This article originally appeared on The Exchange.
Africa has a narrative problem. This misrepresentation can be corrected by investing in its own media institutions.
When I first started studying Africa, I was pulled to the continent because I thought it needed me. The stories I read in the media told me this was a continent plagued with primitive traditions and unspeakable hardships. When I would think of Africa, pictures of child soldiers and genocide would bring tears to my eyes. The more I studied, the more guilt I felt over the colonial legacy left behind. However, today, having spent almost a full year in Kenya and a semester in South Africa, I have come to realize how misleading this media-generated narrative is and how important it is for the progression of the continent for Africans to write their own narrative.
The narrative most of the western world knows is based on NGO-sourced stories and a belief that Africa has nothing to contribute. One of the most honest illustrations of how Africa is seen from the outside is in Binyamin Wainana’s article titled “How to Write About Africa,” which instructs:
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover . . . unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts – use these. . . . Treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. . . . African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life – but empty inside with no dialogue.
The narrative created by this type of reporting, leaves out the truth of the beautiful complexity entangled in the identity of the 54 nations that make up the continent of Africa. It leaves out the stories of the determination and success of the African people, despite the tragedy and despair that has befallen them. A true African narrative would contain stories that inspire the rest of the world to see that development doesn’t have to be at the expense of community. Stories such as: single women who, even though they can’t guarantee food for their own families tomorrow, are serving as community health volunteers and taking care of people living with HIV and other diseases in slums and villages across the continent; generations of coffee farmers who produce some of the best coffee in the world using traditional practices; men who sacrifice whole months’ salaries to provide food to the poor during the fasting season of Ramadan; teachers who support their school’s feeding programs with their own salaries; families that come together to negotiate the value of exchanging a daughter; or communities that rally together to uplift a family who has lost everything in a fire. An African narrative would highlight the economic success of the continent with 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. It would highlight the true entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated in innovations like M-Pesa in Kenya and Hawala in Somalia. The fact that these stories can exist in continent with such great problems of corruption and poverty is what sets Africa apart.
Reflecting on the divide between the Africa I know from living and working on this beautiful continent, and the Africa most of my friends and family know, I was struck by the overwhelming need for public diplomacy across the continent. The need for African governments to invest in innovative ways to begin influencing the stories that the international media is writing and the perspective these stories of dependency are creating. African governments need to take an active role in agenda building and agenda framing. This however, relies on a revitalization of the African media sector. The African “media is allowing foreign publications and broadcasters to dictate Africa’s image and explain African’s problems -even to an African audience.” Most newspapers across the continent use international sources like AP and Reuters, rather than writing it from their own perspectives. Linked to this outside sourcing is the minimal spending and training afforded to African journalists. If Africa is going to have a chance in changing the narrative, it is going to have to view this narrative as vital to successful development and invest in well-trained journalists and strong delivery platforms with an African voice.
Additionally, one of Africa’s strongest assets in public diplomacy is cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is said to reveal the soul of a nation, and the soul of Africa’s 54 nations is a beautiful mix of languages, ideas, beliefs, customs, tools, techniques, songs, art, rituals, ceremonies, symbols, and traditions. African governments should be seeking out and investing in new exchange programs, scholarships to study abroad, and international conferences to share this culture. Culture spreads from individual to individual, therefore empowering everyday African’s to share their story through their own expressions of culture is one of the greatest strategies African governments use to take back the narrative.
Linked to enabling the everyday African to tell their story is harnessing the rising prominence of social media across the continent. In 2012 there were 700million African mobile subscribers, making it the second largest market behind Asia. The prediction is that there will be over 1 billion subscriptions by 2015. Additionally, there were 17 million African Facebook users in 2010, an increase from only 10 million in 2009. The power of social media and global interconnectivity has enabled African citizens to mobilize more efficiently and effectively around demands for service delivery, transparency, and accountability. Social media gives readers the ability to speak out and set the agenda. It allows for instantaneous crowd fact-checking and immediate challenging of misreported views, which was witnessed widely in the run-up to the 2013 Kenyan election when the international media was creating fear about violence that was never coming.
Ultimately, there is no quick public diplomacy fix to help Africa regain responsibility for its narrative on the world stage. It is a long-term, multifaceted endeavor that has the potential to change the development of the continent. And for anyone like myself who has lived and worked in Africa, the power of the true African narrative, is its potential to teach the world something about humanity. Encountering the cultures across the continent and witnessing unwavering resilience, discloses a humanity where the simple underlying principle is the basic revelation that we are all human. We were never meant to be separated by lines drawn on a map or by the color of our skin. Our differences should be celebrated, not demonized. The thing I love most about Africa, is that you get the chance to see what humanity looks like when all the context/material we have come to use as measurements of our worth is stripped away. You see people measured by their actions and their character. You experience true human interaction and trust. This is the soft power of Africa. This is the true narrative of Africa, and it is time we started telling it.
photo credit: Nicole Audette Franks, S. (2010). The Neglect of Africa and the Power of Aid. The International Communications Gazette. 72(1): 74.