Maj. Gen. William B. Garrett III, commander of U.S. Army Africa, looked homeward last Tuesday and gave this bleak assessment of us: "Most Americans view Africa, I think, as a country, and they tend to forget that we're talking about a continent here with over 50 countries in it, hundreds of languages, thousands of dialects."
Africa is not just one country. I know that. I even have proof: The Africa puzzle map we got our kids has more than one piece. That humble puzzle is the reason why I know Zambia from Zimbabwe and Mali from Mauritania. Still, while listening to Maj. Gen. Garrett's appearance last week on the U.S. Defense Deparment's "Bloggers Roundtable" podcast, I recognized myself.
I recognized myself because I'd drawn a complete blank a couple of days earlier when the BBC's Africa Today podcast began like this: "International condemnation following yesterday's violent security clampdown. We hear an eyewitness account of what happened in Conakry, as residents flee across the border."
Conakry? Conakry??? Given hours to scour my memory, I would not have been able to cough up the truth: that Conakry is the capital city of Guinea, a nation of 10 million people on Africa's west coast. Guinea's dire political condition can be gleaned from two paragraphs in a story in Friday's New York Times:
Three days after the massacre Monday in which as many as 157 people died protesting Captain (Moussa Dadis) Camara’s military rule, he rambled on to a gathering of reporters till nearly midnight as aides fidgeted under giant portraits of their leader. Then he offered to send the reporters to nightclubs.
“Whatever you want, at whatever time,” said Captain Camara, clad in the fatigues he never sheds. “On my tab, as chief of state.” For some reason he added, “I am incorruptible.”
Now, the news of as many as 157 slaughtered protesters made it all the way from Africa to my iPod within about 24 hours. That's hardly slow. But I would have known instantaneously if the authorities massacred 157 people in, say, Tehran. More to the point, I would not have reacted to the news with a confused "Tehran? Where's that?"
Having identified my Africa ignorance, I'm going to try to do something about it. I'll start with this Twitter feed, this short story by the author of the new Oprah book, and this blog where the guy who used to make my espresso here in Seattle now chronicles his travels in Africa.
UPDATE: After sleeping on this post, it occurred to me that Maj. Gen. Garrett's quote about "most Americans" is ripe for misuse -- by those who might take umbrage, by those who relish any chance to paint Americans as buffoons, etc. Before getting carried away with the Garrett quote, I'd encourage anyone to listen to his sensible, pragmatic remarks in their full context (about 23 minutes into this Defense Department podcast.)