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African views on Mandela vary by country [Commentary]

Africa is a continent, not a country. However, most of the world refers to Africa as one collective, with little attention paid toward borders; a practice most Africans resent. And it has never been quite as prevalent as in the last few days since Nelson Mandela's passing.

I am an American citizen who is a resident of Botswana. I travel extensively throughout Africa and routinely meet all nationalities and classes of Africans. I witness firsthand the resentment toward uninformed Westerners and foreign media who make generalizations about the continent based on a single data point.

On Friday morning I was in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe with about 50 Zimbabweans; 30 Batswana,as the citizens of Botswana are known; and two other Americans at a U.S. Embassy sponsored youth exchange when I heard the news about Mandela. I knew there would be an immediate reaction, but I could have never predicted what I observed. While respectful, there was no pronounced show of emotion or grief. Since the group was in a national park without Internet or phone access, the news was delivered by an embassy staffer. There was no gasp of shock or expression of condolence. Instead, they shook their heads in acceptance and kept moving throughout their day as if nothing noteworthy occurred.

Here in Africa you don't see the same outpouring of emotion evident throughout the rest of the world. And no one here understands it. There are no black ribbons, moments of silence or flowers left outside the South African embassy. Someone asked me yesterday why a white person from the United Kingdom or a country like the U.S. would care so much about Mandela's passing. Struggling to find an appropriate answer I mumbled something about human rights and racial reconciliation. His response?: "Why does that matter to you? He wasn't your president. He wasn't even my president."

The primary media in Africa is radio. And the stations have been buzzing with talk of Mandela, but with a different spin than what you see on TV overseas. Yesterday some Batswana friends and I listened to a broadcast discussing why no one outside the continent could name a great African leader aside from Mandela. The general consensus was that Mandela was the only positive African figure anyone could name. If someone could name another individual it was likely a dictator known for less desirable reasons such as Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe or Moammar Gaddafi. There seems to be a widespread feeling of disappointment with this belief, as there have been notable positive African leaders, yet they are overshadowed by Mandela.

Next-door neighbors, Zimbabwe and Botswana are two Southern African countries with drastically opposing histories. Zimbabwe has endured three decades of harsh rule by Mr. Mugabe, a known human rights violator who allowed hyperinflation to lead to the suspension of the national currency in 2009 — the same year that the unemployment rate there reached 95 percent. Botswana, on the other hand, has enjoyed peace and prosperity since independence in 1966. Botswana transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income country, due in large part to the diamond industry, democratic rule and a stable society.

Despite their divergent situations, both Zimbabweans and Batswana have a similar ambivalent opinion toward Mandela's death, for different reasons. The Batswana are disappointed their leaders have not been recognized. Botswana is one of the few African countries that never had a race issue, possibly due to the fact the country's first president was married to a white British woman. On a trip to the grocery store yesterday I overheard someone say, "Why can't they recognize us? It's like being punished for not having apartheid."

By contrast, Zimbabwe is looking forward to Mr. Mugabe's death with anticipation. More than one Zimbabwean colleague has told me the country is biding its time until Mr. Mugabe's demise because they are confident it will finally yield some hope for the nation. Mr. Mugabe must remain in power until his death, they say; If he steps down, he will either be taken to The Hague or the people will hunt him down in the streets and demand his head for everything he's put them through.

No doubt Mandela was a historic figure in the elimination of apartheid. However, his deification by the Western media appears to citizens in other African nations as puzzling. This may be the opportune moment to not only celebrate the life and legacy of a great African leader, but also to call attention to the fact there is more diversity in Africa than many people acknowledge.

Kelly Virginia Phelan, a Baltimore native, is a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor of tourism at the University of Botswana. She blogs about her life and experiences in Africa at drphelanipresume.blogspot.com. Her email is kelly.phelan@ttu.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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