As an Egyptian-American, I had no idea how the rest of Africa felt about my country, or how Egyptians felt about being on the continent — until I saw the Twitter hashtag #IfAfricaWasASchool, which has been trending over the past week.
It made me laugh out loud. Clearly, we Egyptians are a bit snobby.
The hashtag invites people to assign various schoolyard archetypes — nerds, jokes, popular kids and more — to countries in Africa. And sure, it's funny. But it also sheds some light on African countries' reputations and relationships with each other. Just as New Jersey and New York are state rivals, Ghana and Nigeria have a rivalry, too — over which country cooks the best jollof rice, a one-pot dish popular in West Africa.
"The hashtag is a celebration of what makes each country unique in a fun way," says Semhar Araia, an Eritrean-American social activist and head of Semai Consulting, a firm focused on getting members of the African diaspora to get involved with global poverty issues. She actively tweets on pan-African issues and has participated in the hashtag. "It shows that despite the circumstances, despite what politicians may say, there's a real joy in being African."
And it invites Africans of all stripes to participate. "It's exciting to think about people from Cairo, Johannesburg, Lagos — and even Africans living abroad — on their phones, laughing together," says Araia.
On a deeper level, the social exchange defies backward stereotypes the West may have about people on the continent, says Teddy Ruge, a writer, entrepreneur and aid critic based in Uganda. A prominent African voice on Twitter, Ruge is the co-founder of a satirical card game called Jaded Aid and the CEO of Raintree Farms.
"It reveals that we, among other things, have wit and comedic timing. We are intelligent and are extremely connected," he says. And with a bit of snark: "We do actually have Internet and computers and modernism."
The hashtag brings up more serious themes, like colonialism and conflict. But Araia thinks that the funny memes, tweets and one-liners have been able to "disarm people" and cut tension about political strife and interstate rivalries in the Horn of Africa, where her Eritrean family is from. "We were able to laugh at each other but also honor our history," she says.
So far, Ruge says the tweets have all been "friendly jabs, things you can sit in your office and chuckle at." He says "if it was focused on animosity it would not go as viral."
Ruge loves participating in the trending hashtags. "It brings us back together, however disconnected we may be," he says. "When we can all rally around a continental hashtag, it's actually quite beautiful."