'Do you speak African?'

November 18, 2012 | 11 a.m.

Views | Ellie Adamson 

'Do You Speak African?'

Ellie and her family in Senegal. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Ellie Adamson.

 “Why, yes,” I say. “I also speak European and Asian. Do you speak North American?” This is often what I want to say in response to that inane question that I have been asked too many times. But I respond politely, “No, African is not a language. But I do speak French.” However, inside I want to scream and hit my head against a wall. It appalls me that so many people I meet throughout the U.S. are completely unaware of the rest of the world, its geography and current events. What needs to change to make people less ignorant? 

Africa is not a country. It is a continent, one that is larger than the United States, China and Europe, combined. Africa contains 54 countries and two disputed territories. There are over 2,000 languages spoken within the continent, and more are constantly being discovered. Why is it that so many people have such a small and limited view of the size of the continent and richness of its peoples and cultures? I have been to numerous countries around the world, and I find that people in the U.S. are the most ignorant. Others are more educated on current affairs and world events. What is it that makes Americans so different? (Please note that "American" means only citizens of the U.S. in this context.)

I believe that our education system has failed to teach students the importance of basic geography. Unfortunately, I am often hard-pressed to find people who can name five countries within each continent. When introducing where I grew up as the daughter of missionaries, I have to say Senegal, West Africa, because on its own, not many people would know where to find the country of Senegal. The American education system needs to focus on knowledge of basic geography to create interest and appreciation for different cultures. The Senegalese are very up to date on international issues. The Senegalese love President Obama because he is concerned with global affairs, has visited Sub-Saharan Africa and is African-American. When a couple of my relatives were visiting, they carried around bags full of Obama pins to give to venders or people they met along the street. 

The Senegalese appreciated the pins so much that when bartering for prices, if my relatives would include a pin in the deal, the venders’ asking prices would drop by 2,500 CFA (around five dollars). I doubt that many Americans would know the President of Senegal or want one of his presidential pins. Senegal, a developing country, is more educated on the rest of the world than one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world. 

I find that priveledge is often the heart of the problem. Americans feel entitled to the power they have and believe their experience is universal. Why do you think American tourists are viewed as extremely rude, annoying and inconsiderate? Privilege! Tourists consciously or unconsciously expect the rest of the world to be similar to the U.S.: that it will feel, move and communicate the same way. I know many Ivoirians, Senegalese, French, etc. that have a disdain for all Americans, even those who are not tourists, because of the example others have set.

Americans should realize that they are extremely fortunate compared to the rest of the world, and this advantage should neither blind them from seeing the richness of other cultures nor inhibit their ability to enjoy and learn from them. Too often privilege becomes entitlement, which turns into conceit, rudeness and ignorance. 

The answer to this problem is education. If Americans understand cultural differences and acceptable practices at the minimum, they will gain a richer understanding and appreciation for the culture and country they are living in or visiting. 

Travel abroad. A classroom education is not enough. College is the perfect time to hop on a plane and go! Visiting or living in a country allows you to taste and see for yourself the way the country runs, how its history has affected its present and future goals, and how its citizens live and understand the world. Expand and change your worldview. Do not think that because you live in the American ‘melting pot’ that you are culturally sensitive or have an educated worldview. 

Americans have been blessed with so much freedom and opportunity, opportunity that billions of our world’s citizens will never receive. My father works with university students in Senegal, and many dream of someday traveling to the U.S. to further their education, get a good job and live the American dream. Too many Americans have taken this liberty for granted. Do not let entitlement make you complacent or dull your sensitivity and worldview. 

In Senegal, I do not ride an elephant to school. I have running water and electricity. I do not have a pet tiger – tigers reside in Asia. It is possible for me to be a white African-American. These statements may seem absurd, just as the questions that preceded them. I am embarrassed by how many times I have been asked questions like these. I am often angered by the ignorance that so many Americans display, insulted by the implications and stereotypes about other cultures and appalled at the lack of cultural and international education. How is it that in a technological and global age people are so disconnected from the rest of the world? Why are school districts and education boards not emphasizing and noticing the lack of comprehension and cultural adeptness in their students? With proper education, perhaps on your next trip abroad, your behavior would reflect that of a culturally sensitive tourist, and the drop you make in the pool will not disrupt but rather add to the water’s ebb and flow.

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