When people simplify entire cultures into single-sentence stereotypes, individuals lose their complexity and identity becomes homogenous. Given what we know about the real consequences that can result from “othering” an entire people, this cultural simplification is dangerous. It’s important to remember that we are all humans, and to look for the similarities between our experiences.
I spent the first 10 years of my life in Wyoming, and the next 10 in Oregon. Growing up in these states has made me appreciative and cautious of nature: wildfires are a re-occurring, serious threat in both states; Oregon lies above major fault lines with the potential for severe earthquakes. Much of North Africa shares this environmental vulnerability: the recent 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Morocco and the catastrophic flooding in Libya are just two examples. However, I am fortunate because America is a wealthy, relatively uncorrupt, coherent state. When natural disasters occur, my country has the capacity to respond swiftly, whereas a country like Libya (currently embroiled in civil war) may wish to help but lack the capacity to do so.
Also, because of America’s aforementioned wealth, abundance of land and resources, and stability (combined with my family’s own financial security) I do not worry about food or water scarcity. By contrast, much of North Africa has an arid desert climate. In Algeria, Libya, and Egypt, arable land is less than 5% of the countries total land. In Morocco and Tunisia, it’s less than 20% (link). Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia (link), and Algeria (link) are all net-importers of food (I couldn’t find data for Libya). Libya suffers from extreme water stress, while Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are under high water stress. In 2022, there were water restrictions to urban parts of Tunisia (link), a not uncommon strategy employed by North African countries (link). This constant focus on acquiring necessary resources is a difference between my life and the lives of many people in North Africa. However, all our lives will be impacted by climate change. Already, droughts are increasing in frequency and intensity in North Africa. Severe wildfires are more common in North Africa (link) and in Oregon (link). Although climate change disproportionately impacts less developed countries, it’s important for those of us in Western countries to remember that climate change is a threat to all of us and requires global solutions.
Culturally, my experience has been very different from many people in North Africa. For example, North African countries have historically taken education seriously and put effort into increasing their education infrastructure (link). In Algeria, for example, “Education was seen as being at the heart of rebuilding the nation, training a skilled workforce, creating a shared national consciousness and opening opportunity to all Algerians” (link). This is both similar and different to my own experience: while education in America is compulsory through the 12th grade, many people take it for granted or view it dismissively. Especially in Wyoming, alternatives like farming, manual labor and learned skills also hold respect.
In practice, North African education systems tend to be overwhelmed by lack of state resources and a youth bulge (link). For a variety of cultural reasons, girls are disproportionately impacted: according to UNICEF, “At the lower secondary school level, girls are twice as likely to be out of school than boys” (link). In contrast, in America all children are expected to complete high school, and I knew from a young age that, even as a women, I would have the cultural and familial support to attend college. I also found representation when I saw many women in different jobs, including traditionally masculine jobs. However, it’s important to note that there are many factors behind unequal gender attendance and wider low school attendance in the region: cultural norms about gender roles, poor education quality, underdeveloped infrastructure, and the need to help support family all contribute (link). It’s also important to acknowledge the nuance inherent to a large region with lots of cultural diversity: in Tunisia, for example, 96% of girls are literate (link). I look forward to discovering more similarities and differences between my own experience and the lives of people in North Africa.