The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The American Problem

(Or) How English Lexicon Exhibits Signs of Psychosis


We hear it all the time. African civil war. African politics.  The Aids Epidemic in Africa. The 'African Problem.'


We speak of Africa as one entity. We speak of Africa as if all its trials, tribulations, pitfalls, successes, shortcoming, hurdles, and yes, its problems, were one thing. One really big thing. We speak of it in the same way we speak of other large things. We speak about it like we speak about countries. Sovereign states. Whole entities that are governed and represented by one set of people across the whole.


This idea of seeing Africa as one contiguous entity is not new. The word Africa actually comes from the Romans, who used the Punic term 'Afri' to denote people from the city of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia). Roman historians determined that this term itself derived from Epher, the son of Abraham who settled the region.  The Romans added the Latin suffix –ica to words to denote lands (like Britannica), hence, Africa. Because the Romans had little contact with other people from the continent (besides the Numidians and the Egyptians), it would have been common for them to refer to anyone from the southern continent as African. Combine that with Roman conquest and cultural domination of Europe, and we see the Western adage of Africa.


Africa, which is a whole CONTINENT (something not everyone knows), contains 54 sovereign nations. It is home to 1.1 billion people (over 3 times as many as in the Unites States). Somewhere between 1000 and 2000 languages are spoken in Africa (yes, there are so many that we cannot even agree on the number to two significant figures). Over 50 independent currencies. 11 million square miles. 30 million square kilometers. 6 time zones.


So when we say the 'African Problem,' we're talking about a whole lot of diversity here. It's literally the most diverse continent on the planet. Chew on that for a little bit.


But this article is called the African Problem. It's called the American Problem.


Ask anyone in Africa what an American is. You'll struggle with the wordage for a bit, but they're eventually say one of three key phrases. USA. Les Etats-Unis d'Amerique. The United States of America.


True, 'American' is officially listed as a demonym of the United States. Otherwise we'd be calling ourselves the United Statians (actually, much of the Spanish and French world do have words in usage that mean just that…it only really sounds funny in English). Even in Kinyarwanda, the word in Umunyamerika.


Am I an American? Yes. Is someone from, say, Chile, an American? Yes, but they wouldn't call themselves it. And that's the point.


We don't clump together America like we do Africa. The Western world has this one singular notion of what it is to be African, but a very fragmented notion of what it is to be from the Americas; to be an American.


The two American continents (from now on let's just call them America) together are 1.5 times the land area of Africa. America has 35 sovereign states (plus eight UK territories, three overseas collectives and three overseas departments of France, three public bodies and three constituent countries of the Netherlands, two unincorporated territories of the United States, and a very lonely autonomous country belonging to Denmark). That's a total of 58 separate recognized entities. That also makes it the most colonized place on the globe.


At first European contact, the Americas boasted approximately 1800 languages. Of those, 468 are known to still be in use today. America has 972 million people (just 130 million shy of Africa), spans 11 time zones, holds both the northern-most and southern-most points of land on Earth, and stretches north to south a total of 8,700 miles. America also holds 40% of all Christians in the world. To further purge the issue, the United States isn't even the largest player on the twin continents. New York City, the US's largest city by population, comes in third behind Mexico City and Sao Paulo, Brazil. The combined nominal GDPs of America would be about 21 trillion dollars (actually, 21,139,299,000,000 USD), which not only eclipses all of Europe, but is double that of the combined GDPs of Asia, Africa, and Oceania.


What all these statistics about America have in common is that they are all unfair. The twin American continents may have a powerhouse GDP, but also includes economies like Haiti (with a per capita GDP of $771), Nicaragua ($1,754), and Honduras ($2,264) compared to USA's $49,965 and Canada's $52,219. America is so northern-heavy, especially when it comes to financial matters and quality of health care, that any policy applied to all of America would either hurt the Northern countries or be ineffective in the southern countries.


The whole unfairness of the problem can be boiled down to one extreme comparison; taking an economic policy devised to help… say… Rwanda and applying it to the whole of Africa would be like taking a policy devised for Haiti and applying it to all of America, including Canada and the United States.


We don't talk about the twin American continents as one America, and for good reason. America is so financially, racially, ethnically, linguistically, educationally, historically, and geographically diverse that any broad statement would be wrong on so many levels. We might refer to North America and South America, but even those lines are a little blurred, like the geographical versus economic association of Central America (just pick a side already, amiright???).


So why do we talk about Africa as if it shares all its problems? Yes, Africa has unstable countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it also has Botswana, hailed as the most stable, democratic, and transparent countries on the continent and one of the few former colonies to have never experienced instability since independence. Then there are the economic powerhouses, like Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, but also weaker economies, like Burundi. Treating Africa as one entity with one set of problems that can be solved with one set of policies is no fairer than doing the same to America.


So what is the American Problem? We don't have an all-encompassing problem in America, and neither does Africa. The African Problem is a sham; a tool used as an easy way to pretend we know and care about the region with little to no effort of understanding.
How do we go about solving the African and the American Problems? Start by recognizing that they don't exist and finish by doing some basic research on Africa. This would be a decent place to start understanding mondern African culture and media.


Newly featured: read the professionals saying it better than I just did.


Keep up to date on what's going on in the world here, here, and here. Also, have a look at this, this, and this. Surprises behind every link!

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