By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph,D.
I didn’t think the “Africa-is-a-country” ignorance that pervades America—and Europe—could get any more bizarre than African-American rap artist Rick Ross’s infamous June 24, 2013 tweet that he had “Just landed in the beautiful country of Africa.” But it did. Sadly.
|Rapper Rick Ross|
A few days ago, an African-American lady, who is a professor of journalism at an American university, asked me if Nigeria was the name of a city in Africa! I kid you not. If you think I’m making this up, you would be forgiven. I, too, would never believe this if someone told me.
The lady was a participant at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Washington DC on August 8 where I presented a paper on what I called a public sphere history of Nigerian journalism. (AEJMC is America’s oldest and most prestigious professional association for journalism and mass communication scholars).
After making admittedly thoughtful remarks on my paper, the lady said she wanted me to clarify a point I made in my paper about the Nigerian newspaper tradition being older than Nigeria itself. Although I clearly explained that in my paper, which she obviously read given her detailed familiarity with its content, I went ahead and restated that Iwe Irohin fun awon Egba ati Yoruba (meaning newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba people), the newspaper that is the progenitor of contemporary Nigerian newspapers, was established in 1859, while Nigeria wasn’t formally colonized by Britain until January 1, 1901. That means, I pointed out, the newspaper tradition is more than a quarter of a century older than Nigeria. Many Nigerian media historians have made the same point in the past. So I wasn’t saying anything earth-shattering.
But her next question threw me off completely.
“So is Nigeria the name of a city in Africa?” she asked.
I thought she was cracking a joke at the expense of rapper Rick Ross whose tweet about landing “in the beautiful country of Africa” has been the butt of ridicule, wisecracks, and digs on cyber space. So instead of answering her, I let out a polite laughter.
“Why is that funny? I just wanted to know what Nigeria is. Is that the name of a city?” she insisted.
Her sober, deadpan demeanor told me she was dead serious. So I told her Nigeria is the name of a country in West Africa, and that it’s one of Africa’s 54 countries. With a population of nearly 175 million, I added, it’s Africa’s most populous country and its 14th largest in landmass. I didn’t fail to add that the ancestral roots of many American blacks are located in many parts of what has been known as Nigeria since 1914.
“Your English is excellent! Is your Nigerian as good as your English?” she asked.
“Thanks, but there is no language called Nigerian. Nigeria is just the name of a country, and it has over 400 distinct languages. English is Nigeria’s official language because it was colonized by Britain,” I said.
I couldn’t help feeling like I was talking to a kindergartener. After our encounter, I searched her name on the Internet and found, to my utter astonishment, that she actually got her Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Missouri, the first university in the world to offer a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1908. (The University of Missouri, fondly called “Mizzou” by its students and alumni, is also the first university in the world to offer a master’s degree in journalism in 1921 and the first to offer a Ph.D. in journalism in 1934.) Apart from getting her Ph.D. from a prestigious program, she is a full professor of journalism.
I still haven’t been able to fathom the depth of incuriousness it must take for a middle-aged African-American journalism professor to have never heard of Nigeria until August 8, 2013. It makes me wonder if she literally lives under a rock.
Now, let me be clear: This woman’s incuriousness is atypical of the African Americans I have met here. I have never encountered any black American with the woman’s level of educational and professional accomplishments who is that unbelievably witless. And that’s why it’s newsworthy for me.
My experience with the woman has compelled me to revise my opinions about the link between education and knowledge. The woman is certainly well-educated. She has published copious scholarly work in her subfield of journalism and had worked for many years as a news reporter in a small town before venturing into academia. Yet she had never heard of Nigeria, even though her African ancestors could very have been Ibibio, or Idoma, or Ebira, or Igbo—or any number of Nigerian ethnic groups.
I also realized that rapper Rick Ross who tweeted that he had “landed in the beautiful country of Africa” attended the historically black Albany State University located here in the state of Georgia, and had visited Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa on many occasions. The pull of carefully cultivated ignorance, it seems, is way stronger than the push of the best education and exposure in the world.
The mischaracterization of Nigeria as a “city in Africa” by an experienced black American journalism professor is all the more ironic for me because it is contemporaneous with my lamentations on this blog about the astounding magnitude of ignorance that Nigerians have of each other.