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Speaking with the voice of experience, Gregory Simpkins set the tone for Friday's sixth-annual African Studies Consortium Workshop by challenging Americans' disinterest in Africa. "There are too many people who think Africa is a country," said Simpkins, a policy director of the Corporate Council on Africa -- a non-profit Washington, DC-based advocacy group -- who described himself as a "liaison between the thinkers and doers" in Washington. "Americans don't value Africa." Simpkins, also a former staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, delivered the keynote address on "Communicating Africa." The annual African Studies Workshop is a chance to "bring the Africanist community up to speed, so that we understand what the tip of the wave is," explained Sandra Barnes, director of Penn's African Studies Center. For his speech, Simpkins drew on the example of Liberia, an African nation founded in 1822 by freed American slaves who returned to Africa. "Liberians view America as a mother country, but their feeling toward us has little to do with our feeling toward them," Simpkins explained to the Faculty Club audience of more than 75 people. "Try stopping someone on the street and asking them where Liberia is -- they'll have no idea." In nine smaller panel discussions held throughout the day, 34 speakers tackled numerous topics crucial to the central theme of "Communicating Africa" -- from a panel on "Africa and the Western Media" to "African Knowledge: Intellectual Negotiations." In the "Africa in the American Imagination" panel, Professor Curtis Keim of Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., addressed images of Africa among college students. Citing four words -- "tribe, primitive, native and development" -- that continually recurred in his class discussions, Keim explained that "students compartmentalize new information; they don't necessarily erase old stereotypes." Such stereotypes in Western media representations of Africa were part of the reason that "Communicating Africa" was chosen as this year's theme, according to Barnes. "Making Africa look bad seems to be a journalistic convention," said Barnes, who blamed such distorted coverage for the conventional view of Africa as "conflict-ridden, underdeveloped and chaotic." In response to this type of misrepresentation, Barnes saw this year's workshop as an opportunity to "look at how information is produced and disseminated for and about Africa." Though the format of the workshop is designed for highly-informed professionals in the field of African studies, Barnes was quick to point out that several graduate students were included on this year's panels. The topic for each year's workshop, she added, is determined the winter before the event by the African Studies Consortium -- which includes Penn and Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore colleges.

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