I am in Addis Ababa doing a course called ‘The Artist as Peacebuilder’ through the Institute of Security Studies. We are an interesting mix of participants – all 25 of us. From 15 countries – Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Togo, Cameroon, The Gambia, DRC, Malawi, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Bourkina Faso and Morocco. And representing different Arts and roles – we have visual artists, photographers, musicians, poets, storytellers, performing artists, film makers and a ‘nature’ artist who works with permaculture. Then we have peacebuilders who work as journalists, and civil society activists working in a range of areas – environmental issues, youth, women, gay rights, street children, sex workers, identity, diversity and so on.
The first two days the facilitators lay down the theory that will underpin our work over the next two weeks. One of the questions we grappled with, and are still working with is ‘How well do you know your continent? Or your country, or neighbourhood for that matter.’ I found this question very interesting, and am still thinking about it. It made me realise that there are many things I assume I know, that I do not really know – and things that one takes for granted that one should not. And things that I know that I did not know I knew. I was grateful for my East African education.
In one exercise we were given a map of Africa with all the countries outlined but with no names. The task was that each of us writes down as many names as we could. It wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. I named about 38 and got 28 of those correct. The highest got 44! Of course I started with the East African region where I grew up, and went down South. I was so upset that although I had put Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe in the correct general area, I mixed them up. The Easter part of North Africa (Egypt and Libya) were easy but West and North Africa were not as easy. With some countries I knew the general area they were, but not the exact spot.
Naming the countries is just the beginning of really getting to know the continent. The process though, reminded me of the time the OAU was hosted in Uganda. I was in primary school, and we took the time to get to know the countries in Africa, to know their capital cities, their presidents, their national languages. I used to sit with my neighbours, Alex and Michael, and play a game where we would ask each other questions like, ‘What is the capital of Angola?’ or ‘Describe or draw the flag of Gabon’. I havent paid attention to any of those things lately.
How well do you know your continent? What do you know about the countries – beyond their names? Is what you believe about certain ethnicities in your country true, or is it prejudiced? Do you see your people through knowledge and information that you can verify, or through the eyes of the media? Are you able to entertain another perspective?
I have decided to take time to learn more about the rich and diverse peoples of my continent. And I will stop getting angry with people who say to me, “Oh, you come from Uganda? I have a friend who lives in Ghana. Do you know them?”