UBCO: Putting Africa on students’ mental maps

A handful of UBCO students want their classmates to know Africa is not a country.

  • Mar. 4, 2011 3:00 p.m.

Suud Nahdi (left) and Uba Mohammed hold traditional African food

A handful of UBCO students want their classmates to know Africa is not a country.

While it might sound like a joke, fourth-year biochemistry student Suud Nahdi and international relations student Uba Mohammed said they’re helping host Africa Awareness Week on campus to ensure everyone in their adopted community understands Africa is neither a place to pity nor one homogenous continent comprised of the kids one sees in world hunger commercials.

“You can’t speak the African language,” said Nahdi. “There is no such thing. We speak all different languages. There are 54 countries.”

Nahdi came from a high school offering the international baccalaureate in Tanzania where UBC recruiters snapped him up. He chose to come to UBCO because he enjoys the smaller town feel having grown up in the small community of Iringa, Tanzania.

When he arrived, however, he admits he was surprised to find perceptions of Africa, particularly here in the Okanagan, were often ill-informed and some students seemed generally disinterested in hearing about it.

After attending a conference on the UBC Vancouver campus on raising awareness of Africa in academic studies, he thought the Okanagan campus could actually use an event to simply raise awareness of some of the geographic and cultural basics.

Africa is a very diverse place, he said. Plenty of people go to work in a business suit carrying a brief case, just as anyone in Canada might do. He would like to see his classmates appreciate this perspective.

Mohammed is originally from Kenya, though her family is currently living in Geneva, Switzerland as her father serves as a United Nations senior economist for the International Labour Organization. She wants to follow her father into the UN, and said she too was a little surprised by the reaction she got when she told people she was here from Africa.

“No one asks what country. They just say: ‘Oh.’”

If a celebrity has been there, then they want to know,” she said, noting she resorted to telling people Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had stayed in her home country for a period to attract interest.

The other typical reaction, she said, boils down to a stereotype that people from Africa are all impoverished.

“It is not all poor. We have fashion. We have everything that they have in the North, it’s just not shown,” she said.

In fact, Mohammed says ignorance and good intentions often lead to troubling consequences for people on the continent when those from wealthier countries send money instead of taking the time to offer targeted help aimed at ensuring Africans can choose how to develop themselves.

For this week, both international students said they are starting small, trying to get their classmates to see just a little bit more of their homeland than they might have known before.

With samples of sim sim (a sesame sugar treat), kasha (a sweet coconut cookie) and kola kande (a peanut brittle-type snack) on hand, they were playing African-themed trivia mid-week with plans to host a major potluck event Friday evening.

For more information about Africa Awareness Week visit the website www.ubc.ca/okanagan/students/international/welcome.html.

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