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
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
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
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. …