Africa needs to tell its own stories Dr Rusero

Gibson Mhaka

Zimpapers Politics Hub

IN his essay “How to Write About Africa,” first published in Granta magazine in 2005, the late Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina offers satirical advice to Westerners writing about Africa.

Wainaina’s major gripe was on the problematic tendencies of Western authors’ writing about the African continent, particularly the dangers of viewing the continent as a monolithic, primitive backwater stuck in the past.

He did not stop there. Here is how he satirised the way Western media and even some African newspapers reportage about Africa: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in a Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress. In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.”

Wainaina’s essay echoes a common lament among African journalists, politicians, policymakers, and civil society activists: Africa’s biggest problems include the fact that it is not allowed to tell its own stories.

The broader issue is that Africa is not setting its own news agenda. The continent is often portrayed in the international media negatively. 

It is defined by stereotypes: it is poor; it is conflict-ridden; haven for corruption, diseases, it is starving and dangerous. It is a  helpless continent.

These negative and stereotypical media portrayals of Africa do not just distort the world’s view of our continent, they also have a damaging effect on how we see ourselves as Africans. 

However, this narrative fails to capture the continent’s incredible diversity, rich cultures, booming economies, and thriving technological advancements.

As we celebrate Africa Day, it is a crucial moment for Africa to collectively take charge of its narrative. Amplifying Africa’s diverse voices is essential. 

Telling our own stories and shaping a more nuanced narrative must be a top priority.

This will not only challenge the stereotypical and negative media portrayals that persist, but it will also empower Africans themselves. By taking ownership of the narrative, Africa can inspire a new generation and break free from the limitations imposed by these outdated stereotypes. Annually, Africa Day is celebrated on May 25 to reflect and strengthen the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) (now called the African Union) on May 25, 1963.

Political analyst and media academic Mr Methuseli Moyo argues that African journalists need to step up their efforts and become the leading authorities on African stories. This, he says, will prevent Western media from dominating the narrative.

“African journalists must become the primary source for African stories, not the other way around. They should follow what we report and analyse, not blindly accept Western narratives. 

“We need to frame our stories from an African perspective. This means going directly to the people, covering their hopes and aspirations, not imposing a predetermined agenda on them. 

“Journalists must be assertive, confident, and prepared to defend their truthful reporting, even if it faces criticism,” said Mr Moyo.

He emphasises that some African scholars and writers unfortunately choose to conform to existing stereotypes, rather than challenge them. He further argues for a rejection of these stereotypes and a proactive approach to confronting them.

“Social media must be used effectively and meaningfully. It shouldn’t be a platform to perpetuate stereotypes or attacks on Africa and its people, often disguised as jokes or misleading ‘truthy’ content.

“We need to evaluate Africa’s progress based on its achievements while acknowledging its challenges within the global trade and finance systems. Yes, there’s room for improvement, but Africa is continuously making strides,” said Mr Moyo.

He said Africa Day is a reminder that Africa collectively overcame colonialism, and together can conquer the lingering effects of imperialism.

“We must move beyond mere political and ideological unity, and strive for a more comprehensive economic unification of Africa. This will create a stronger, more coordinated economic force,” he said.

It is clear from Mr Moyo’s observation that the failure of Africa to tell its own stories for its own audience allows stereotypical and negative portrayals to dominate, which can limit the range of voices and stories heard within Africa itself.

Another social commentator, Dr Luyanduhlobo Makwati, argues that many African media outlets, even those labelled “independent,” rely on funding from foreign investors, governments, or NGOs.

This can lead to pressure to present stories that align with the funders’ agendas, neglecting local narratives.

“Africa struggles to tell its own stories because the so-called independent outlets are funded by foreign investors who want to push their own agendas within the broader spectrum of communication.

“African countries should also leverage their bilateral relations to boost trade. The African Continental Free Trade Area is a current effort aimed at achieving this goal. Media outlets across different countries should promote a unified message highlighting the benefits of this agreement,” Dr Makwati said.

Speaking at the 35th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government held in Addis Ababa in 2022, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abey Ahmed, said it was now time for Africa to take charge of its own narrative. 

He urged African leaders to support the creation of an African Union (AU) Continental Media House, which will tell the African story and address misleading stereotypes.

“Africa is often portrayed in the international media negatively. The endless representation as a continent troubled by civil wars, hunger, corruption, greed, disease and poverty is degrading and dehumanising and likely driven by a calculated strategy and agenda,” Prime Minister Abbey said in his opening speech.

“The stereotypical and negative media representations of Africa not only misinform the rest of the world about our continent, but it also shapes the way we see ourselves as Africans. Telling our own stories and shaping our own narratives must be our top priority.” He proposed that the AU organises the media house “to provide authoritative news and information on our continent, fight disinformation, promote our collective agenda and offer opportunities for Pan African voices to be heard.”

It is important to note that one major reason for the continued one-sided narrative is Africa’s failure to claim its own story. 

Political analyst, Dr Alexander Rusero, makes an interesting observation. He pointed out that despite Africa Day holding great significance for people across the continent, it is not a formal holiday on the UN calendar.

“Less than five African states, if I am not mistaken, celebrate Africa Day by way of the calendar. The UN itself does not even have Africa Day on its official calendar. So we are still pretty much not a serious continent to start to be celebrated and respected by other continents. Our agency as Africa is at its lowest ebb,” said Dr Rusero.

Dr Rusero’s observation underscores a key point that the lack of a formal UN holiday designation for Africa Day could contribute to a perception of Africa holding less importance on the global stage.

He adds: “The idea of Africa and the African idea is enough of an entry point to celebrate diversity. But a sad development is that Africa does not embrace its indigenous languages. Scarier is the fact that we are more colonial today than we were in 1963 as a continent because the same colonisers are fully in charge of our budgets, resources, and economies”.

Expanding on the role the African diaspora can play in supporting development efforts, Dr Rusero emphasised that they have consistently played a part in the continent’s development journey.

“The African diaspora has always had a role in the developmental trajectory of the continent. That’s why the Liberation idea of Africa was originally a diaspora initiative.

“African Renaissance and Pan Africanism are offshoots of the African diaspora, so rather than identifying what role, I would say they should revive the original diaspora pillar as a critical factor of Africa’s economic development.”

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