The first time I heard the word “Africa” was from my Mum. We were sitting at the dinner table and I wouldn’t eat my peas. They smelled funny and there was no way she was going to convince me otherwise. She told me in a stern strong voice, “There are children starving in Africa you know! You should eat those peas and stop being so wasteful.”
From my earliest years, Africa was a place of negation and poverty. In my childhood fantasies Africans were these strange people who fought over peas. I didn’t know what an ‘African’ might look like, but I guessed slim. They were starving after all.
Africa was a confusing word for me because it seemed to mean so much and so little. It was a country? Or an island? The Africans I had met were white and spoke Dutch. White people wouldn’t fight for peas. White people weren’t poor. Or at least, not like those ‘other’ Africans.
When I was about 10 years old, friends of mine from school and I had decided to participate in the 40 Hour-Famine. Like young girls needed to be encouraged to starve themselves. But not only did I have the self-satisfaction of skipping meals, I was doing it for charity…. for the Africans. When our fundraising packages arrived we had an envelope, an information pack to show potential sponsors, and tips about what to do for the staged famine. On the front cover of the pamphlet from the information pack, there was a picture of a small dark skinned child with a swollen belly, shaved head, and sad fly covered eyes. And I thought to myself, “I guess I could try peas again…”
I told my parents I was participating in a famine and that my friend and I would have a sleepover to start it off. My Father cooked me some food though and insisted that I eat. I was pretty hungry so I didn’t complain. I just told myself I wouldn’t eat too much.
The next time I really dealt with anything African, I was much older. As I started high school I was exposed to new names, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria… Africa began to become a more than just a large homogeneous land filled with pot-bellied poor people. Africa started to break apart. Become nuanced.
The first time I read anything by an African author was “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. I was 15 and I read the book hungrily. It made me cry and I felt anger, frustration, love, joy, and sorrow. This was the first time I realised that Africans, or more specifically in the case of Achebe, Nigerians were like me in so many ways. This revelation also made me extremely frustrated with myself. I was taught to relate to European books even though I never read Jane Austen talking about mangoes or scorching summers that melted the roads.
And here in lies the beauty, the wonder, and the magic of books. Chinua Achebe saved me. Chimamanda Nigozi Adichie gave me gift I can never repay: she like many other authors from African countries showed me more than poverty, more than famine, more than disease. I feel close to Ifemelu and Kambili. And why shouldn’t I? Why is it impossible for me to relate, to love, to sympathise, to feel for these characters simply because they are black, Nigerian, ‘African’?
In a world filled with terror and fear from Lebanon, Nigeria, Brazil, France, Syria… I implore you to find the magic in books. The power in books and the possibilities they can open you up to. Let them change you, educate you, bring you peace, give you hope, bring you friends, and most of all, give you love. As always, share the reading love.