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Back on the Map: Africa

Africa. Most of us know little about it. Even some important political figures [www.huffingtonpost.com] in this country don’t even know it’s a continent. I remember an assignment my freshman history teacher at Berkeley High gave us that demonstrated to me how ignorant so many of us, even in the “enlightened” town of Berkeley, were about Africa. My teacher asked us each to write down anonymously what came to mind when we heard the word, “Africa.” We then handed her what we had written and she read them all aloud: “Big, equator, wild animals, AIDS, poverty, Kenya, Ghana, AIDS, elephants.” And this was Berkeley. Not that our public schools are recognized for providing an outstanding education, but they were known for teaching cultural awareness. Apparently this lesson also fell short.

In a high school that offered African American economics classes as an alternative to “regular” economics classes, African American psychology, a mandatory ethnic studies class for all freshman and Swahili language as an alternative to French and Spanish, it was pretty upsetting to discover that very few of us knew much about Africa, especially considering how much we had learned about Europe, Latin America and even part of Asia.

The problem, as I saw it, was that for most of us—and the ethnic and racial break-down of Berkeley High School mirrors that of the country—Africa did not seem relevant the way Europe or even Latin America did. Few of us had been there (and for those of us who have been to Africa, it was probably to Morocco via Spain).

But if anyone in this country felt that Africa was not relevant before, it is now. Our president-elect is the son of a Kenyan. For those of us who have felt little reason to live abroad, there is now. Obama spent much of his childhood with his family in Indonesia. For those of us who believe that single-parent homes cannot provide what children need, we now know they can. Our president-elect was raised by a single mother. He only knew his father for one month.

Obama’s win is a victory for Africa—and thereby for the world for finally paying attention to a significant part of it that has traditionally gone ignored. It’s a victory for those with international backgrounds, for cross-cultural understanding, for exploration, for curious minds, for single parents and their children and for everyone one else in their communities.

–Jamie Wong