I just got back from a fabulous safari in Africa!” said my friend. “Really? Which country?” said I. She looked at me with a very puzzled expression, and repeated more loudly this time, “Africa!” I guess saying it louder was supposed to help me understand more clearly. I then said, “Many countries in Africa offer safaris. I was just wondering which one you experienced.” Then she said, “Oh!” and she told me the name of the reserve. I tried one more time. “Okay, so you were in Kenya, right?” “Yep, and it was unbelievable.”
If you have ever spoken to anyone who has visited the continent of Africa, I bet you had a similar exchange. Most people from North America refer to Africa as though it is one big country, instead of a continent with many countries. Now, please understand, I do not make an issue of this with everyone who makes this mistake, but I do attempt to make the point with friends and colleagues who mean no disrespect.
You may be wondering, what is the big deal? Many tourists and business people from other countries say they came to America, when technically some believe they should say the United States. I lived in Michigan, and now live in North Carolina. When someone says Michigan State, when they were really referring to The University of Michigan, or when anyone confuses Duke University with the University of North Carolina, you would think they were fighting words. North Carolinians are quick to correct people who mistakenly confuse this state with South Carolina.
My point is this; most people have strong feelings, usually filled with pride, about their homeland. Africans all over the continent are no different. I know. I asked them. Unlike saying “America”, Africa is in no way a country. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit several African countries in the western, eastern and southern sections of the continent. I wanted to know if I was the only person who was bothered when people referred to the continent as though it was a country, so I asked South Africans, Nigerians, Namibians, Kenyans and others whenever the occasion presented itself. I was very willing to drop my pet peeve, if they were not annoyed by this habit. I discovered however that many people are offended.
Now, no one loses sleep over this, there are certainly much more important issues in the world. Nonetheless, this little detail is like a pesky nat that won’t fly away. Each time Africa is uttered instead of the intended country, we give evidence to the perception that Americans do not know geography, and don’t really care. Some would argue that an unconscious bias exists. After all, people say Egypt when they have visited the pyramids, they don’t just say, they went to Africa. They say Italy, not Europe (unless they went to several European countries). Think about it.
Because you have read this far, I know you do care. My readers, and audience participants regularly say, “Um, I never thought about it that way,” regarding this and many other diversity dilemmas that I surface. That is my motivation- to help us all consider diverse perspectives, and then decide the what is best for each of us.
I believe language does matter, if you agree, perhaps you too will help others use the correct names for the lands they visit. Each of us can contribute to a world of inclusion, one person at a time. Let me know what you think by commenting here.