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[Feature] Ignorance about Africa still rampant in Korea

Koreans see Africa a region to help, not as 54 individual countries, say residents and experts

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : May 28, 2024 - 11:30

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A view of business district of Cape Town, South Africa (123rf) A view of business district of Cape Town, South Africa (123rf)

Taiwo Victoria Anuoluwapo recalled a scene from her favorite K-drama, “Shooting Stars,” which aired in 2022. It depicted a protagonist leaving for Africa to help dying children and provide clean water.

Whenever similar scenes appear in K-dramas and movies, Taiwo cannot hide her bewilderment.

“We love K-culture a lot in Nigeria, and it’s always painful when we see stuff like that,” said Taiwo, 28, a Nigerian studying in Chungnam National University in Daejeon.

“K-dramas using lines about saving the whole of Africa show ignorance, and I believe movie directors should know better,” she said. “Where I come from, we aren’t suffering over there.”

Africa has changed significantly over the past decades, but Korean perceptions of the continent remain stuck two to three decades in the past, according to Heo Sung-yong, who leads Africa Insight since 2013, an organization dedicated to promoting a better understanding of Africa in Korea.

“One of the misconceptions comes from Korea's lack of both direct and indirect exposure to Africa and its people,” he said.

A 2023 Gallup Korea survey shows that 95.8 percent of Koreans have never visited any African country. And the chance to encounter anyone from Africa within Korea is rare, with less than 1 percent of the 2.6 million foreign nationals in the country coming from that part of the world.

“Amid the lack of exposure, Koreans have been introduced to Africa through shocking media content or NGO campaign videos portraying emaciated children dying from starvation,” Heo said.

The same Gallup survey showed that the main medium through which Koreans are exposed to Africa is UNICEF, which regularly airs television commercials portraying starving African children. This was followed by other similar non-profit organizations and media outlets.

A woman walks by a building with a map of Sudan painted on it. (Getty Images) A woman walks by a building with a map of Sudan painted on it. (Getty Images)

Multiple Africans interviewed by The Korea Herald expressed general satisfaction with living in South Korea. However, they noted that they still encounter bias, misperceptions, and unpleasant experiences due to their origin.

Alem Araya, 30, an Ethiopian who came to Korea in 2018, said he is proud of his forefathers who contributed to Korea’s peace and stability during the Korean War.

“As an Ethiopian, I had some knowledge of the historical cooperation between Korea and Ethiopia during the Korean War and the remarkable developmental progress Korea has made since then,” said Alem, a postdoctoral researcher at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

Alem finds Koreans around him are generally logical and rational. However, people he encounters outside school can be different.

“When people ask where I am from, their reaction is often less positive compared to the reception my friends with white skin receive,” he said. “I sometimes sense this difference when meeting new people.”

One Ghanaian, who wished to remain anonymous, said he enjoyed his stay in Korea, which is now over eight years, but had experienced unpleasant incidents at times.

One day, when he was trying to sit down on the subway, a woman in her late 40s shouted at him not to sit even though there were three empty seats. When Koreans sat down in those seats, she remained silent. On another day, as soon as he sat in the back seat of a bus, a couple of Koreans sitting there stood up and moved to other seats.

“Some Koreans think Africans are poor, selfish and not smart,” he said.

Many Koreans also view Africa as a single country instead of 54 individual nations.

Alabi Abdulqudus Olayinka, a 30-year-old Nigerian studying for a master’s degree at KDI School of Public Policy and Management through KOICA's fellowship program, shared his experience.

“Some find it hard to believe that even in Africa, we have different traditions, cultures and languages,” he said. “We have countries in Africa with French, English, Arabic and Portuguese as official languages.”

This perception of Africa as a single entity exacerbates negative views of the continent, said Kim You-ah, author of the 2021 book "My First Africa Class."

When Koreans see shocking news happening in one or two African countries, they generalize it to the entire continent, believing that the whole of Africa is dangerous and extremely impoverished.

Africa as a whole is also used for bad connotations. When news outlets compare a certain bad situation in Korea to an “African level,” it implies Korea is in the worst possible state.

Kim does not believe such bias and misperceptions will change overnight because Korea is not the only country with biases against Africa. Much of the content depicting Africa in a negative light originally comes from Western countries, she explained.

"The first step we can take to address such misinformation is improving education," said Kim, who published her book in 2021 due to the lack of accurate information about Africa.

“Africa takes up only a very small portion of the Korean education curriculum, and even that contains many inaccuracies. It seems that educators lack correct knowledge and do not seem to care about the misinformation,” she said.

“We should increase the portion of Africa in the curriculum and provide accurate information through fact-checking,” she said.

Taiwo from Nigeria hopes that as much as K-culture gains popularity Africa, Koreans too develop a better understanding of her country and her continent.

“In almost all African countries, everything we own is completely paid for -- our houses, cars, properties, and school fees, to name a few,” she said. “But people think we are wretched and living in jungles. Africa is too big a continent for that type of careless overgeneralization.”