to present the continent for reasons as many and sundry as the countries that have taken advantage of Africa's hospitality. It is my hope that with time that unfortunate ideological high achieved from lambasting Africa, regardless of fact and fiction, would be done with, and many of the addicts—distributors and consumers alike— would be able to move on clean for the rest of time.
This work, which addresses collected questions asked me about Africa year after year, is the product of my stay, travels, and experiences in the West, Europe and North America, the latter especially. My encounters exposed me to extremely disturbing ideas nursed by some people about the continent of Africa and Africans, especially those from south of the Sahara. Accordingly, I could not help marveling sometimes at how misled, uninformed, and even insulting—intentionally or otherwise—some Westerners have been, and still are about Africa, Africans, their plight, and their culture.
This experience usually started with a question at a gathering, but more often in class, and coming from a student of mine: ''You have an accent, where are you from?'' To which I usually answered back with ''You have an accent, where are you from?'' And then consternation furrows the student's face as he begins questioning himself about what I meant by his having an accent since to him his accent is the accent. After I found out that students, more often, did not mean the question to come across the way it did, I took time to explain how they sounded, and to educate them on the fact that virtually every group of people has an accent, even Americans from the United States have an accent, to which explanation the student usually asked ''You are kidding, right?'' They found out I was not kidding when I went on to prove to them that even within the United States there are different accents. For example, somebody from the North does not have the same accent as a person from the South, nor do African-Americans sound like European-Americans; then it all dawned on the students. I usually went on to tell them the correct and educated thing to say is ''You have a foreign accent, where are you from?'' The students agreed and many other questions followed which showed they were baffled I knew ''so much about America'' even though I had not been in America for that long. I explained to them that in my native country, Cameroon, by the time I was out of high school, I had already mastered American and European history to my finger tips, which baffled them all the more since, to them, I was apparently busy studying something they thought ought not matter to me. I made them see why I thought they were wrong.
After having received this question about my accent and many more about Africa so many times over, it occurred to me that I had to do something: I had to write a book answering these questions otherwise for generations to come the scene will be the same. With my mind made up, when this scene presented itself again, especially in class, I usually asked after my answer, ''Do you have any other surprising questions about where I am from that you want me to address, put them in writing and send them forward.'' I would then spare a few minutes and answer them before going on with my class, because that is what true education is—being well informed foremost. As earlier indicated, I had these questions in whatever group situation I found myself—weddings, funerals, and so on. I remember during the first graduation ceremony I attended on one campus as a faculty member, I had on the red doctoral robe from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, standing out conspicuously against all the other black or dark blue robes. One lady asked me what university's beautiful robe that was. I told her the University of Ibadan. When she asked me where that was, and I answered ''Nigeria, Africa,'' she turned away abruptly as if I had slapped her in the face. Years later, a little more steeped in the culture, when I reconsidered this lady's reaction, I could not help wondering if she thought I was being sarcastic, mindful of the accepted portrait of African countries as poor and wretched: how then could an African country boast of a university with such a beautiful graduation robe?
Structurally, this work is presented as it is—questions and answers—so that one will be able to read a section at a time and return after hours, or days even, to continue without the feeling of having lost a particular train of thought. In this way, those who are very busy can read a question from time to time and ultimately finish the book while reaping virtually the same benefits as those who read the entire book in one sitting. Meanwhile, should any reader with a Western background feel insulted by any part of this work, and this has not been any desire of mine as I have worked hard at eliminating anything that could come across as an insult, then I say welcome into the world of the black person as this is how the latter has felt for centuries during which time he/she has been deliberately misrepresented and insulted by ''civilized'' peoples of the world. My idea has been simply to tell the truth about a part of the world that another has, for very long, struggled to represent as the laughing stock of mankind, for whatever reason. Accordingly, I was occasionally forced to draw certain parallels between cultures, but only as a way of bringing out the truth. It is also worth noting though, that sometimes different people posed questions that were apparently similar. Such questions are still addressed, their similarities notwithstanding, because it was noticed that the inquirers' focus and interest were different.
Why the word ''surprising'' then as a part of my title, I was asked by a student? The quest for knowledge is only a natural and foremost human exercise and so even questions engendered by a sincere desire to learn may, at times, be strange and surprising. This, however, was not exactly the nature of my encounters with those asking me questions about Africa. Whereas many questioned me out of a genuine desire to learn the truth, even when some of the questions were embarrassing because of how ridiculously basic they were and needed no expert knowledge apparently, the word ''surprising'' in the title was inspired by another group, numerically significant, which asked questions in a manner which made obvious the fact that learning was not their concern. With smirks on their faces, they were out to test an established picture that is burned on their psyche, and in the process confirm their "superiority" while jibing at the cradle of mankind—Africa. The questions and the motive behind the questions of this latter group were genuinely surprising given that this is the 21st and not the 14th Century. Whatever the case, those who were genuinely interested in learning must pardon the use of this word. These questions in all—those asked in genuine search for knowledge, and those asked in an effort to insult or ridicule—nourished the inspiration that gave birth to this book. It is my hope then, that this book will educate those who have remained essentially uninformed, or worse still largely misinformed about Africa. Africa is a continent so rich, diversified, hospitable, and gifted in every way but the ability, it would seem, to harness and eradicate the confusion trusted upon her by centuries of Western invasion—socially, culturally, politically, and even militarily. The idea is for this book to tell or remind all, Westerners especially, that Africans are peoples with their own values which are in many ways different, sometimes even from one ethnic group to another, but obviously so from those of the West. Yet these values risk being totally derailed because of the West imposing the need for Africans to become ''civilized'' by giving up everything they have known for Western ''values.''
It needs mentioning here, that one of the things found disturbing about how Africa is always presented, is that seeming craving to represent the continent, forever, as if it is one nation. Most of us wish that were the case. Alas, Africa is a huge continent with numerous peoples and diverse cultures like no other continent on earth, in spite of how others love to present it as if it were one nation. This practice is, lamentably, sometimes maintained in this effort though, simply for the purpose of clarity and the effectiveness of style, for Africa is such a diverse place. The local terrain, climate and ecology vary tremendously from one place to another. The people of Africa are also more diverse, in race, tribe and culture, than on any other continent.. No place, no culture in Africa can be cited as typical of the whole continent. (Kimball)
It is easier for me to generalize now as I try to represent the whole continent, than it is for a writer writing about Somalia to say, Africa. My kind of generalization here is understandable and harmless for it is unlike that generalization characteristic of stereotyping which can be described as vicious, lazy, and with that certain guile intended at insulting. It is that kind of generalization which happens because the situation indeed exists in many more African countries, unlike when a particular case is being forced on the rest of Africa, being generalized so to say, when the particular African country could simply have been named. Aware of the misleading portraits of Africa, Westerners, especially Americans, have been fed and maintain about Africa, Armstrong Williams writes:
Let's examine what Africa is today: It is no longer 'the dark continent,' full of wild animals and wilder people, a place as foreign to us as the moon. We can no longer treat it as one country, where we can apply one-size-fits-all solution to its multiple problems. Yet we continue to ignore the fact that dozens of nations lie within it.
Africa has no single identity; no single definition can ever describe it accurately. It is a patchwork of nations, some rich, some poor, some green, some dry, each with their own set of problems and own particular promise. Most Africans differentiate themselves from one tribe or another; it is the West who willingly wears binders.
There are many out there who helped me in one way or the other with this work, but the role of a few was strategic towards it realization. To those who furnished me with these questions directly or indirectly, I remain very thankful. Let me quickly add here, however, that this volume does not pretend to have exhausted all the questions one can find out there about Africa; that notwithstanding, it is no doubt effectively representative of what the total picture may be. I am equally indebted to those who, after reading the original manuscript, were able to offer invaluable suggestions especially those relating to my original tone. It was no easy challenge trying not to be sentimental when reacting to blatant insults to my roots generated by bias, fallacious, and frequently passionate reasoning and writing; yet, at the very worst, I thought, with regards to earlier drafts to this work, that I was only just responding naturally to damning and mostly stereotyped allegations about Africa. From these friends, I learned of the need to be ''politically correct'' and I hope it has paid off. Several friends reacted with disbelief that I had something else to say contrary to what some powerful newspapers had written about Africa, hence the damaging impact bias coverage of easily the world's most friendly and hospitable people—Africans—has had on them, which made this effort pertinent. I am particularly grateful to members of my family, especially our daughter, Fiona-Emma, whose continuous reactions to misrepresentations of Africa frequently encountered at school strengthened my conviction of the need for a book of this nature. My colleagues in academia especially Patricia Pyle of Century College, Susan Taylor of Saint Paul College, Dr. Alvin L. Killough of the University of Minnesota, Crookston, and Milton Krieger, Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University read the manuscript at one point or the other and gave me useful ideas. My dear friend, Susan Sandoval, graciously went over the manuscript in all its different stages and made worthwhile suggestions. Dr. Mary M. Tjosvold of Mary T. Inc. was kind enough to introduce me to Diana Oleskow Lubich whose suggestions helped shape and tone this work. I am also thankful to all those who, from time to time, questioned me about my roots, their intentions notwithstanding—friends, students, neighbors, parishioners, and even colleagues. Those questions opened up a whole new world for me, which made this effort worthwhile even if only to point out that when a child throws stones into a tree, it is not for nothing.
It is my hope then, that after reading this book, descendants of Africa, especially those in the diaspora, will, like the young Charles King, an 8th grader from Atlanta KIPP WAYS (Knowledge Is Power
Program West Atlanta Young Scholars) Academy after a visit to Africa, declare, but now only as a historical fact, that ''So many African-Americans are ignorant about Africa because of the bad that they hear, but if they saw this place they would be proud like I am of where I come from'' (Chandra R. Thomas 126). Beyond descendants of Africa, I would like both the painters of strange portraits of Africa and those prone to consuming these portraits avariciously to arrive at Jonathan Power's message to his daughter who asked him after viewing typical images of Africa in movies like ''Blood Diamond,'' ''Last King of Scotland'' and a much earlier film ''Out of Africa,'' if Africa is really like that. Power tells her: ''. part of Africa WAS (sic) like that. Some of it, a diminishing portion of this vast continent, is still like that. But most of it never was and today it certainly is not.'' Indeed, if one person can read this book and say ''really?'' to just one of the questions and its attendant answer, I would have earned my reward.