So, as a society, can we collectively decide to stop referring to Africa as if it’s some singular, homogeneous entity? Africa is a huge continent – much larger than the Mercartor projection has led us to believe and is home to between 54 and 57 countries, depending on who you ask (It’s 55 if you ask the African Union, for example). It boasts a plethora of languages, a variety of cultures, and a multitude of social, political, and economic features. Trying to generalize what it means to be “African” is exactly as ignorant as trying to minimize the diversity you see in Europe or Asia. I’m sick of people referring to Africa as a singular entity, and I’m sick of people thinking it’s, as my little brother put it, “all dirt roads and zebras”. We are above this, kittens; it’s silly and ignorant and we can do better.

In my first semester of grad school, I had this awful marketing class with a professor whose competence was – how do I put this? – questionable. It was a usual day, starting off with the “marketing mix” question – “What is a ‘marketing mix?'” I swear the woman asked us that question every single class the whole semester. Anyway, after we discussed that for the nth time, we began discussing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Now, I have strong feelings about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think it’s nonsense. If you don’t know what it is, it’s this pyramid diagram that shows how certain needs have to be met before other needs are accessible. At its base are the most, well, basic biological needs – food, water, oxygen, and the like. The next tier involve security needs – that is, you need to feel safe in your environment before you can access the next tier of needs: relationships. Once you’ve established friendships and family connections, and perhaps a romantic relationship, your next goal is what is called “esteem needs”, a tier which concerns confidence and respect. Self-actualization is the top of the pyramid and it involves intellectual and creative stimulation.

Okay so, clearly, there are lots of holes in this concept – like Swiss cheese, but far less pleasing. Of course, you can’t survive without meeting your biological needs, but is someone who cannot meet their security needs – for example, someone living in an active war zone – immune to needing familial relationships, respect, and intellectual stimulation? Are security and social relationships not considered basic needs? Are esteem needs really higher on the totem pole than social needs? It seems to me that these needs would go together. If someone is struggling to meet their basic needs, such as the extremely poor and homeless, are the incapable of requiring respect and security?

My main criticism is, however, more that this hierarchy doesn’t really teach you anything, and in the classes that have used this diagram, there’s no useful context given as to why it’s important or relevant to anything. This class was no exception. As an example, our professor told us that people in highly developed countries, such as Germany or the United States, might require something like internet to be happy, whereas people in Africa need to meet their more basic needs in order to be happy, such as food and shelter.

This is so incredibly ignorant, to have these words come from an educator was more than disappointing. First of all, while it is true that people in highly developed countries enjoy internet access, so do people in the many, many countries that make up the enormous continent of Africa. In fact, if memory serves, the U.N. declared internet access a basic human right in 2012. People need it – and deserve access to it – all over the world. Secondly, there are PLENTY of people in highly developed countries who struggle to meet their basic biological needs, the poor and homeless. Social welfare programs and non-profit organizations attempt to reach this demographic, but this is far from a perfect system.

I could go on. This kind of ignorant thinking needs to stop. We have so much information at our fingertips, we should know better than to succumb to these overdone tropes so blindly. Luckily, in that class, two of our exchange students from South Africa spoke up, and some other students raised their own concerns; we need more of this. Stereotypes are so 20th century.


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