No matter how hard I try, I will never understand why people, especially those who claim the literati status, believe that Africa – an incredibly diverse continent with 54 countries and over 3000 different ethnic groups – is a country. Nonetheless, I believe I would be more forgiving if the ‘one-country’ assumption were extended to West Africa. This leniency is informed by my experience in West Africa so far especially the observations from my recent trip to Mali. In this article, I will share my opinion on why I think there might be some merit to the claim that “West Africa is a country”.
“Stripped of their colonial legacies of land borders and official languages, countries in West Africa are in reality, a group of people with a shared history and culture”
Like you might guess, the extent of similarity in culture, perspectives and realities tops my list. Nigeria’s Almajiri, Senegal’s Talibé, Mali’s Manya, all referring to religion-inspired street children, are one of the first things you would notice when you visit big cities in predominantly Islamic countries in West Africa.
In West Africa, ethnicity transcends borders. Stripped of their colonial legacies of land borders and official languages, countries in West Africa are in reality, a group of people with a shared history and culture. The Fulani ethnic group for example, spans across different countries in West Africa – Nigeria, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Ghana and Niger. Yoruba people can also be found in – Benin, Togo, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire where they are referred to as Anango. The Bambara language is spoken not only in Mali but also in Burkina-Faso.
Besides the extent of similarity in culture, another thing that unites West African countries is the unending list of paradoxes: the simultaneous co-existence of breathtaking natural landmarks and dilapidating social infrastructure, the juxtaposition of literal gold mines and squalor, the awkward harmony between palpable pain and hope.
As a Nigerian who has been resident in Dakar for the past five years, being in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, felt so familiar. Depending on the specific location in the city, it seemed I was in Ibadan’s Beere or in Dakar’s Medina. The city infrastructure in most West African countries are similar though in my estimation, Mali has a lot more work to do to catch up with some other countries. But for the Bambara language that was spoken, I could have successfully fooled my mind into believing I was in Dakar.
On the topic of languages, like I told my friend who was gracious enough to take me on a crash sightseeing trip, I find it almost depressing that street children in Bamako, like in Dakar, cannot speak French which is the official language. Notwithstanding our conservatism towards colonial languages like French, and English, knowledge of these languages increases our chances to build the kind of countries we deserve. So, I found it rather depressing that young children are starting out their lives without knowledge of these languages.
While I run the risk of generalizing, I think it is safe to say that men in West Africa view unmarried young women from other countries as damsels in distress who must be urgently rescued from the dungeon of singlehood. “Tu es mariée? French for “are you married?” is the Dakar taxi driver’s favorite opening line. In Bamako, most young men, even immigration officers offer to take you sightseeing and request your phone number. I thought it was mere banter but the frequency of such offers made me realize it was Bamako’s version of Joey’s “How you doing?” in the sit-com Friends.
While I do not intend to colour this lighthearted opinion piece about West Africa with grimness, corruption is an invincible cankerworm that has eaten deep into the fabric of most West African countries crippling systems, businesses and causing unnecessary deaths in its ravage. I noticed for example, that the roads in Mali are not in good condition and though taxi drivers pay annual road maintenance fees, they have to drive on bad roads to earn their daily bread.
I hope countries in West Africa can soon boast of visionary leaders who will leverage on her common heritage, harness her socio-economic potential, and celebrate her diversity.