Before my emigration to the United States five years ago, I was known as a Nigerian of the Yoruba ethnic group. I was also a Western-educated woman with certain privileges and high expectations.
Since coming here, though, my identity has changed. I am now an "African woman." My culture, attitude, and experience are presumed to reflect all of Africa, a continent of 55 countries, 400 million people, and thousands of ethnic and linguistic groups. By definition, I am supposed to be poor, uneducated, and ridden with disease.
My first jolt came one evening in 1991, when I was a new immigrant. I was watching a public-television documentary about little children's first day at school in such countries as Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, of course, "Africa."
"Africa is not a country," was my first thought. But what followed was even more distressing. While parents in other countries were shown engaging in different rituals of sending children to school, in "Africa," children were seen climbing trees in the forest. This, the narrator said, is something they learn from older children. I could not believe my eyes.
I grew up in a rural town in Nigeria. We had five primary schools and a high school. There was a post office and a small clinic. All these facilities have since expanded as Nigeria grew rich from its oil.
I remember my first day at school. My father took me, and I was so proud to be wearing a school uniform, carrying my black slate and chalk. I recall the elegance of my teacher: I wanted to dress and walk just like her. I persuaded my father to buy hair ornaments for me, even though my hair was closely cropped, as is the hair of all little children.
My primary school, run by the Anglican mission, had many flower gardens that were carefully cultivated and tended by the pupils under the supervision of the teachers.
In high school, we studied Shakespeare, George Eliot, Jonathan Swift, the Bronte sisters, and Charles Dickens. Under British colonial rule, generations of Nigerians studied such writers to the exclusion of African authors.
My teenage idol was Nancy Drew, an American teenage detective I discovered in my father's library one vacation. I read the books many times over.
The TV documentary didn't show any of this. I can understand such misconceptions from the average person. But in December 1993, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, returning from trade talks in Switzerland, jokingly implied that African leaders were cannibals.
I was shocked to read this, not only because of the insult, but also because of what it implied about the great ignorance of the realities of our lives.
Some of the worst riots in Nigeria have their roots in the disparity between the opulent lifestyles of the elite - the privileged diplomats who traveled to Geneva - and the austere lives forced on the rest of the population by the government. …