Growing Up African: Debunking Stereotypes

Friday, December 3, 2010
By ugandansabroad


Yesterday, the cast of the new New York-based reality show Growing Up African spoke to Ugandans Abroad about the show, its theme, and how a Tanzanian family living abroad can illustrate the African immigrant experience.  Today, they spoke to us about how the show will debunk stereotypes about Africa and Africans, the market they’re targeting for the show, and the show’s life lessons for women and girls, among other topics.

By Arao Ameny

NEW YORK (Ugandans Abroad)—

Debunking Stereotypes about Africa and Africans

What does it mean to be African?

The Growing Up African cast wants audiences to question the stereotypes about Africans. Bea wants to go a step further by challenging audiences to step outside of their comfort zones and open their mind to the many definitions of what an African can be.

The fashion-conscious young woman attended high school here in New York.. She recalled how her classmates thought she was Jamaican, or from other part of the Caribbean Islands.

“As soon I told them I was African, they called me names,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was a movie or something they saw on the Discovery Channel. But until this point, I don’t understand what the name-calling was about.”

Bea insists that the show is about challenging these misconceptions and asking people to place their assumptions aside and see Africans from a more accurate lens– as family that live in houses, rater than everyone living in huts.

New York-based Johnson Lujwangana is part of the Growing Up African cast. He hopes the show will challenge stereotypes about Africans.

Johnson said that he is trying to change the perception that people get when they think of Africa or Africans. “I want people to see that we can be modern,” he said. “We want to show that Africans are diverse and have different characteristics. People don’t have to put us in one box. And once they learn about us in general terms, we will introduce what it means to be a Tanzanian.”

The African Market

The target audience for the “Growing Up African” show is anyone who is seeking to identify with the immigrant experience living in the United States. Johnson said the show’s target audience is as diverse as its cast members.

“I want to target that core audience that loves Africa or being African,” he said. “Right now, people in Africa and in Tanzania are the people who support us the most so the first thing we are going to do is feed the people who feed us the most.”

The cast members feed information to African bloggers first, who disseminate the information to their readers. “So when you see videos, you might see them in Swahili,“ he said. “We are targeting the African market first,” he said.

“So when you see videos, you might see them in Swahili because those are the people who support us the most. We are targeting the African market first,” He said.

The family in Tanzania, before their journey to the U.S.

Targeting the African market abroad and back home also means making sure that the image his family portrays is appropriate and acceptable to Africans, to avoid the misconceptions that already exist.

Johnson compared the endeavor to avoiding the fate of the reality show Jersey Shore, where an Italian-American family seemingly portrays all Italian-Americans but the impact and consequences of the show has been reinforcing some the negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans, something that Johnson said his family plans steer clear of.

“If we are telling the immigrant story incorrectly, other Africans are going to tell us if they hate it or like it,” he said. “We will change it so that once we get to the mainstream, we are representing the real African stories.”

“Growing Up African” takes place in Mount Vernon in Westchester County, New York.  Some of the siblings live in suburbs or in New York City. Johnson said that once the show grows and gains more popularity, they will be able to branch out and show other siblings that they have who live in other parts of the diaspora, like Greece, Spain, London, India and Malaysia. But for now, the show will feature cast members living in New York.

The first episode will premier on December 8th on the Growing Up African website, though previews for all five episodes are available on You Tube and the website.

Reality show tackles universal African topics & experiences

Jesca and Andrew, two of the siblings on the Growing Up African reality show.

The show will visit common family dynamics that highlight the importance of extended family in Africa where children can be cared for by others beyond the immediate
family.

“Two of my siblings grew up with my mom and grandmother. My little brother didn’t call my mom until he was 5 or 6,” said Johnson. “He called my mom Vicky because he was raised by my aunt. My sister didn’t see my Mom as mom wise until we were 10 or 12. We will explore be those relationships that I am sure Africans in general can relate to through personal experience.”

Negotiating and grappling with two very different cultures, American and Tanzanian, is another issue that the cast members explore on the show. Eliza, the eldest child, said her experience was finding a way to adopt to American culture without losing her identity as an African woman. This theme of balancing identity is also comparable to non-African immigrant groups.

“It is like marrying two cultures. I like being African, but I was also trying to assimilate to American culture and be American,” she said. “So I had to find a balance so that I remember who I am while adapting.”

Sibling squabbles will also be common throughout the show. Johnson and Bea fight all the time. Andrew and Eliza are close, but also frequently squabble. Like every other regular family, the Lujwanga family will show that although they love each other, they are just like any other African or American family that has good and bad days, something that audiences will be able to relate to.

What does it mean to be an African living in America?

The cast members of the “Growing Up African” show don’t find a contradiction with the title of the show, and the reality that they are growing up in the States.

Bea spending time with her brother Johnson.

Bea said that her family still considers themselves African, and are adaptive to American culture. The family is authentically African like many other immigrant communities with enclaves in New York who hold on to their customs, language and traditions while living among their American neighbors. Bea said she grew up in an authentically African household, even though her surroundings are American.

“For example, with Thanksgiving, we do our version of Thanksgiving, even though we do not have that holiday in Tanzania,“ she said. “But yet living in this country for [about] 15 years, you kind of adapt and translate that into what you consider your own Tanzanian-American Thanksgiving.” Bea says there’s no turkey at the Tanzanian Thanksgiving, only African food. Dishes like mandazi, pilau, matooke, samosas and other East African foods that Tanzanians and Ugandans typically eat are served.

One idea that comes up in the series is that Africans of all nationalities have the same immigrant story and must support each other, because they are in a foreign land. Johnson said that people may originate from different countries in Asia or Europe but when they arrive in America, they support each other because they are in a foreign land, far from home. As a result, the show will tackle the issue of unity among diverse African groups.

Eliza doesn’t think Africans should be offended if someone identifies them as from another nationality than their own. Instead, she says that the African immigrant populations need to support each other. “We have similar experiences being both black and immigrant in this country when we come here, so we need to support each other,” she said. “Even African-Americans and Caribbean people, we need to support each other.”

Life Lessons For Women and Girls

Mama Vicky is the matriarch of the brood.

Eliza wants their audience to walk away with lessons that they can apply to their own lives, especially acceptance and love for one’s own national and ethnic
identity. “I think for me, the most important thing is for women and little girls to relate to me and be proud of being African,” she said. “ I want them to just be okay with who they are.  You can do whatever you want as long as you are proud of yourself.”

Eliza said that Africans don’t have to look a certain way, act a certain way or mimic people like some try to do to fit in when the enter a new culture. “You don’t have to be like other people just to feel like you belong,” she said.

The “Growing Up African” show will also showcase the Lujwangana family’s father, a man in his seventies, who is currently residing in Tanzania. He, along with the five siblings’ half brothers and sisters will be seen in the show when life in Tanzania is covered.

The documentary series will also contain interviews from different groups like African-Americans and European-Americans about their perceptions of Africans. Eliza believes that talking is the starting point. “We need to change the idea that we are always at the bottom and if someone wants to insult you, he or she calls you ‘African,’” she said. “That needs to change.”

The stereotypes about people from Africa really irritate her. “Even today in 2010, people think we still live in trees, or all of us live in a hut. When a girl is pretty, people don’t believe she is Africa,” she said. “Why can’t she be African? They assume we all look a certain way. We are very different-looking. They say you are too beautiful to be African, and that is insulting. It is not a compliment.”

Working Across Cultures

What does it mean to grow up African in the diaspora?

Bea, the fashion-conscious sibling, said that she will be melting cultures in her pursuits working in the fashion world “A lot of like my personal style is Afro-chic and Western and I want to mold them together,” she said. “I still have my Tanzanian accent and proud of it. I want to incorporate my native culture into my work.” Bea hopes someday to be a fashion editor in an African magazine in the States, Tanzania or South Africa.”

The single message that Bea wants audiences to take away from the reality series is that as much as they want to focus on their own experiences growing up African, people from other immigrant groups are going through the same thing.

“A lot of my friends are all immigrants or come from different countries but we have the same goal,” she said. “We are all hungry for success.”

For more information:

-Growing Up African‘s website.

-Connect with Growing Up African cast members on Youtube

-Connect with Growing Up African cast members on Facebook

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to Ugandans Abroad.

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