Africa is Not a Country: Racist Geography By Victoria Falendysh
An excerpt from The Treaty of Berlin, signed Feb. 26, 1885 outlines, “WISHING, in a spirit of good and mutual accord, to regulate the conditions most favourable to the development of trade and civilization in certain regions of Africa, and to assure to all nations the advantages of free navigation on the two chief rivers of Africa flowing into the Atlantic Ocean…” an effort that defined and redefined national borders on the African continent. Making over twenty independent governing bodies one, for easier division and exploitation of the diverse terrain and plentiful resources. This resulted in a period of imperialism on the African continent, where the Europeans took land by force. As opposed to negotiating lands and deciding in coalition with the leaders of each respective nation, participants in the Treaty stole land without regard for borders and dividends; they focused on obtaining the most similar terrain to their country's geography. Africa has eight major physical regions including the Sahara, the Sahel, the Ethiopian Highlands, the savanna, the Swahili Coast, the rainforest, the African Great Lakes, and Southern Africa, all homes to a diverse array of animals and plants.
Countries such as Tanzania with greater elevation and a less forgiving climate were captured by the German empire, a people more conditioned to mountainous regions. This area of land expanded and spanned as far as Burundi, Cameroon, Namibia, Rwanda, and Togo. The effort severed the clear borders of each country and lumped them under one affiliation- property of the German Empire. The Europeans would delegate land to their own volition and seize all resources possible.
The idea that Africa is a country stems from the scramble for land executed by several European countries. Bringing it to the status of a single organ allowed the Treaty of Berlin to more easily delegate lands to power hungry Europeans with the intent to exploit the abundant resources and human workforce.
Contrary to the Treaty’s promise to be mutually beneficial for all countries involved, Europeans did not withhold from using economic and physical violence on the governments of the African countries in order to gain possession of land. The continent’s diverse regional climate allowed colonizers to reap profitable products such as palm oil, rubber, copper, cotton, tea, ivory, diamonds, and gold as well as a vast variety of various plants Europeans had never seen before due to the difference in soil quality. In fact, the majority of the colonizer’s countries had soil that was poor and dry, making it unsuitable for mass farming.
The overuse of African soil across all terrains hindered future production of sustenance after Europeans lost their clutches on the lands in the 1960’s. Seeing as commerce was completely controlled and regulated by the oligopolistic colonizers, all networks through which products were exchanged had been lost. In fact, less than 10% of the national production was given back to the people who manufactured it; the majority of resources were sent out internationally. In the 1970’s famine spread across the continent, a result of the drought stricken and overworked land, as well as unreliable connection with external trade which was solely built on the fluctuations of international markets. To combat this, a variety of systems were proposed and established with which all African countries could benefit from internal commerce and transnational corporate investment.
The autonomous network of systems did not diminish international imports or exports despite the new systems which benefited Africans making the products. In Zambia this dynamic was maintained through tariff-protected factories established by the government which supported the use of raw materials to create new modernized machinery for international exportation.This was a true victory for the nations which were stripped of the controlling system they had grown accustomed to.
Across the continent, each nation’s success varied depending on organization and strength of independent government, setting a clear distinction between the countries. However, while the majority of African countries flourished, places such as South Africa were still plagued by white supremacy (one tactic utilized to oppress the South African people was to illegalize liberation groups). It was there that many white-owned farms, mines, and factories remained and still exist to this day. “It has been estimated that about a third of the rapidly expanding South African foreign debt of over $9 billion has been arranged by US banks and financial institutions”. This was a tactic used to maintain control over South Africa by exploitive nations such as the United States which still benefits from low-cost labor and stolen land. Between 1972 and 1976, US transnational firms invested more than they ever had in financial support of the White minority regime in South Africa with a whopping $691 million (a monumental sum in relation to modern standards as well).
**TW: Mentions of slavery, torture, and violence
Although the Europeans left many African countries with economic trauma, the most harrowing injustice that resulted from imperialism was physical violence against citizens of the captured countries. A notable example of this was King Leopold II’s militarized presence in the Congo. Belgium established rubber and copper mines, profits from which directly went to King Leopold II’s pockets. The Congolese, especially young men, were forced to work inhumane hours and were tortured if they didn't meet the day’s quota (this included severing the hands, feet, and tongues of the workers). All records of the terror were actively erased from the Congo’s history by Belgian officials. In documentation, they reduced the nation to another exploited mass of land.
Immortalizing the violence against the Congolese places clear distinctions between the historical impact on different nations within Africa, while ignoring this denies the citizens justice for their ancestors. Grouping the different territories into one country erases the losses suffered by the families of those who died as martyrs for a rich White man’s pocket. Forgetting the impact of imperialism on each nation essentially overlooks the historical foundations for the current White supremacy. An example of this being today’s slave trade market in Libya which demonstatrates that White supremacists still exploit human workforce in some African nations.
Assuming the struggles of an individualized country are shared by all nations supports the deeply racist idea that Africa is an uncivilized space holding only small ungoverned villages and underdeveloped land. In addition to this, ignoring the success of countries such as Egypt under colonization is indicative of a White saviour complex which is prominent in the Treaty of Berlin itself: the idea that Africans needed European involvement to flourish. This notion overlooks the Congo’s success in organization after the end of Belgian presence.
The greatest perpetrator of this very mindset is the media. A “Time magazine article, ‘Africa's Drinking Problem,’... took a few scattered facts and anecdotes about alcoholism in Kenya and decided to create a story about an entire population's issues with alcohol. ‘While governments in the West are considering minimum pricing standards for alcohol, in nearly a dozen countries across Africa...’” the author, Jessica Hatcher, wrote. Her ignorance led to a false idea, which perpetuated a harmful image that Americans hold about Africans, a factor of White privilege. When an article is written about an issue found in any European country it is not representative of all of Europe and therein lies the issue and an example of privilege.
A former citizen of Nigeria immigrating to America would be met with automatic assumptions about the ‘country’ they came from because the U.S. President George W. Bush said in a 2001 speech, “Africa is a nation that suffers from terrible disease,” without mentioning that the Meningococcal disease was only affecting Ethiopia while Nigeria exported and still produces the majority of the world’s oil. Europeans have held this image since first touching African soil in their ‘respectfully’ divided corners of the continent. (The irony lying in the fact that the land was not delegated respectfully at all seeing as the Europeans had no claim to it.)
In order to understand where the racist idea comes from, it is imperative to look at how it cultivated and changed through the course of history. The labeling of Africa as a country was originally rooted in making it easier to exploit. Now, it is used as a way to continue perpetuating negative stereotypes and to hide the success of all African nations on various global spectrums, including the social, political, technological, medical and foremost, the economical.
The Treaty of Berlin and the Convention of Constantinople. 1878. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/60242102. Accessed 24 July 2020.
“Problems of Industrialization in Africa.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion, vol. 7, no. 4, 1977, pp. 23–25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1166392. Accessed 24 July 2020.