Thursday 3 January 2013

Redefining Africa – refreshing the narrative, reconstructing the image

In June 2012, at the height of Spain's financial crisis and whilst negotiating terms of a bailout for Spanish banks, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent a text message to his finance minister urging him to hold out for a good deal. The text read: “ we are the number four power in Europe. Spain is not Uganda”. The Spanish Prime Minister, like most people, assumed that a well known European country like Spain would be better off than a little known African country like Uganda. But contrary to that impression, it turned out that Uganda's economy was in a significantly better state that Spain's, with lower unemployment, higher GDP growth and no need for a bailout. I bet you didn't know that!

For a while now, many commentators have lamented the lack of balance in Western media when it comes to stories out Africa. They argue that you are more likely to see adverts asking you to donate £2 a month to support starving African children, stories about civil wars and corruption or a documentary about wildlife and the 'beauty of Africa' than to hear about innovation, Africa's contribution to science, technology and other aspects of life that other continents get credit for.

There is rarely a mention of the rate at which many African economies are growing and how many European businesses are annexing to Africa in a bid to turn a profit as Europe continues to face economic difficulties. Barely any column inches dedicated to the growth of countries like Ghana and Nigeria, who are making huge strides in business, leading to a repatriation of many indegenes who had previously made their home in various other parts of the world

Corruption is undoubtedly still a problem but compared to how bad things used to be, huge strides have been made in the right direction and things are a lot better. But when you ask many, they can hardly complete a sentence about anything concerning Africa without making a reference to corruption and civil war etc, as if no such thing ever happened or is still going on in other parts of the world.

Africa is not a country. Redefining Africa

Also, when it comes to telling the story of early interactions between Africans and the rest of the world, the impression is generally that Africans were naked, primitive novices who were far removed from what was happening in the outside world. No mention of the likes of the people of Oyo and Edo Empires in Nigeria, who had Portuguese-speaking mathematicians among their people when the British first made contact with them and had been doing business with Europe as far back as the 15th Century. Rarely a mention of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which once stood as one of the most significant in the world before it was destroyed

The list of stories about the history of the African continent as a whole, where it is now and prospects for the future is as boundless as you'll find about any other continent. Not to talk of stories of individuals, peoples and countries.

To reduce Africa to a single story of corruption, diseases, poor people, war and pretty wildlife would be just as ignorant as reducing South America to drugs, kidnappings and problems with gang culture, and to reduce Europe to Nazism, Kosovo, a past filled with pillaging and crippled economies that show no sign of getting back to their feet any time soon.

But perhaps like Europe and some other parts of the world have done, Africa needs to take control of its own image and begin to tell its own story a bit more. To embark on a charm offensive with the aim of changing minds and influencing opinions, and to put specific effort towards redressing the issue of balance. The longer we let others tell our story, the more they will leave out. Not out of malice or ill will but because it is not really their story to tell.

There is more to Africa than wildlife, diseases, poor people and corruption but unless Africans begin to tell the world the other stories, the rest of the world will ever know.

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