I was early for Sunday service in church, so I tucked into an empty seat and flipped through the brochure. Soon, an Asian lady squeezed into the space beside me. I could tell she was peeking at me, rather covertly though. She averted my eyes each time I looked in her direction, but as soon as I looked away, she would cast another peek at me. I wondered if everything was alright. Anyway, I tried to concentrate on the brochure. Finally, she managed to initiate a discussion.
“Errm! Are you African?” she asked.
I had looked around earlier. I was the only black man in the building, at least for all I could see. I might as well be and African-American, so her question was not entirely out of place. I answered affirmatively. I have always been proud of my African roots.
“Yes, I am, why?” I answered with a broad smile, staring her straight in the eye.
“Do you have drinking water there?” She asked.
I was visibly irked by her second question. I was not sure whether to direct my irritation at her, the foreign media, or at African leaders.
I continued to look at her as I flickered through my brain in search of an apt response. A part of me wanted to spew insults on her for a flagrant attempt at insulting my person and my roots. Another side of me reminded me that we were in church, perhaps some restraint would suffice. I said a quick quiet prayer, asking God for wisdom in answering her question.
“Where are you from?” I managed to ask her.
“Taiwan” she answered with a rich sense of national pride that oozed off her voice with passion. Her national passion was so visibly palpable that you could lean against it.
“I am Nigerian,” I replied with a plastic smile as I attempted to mask my ‘raging anger’. “Have you ever been to Africa?” I queried her.
“No!” she answered. Where else have you been apart from America and Taiwan where you are from?
I continued to probe for some weakness that would allow me to educate her.
“I stopped over once in Holland, but I did not enter the country,” she replied in heavily accented English.
“I know Holland a bit,” I told her. “I spent some time in Amsterdam. Europe, you know is a beautiful continent.”
“So I heard,” she said.
By now, her eyes were so large with excitement and expectation that my head could fit wholly into each of them. By the way, my head is fairly sizeable.
“You see, I once made a trip by train underneath the Atlantic Ocean crossing the channel between England and France. I visited places like Lille in France, Brussels in Belgium, Amsterdam in Holland, and some other smaller cities in-between.”
“Really?” She exclaimed.
“I have heard a lot about Europe. I would like to visit someday,” she continued.
“I think you should,” I shot back at her. “I have also had the pleasure of visiting Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland, and Canada. In my travels, I have seen so many beautiful lands and sights, but nothing compares to home – Nigeria. It is a land with numerous problems, some of which frustrate me to the core, but that notwithstanding, it is still a beautiful place, and I love it far more than I can explain to you. Some people do struggle to find water there, but many don’t. A few people live in thatched homes, while many live in good homes, and some in mansions that many, even here in America cannot afford. Some drive cars that the average American or Taiwanese can only dream of.”
“Really?” she exclaimed again, as her curiosity won her over.
“Yes!” I nearly yelled. It was my turn to exclaim. “Just about everyone there has a smart phone, and many have the internet in their palms. They don’t live in trees mind you. There are movie cinemas there, some of the best you could ever see anywhere, and they watch current movies back home. Africa is not in the Stone Age. You’d be surprised at what you’d encounter the day you finally get to see that continent, if you do. Please, do not let CNN or Fox News tell you what Africa is all about. Mind you, I did not say it is devoid of problems, and come to think of it Europe, America and Asia including your homeland Taiwan have a fair share of biting problems. I have seen some of the worst slums you could ever come across anywhere in world in Baltimore, Maryland here in the USA. Crime, poverty, well-dressed corruption, albeit on the low side, still exist in these places. It is not an African syndrome; it is a global pandemic, so to speak. We as Africans can do better. We still have a long way to go, but to look at every African and conclude that they all are starved of drinking water is a rather myopic view of a wonderful continent and its people.”
I was still staring at her. She had recoiled into her shells, somewhat ashamed of her earlier question. She could barely look me in the eye as she stared intently at the floor.
“I did not mean it like that,” she muttered.
“It’s okay. I understood you did not know, hence, my attempt to enlighten you a bit.”
“You know, we see pictures of sick children and people walking for miles to find water, so we think that is all you find in Africa.”
“If you visited Abuja in Nigeria, Tema in Ghana, Durban and Cape Town in South Africa, and a bunch of other cities in Africa, you’d be surprised at the level of growth and development you’d witness there.”
“I am sorry if you think I was being rude,” she apologized profusely. “I am not mad at you madam. My name is Victor by the way.”
“I am Yan,” she answered. “And you speak very good English,” she added.
Surprise was written all over her face over the fact that I spoke decent English.
“Thanks. English is our official Language in Nigeria.”
“Yes. I bet you thought we spoke some near-alien languages back there.” A sorry look invaded her face again. “I did not mean to embarrass you,” I said in attempt to abate her uneasiness. “But that is the fact though. Most countries in Africa speak English or French as their official languages.” I tried to drive home the point nonetheless.
“So what do you do for a living, madam?”
“I work in retail. And you?”
“I am a scientist,” I replied. “I am with the University in town,” I told her the name of the University where I work.
“You are a student there?”
Somehow, she could not shake off the idea that an African could not possibly be a scientist working for a top University.
“No madam. I am a doctor of Molecular Microbiology. I work for the University, not study.”
“By the way what is that? You studied that much to be a doctor of…” She could not recall my field of work.
“Molecular Microbiology,” I helped her fill in the gap. “It has to do with gene manipulations. Genetic engineering of microorganisms,” I tried to explain in the simplest of terms.
“Did you study here or back in Africa?”
“Both, sort of. I got one of my degrees in Africa, and the others in Europe.”
“You must be smart.”
“No, it is more of hard work than it is of smartness.”
“And you have Universities in Africa that taught you enough for you to cope in Europe when you studied there?”
“Very well madam. As far as I know, my African education was a solid foundation that got me going in Europe. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I had Indian classmates who struggled with the rigors of European education. My African colleagues and I did not have such problems. At least the ones I knew.”
I allowed myself a lazy smirk, which languidly hung unto the right side of my face for what seemed like eternity. She was still looking bemused. All of a sudden, everything she knew, or thought she knew about Africa was being turned upside down. I could tell that traces of doubt still stalked her mind, but that was her problem and not mine. I was pleased that I had held my temper to quietly drive home my point. The important thing was that I had severely weakened the foundations of her belief system about Africa. I could only hope that with time, the structures that had been erected in her mind about my continent would crumble to mere ruins. More importantly, I can only hope that someday, we would have leaders whose actions, initiatives, and policies would truly return Africa to preeminence and grandeur, so much so that Africans would no longer be viewed as pariahs by the rest of world. In the absence of that, it is our responsibility as Africans to walk tall and bold, in total disregard of what anyone may think of us, and to strive to rub shoulders with the very best at the top! I am proud to be identified as Nigerian and I have no intention of switching my allegiance any time soon!!!