The complexity and authenticity of Africa

I lecture at several universities in the Czech Republic and abroad, and teach multiple courses that are related to Africa in one way or another (for instance, at UNYP I teach African Politics and Society). People frequently ask me “why Africa?” and this complex question requires a complex response. I believe that as human beings, we should be interested in what is going on in the world around us as a matter of principle. We are never truly isolated from the rest of the planet, but we interact with diversity and humanity on a daily basis, even if indirectly. 

However, while we are citizens of the world, it is natural to have a particular interest in what directly surrounds us. I am a Central European, and so it is to be expected that I am interested in the regions surrounding Europe (including Africa and the Middle East). These are the regions that directly and indirectly influence our daily lives and the way we think of the outside world, whether we are talking about the migration crisis, terrorism, globalization or EU foreign policy. As a researcher, I am constantly struck by the immense discrepancy between the way that Africa is portrayed (for instance by the mainstream media) and the reality. Everybody who has ever spent significant time anywhere in an African country (in this instance, it does not matter which one) will recognize this contrast between the lived reality and the stereotypes from the Global North.

On a personal level, to me Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, is a place of possibility. Every day, there is an opportunity to explore and learn new things (about the culture, human interaction, the way society works) and to encounter some of the most interesting and genuine people I have ever met. My interest in modern and contemporary history and politics, and the general social and political dynamics in Ethiopia, has brought me into contact with a diverse range of people. For example, I have been inspired by meeting people who have been imprisoned in conditions beyond our imagination, but who still have an enormous amount of positive energy. 

It is important not to idealize Africa. However, to me the various African nations exemplify hospitality, authenticity, and the realization that so many of the problems we deal with in Europe are relatively trivial. Over the years, I have met many Europeans who decided to exchange their comfortable lives in Europe for a more “authentic” African reality. Quite a few people mention leaving their pre-planned, money- and profit-driven lives for a life where time has a different dimension, and where social bonds have broader and deeper meaning and value. Travelling and living in Africa is for people who are able and willing to see the world in its complexity, not as a “black-and-white” world in which everything is “clear” and “understandable”. Those who have the resilience and flexibility to do this this will gain new insights from the multiple layers of daily life in a country such as Ethiopia. 

As an instructor, nothing can be more rewarding for me than inspiring a student to explore Africa for themselves, no matter what they intend to settle on as their career path.  Ultimately, the exploration of “the other” is at the same time the exploration of one’s self. And that is what matters in life, no matter what people eventually do as their professional job. Travelling and “exploring” the world, hand in hand with the ability to speak different languages, understand multiple layers of cultural relativism, and see the world in its complexity, are the greatest advantages that people can have when entering the job market. Based on my personal experience as a researcher, instructor and human being, Africa is the best place to start this process.

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