Almost a decade ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed an audience at TED Global, and in her address, she talked about the dangers of the “single story”. She articulated wonderfully how easy it is to fall prey to a single narrative, particularly in circumstances with limited options. This single story that I define as “the formation of a truth born out of perpetuated stereotypes” has formed an almost inescapable perception of who we are as Africans; starving people living in abject poverty, plagued by flagrant corruption, ravaged by eternal civil war and eternally suffering from one disease or another.
This is our current narrative. Africa has been labelled “the dark continent” from as far back as the 19th century, and we haven’t escaped it since. Who can forget The Economist cover of 2000? This respected international magazine, published its May 13th issue with a cover that has since become synonymous with the western media’s portrayal of Africa. The infamous cover, which boasted a man carrying what looked like a rocket launcher, hailed Africa as “The Hopeless Continent” and stated in it’s ensuing article that “The new millennium has brought more disaster than hope to Africa”
While some might argue that this magazine was published 18 years ago, it is important to understand that these views are still as evident today as they have been throughout history. Just two years ago, Louise Linton, who volunteered in Zambia as an 18-year-old in 1999 published a startingly inaccurate book about her time in Africa. Linton made several offensive comments and assertions, describing herself as a “central character” in a Congolese war that allegedly spilled over into her “village”. Never mind that her geography was off, she called herself a “muzungu with angel hair”, exhibiting the standard western “white saviour cliché”.
What is most infuriating is that the majority of the west doesn’t seem to know that this is happening. A search in google for “Western interference” will bring up suggestions such as “Western interference in the Middle East” and “Western intervention in Africa.” The difference between these two search suggestions is subtle, but obvious enough to be offensive. The west has a history of meddling in Africa, thus promulgating the message that we are the antithesis of civilisation, and perpetuating war to support their interests. Key examples standout such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1961, the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1965, and the support of rebels in opposition to the MPLA in Congo and Angola in the 1970s to name only a few. However, this is a story that goes untold.
Western media has distorted our story so heavily and vilified our continent as being responsible for the perpetuation of this single story. In his paper in the journal of African Studies and Development, entitled: The persistence of Western Negative Perceptions about Africa: Factoring in the role of Africans, Japhace Poncian attempts to evenly distribute the blame for Africa’s single story. He places some of it on the western colonisation of Africa and the subsequent feelings of superiority of the west; and some on the political climate of the continent along with NGO’s that attempt to secure funding and support through the promotion of this negative stereotype.
While this paper may have some merit, it still begs the question of why this is still the only story ever told about Africa? Why are we still “the dark continent” and not “the birthplace of humanity” as is often times speculated? Our continent boasts the largest diversity of language with well over 1500 different dialects spoken among her 1.2 billion people, and yet we somehow remain undifferentiated. Amhara in Ethiopia, Bemba in Zambia, Dinka in Sudan, Zulu in South Africa, and thousands more spread out over 30 million km2. Our lives are rich with tradition and culture, passed down from generations long passed expressed through music, dance art and literature, and yet this makes us backwards and primitive. So, why are these things not a part of our story and should we care about how we are perceived?
The single story affects our ability to be proud of ourselves as a people. This is why children of immigrants in Western countries often shed their proverbial African skin to adorn something more acceptable, more Western. The single story brings about a disconnect between our reality as Africans and the western reality of Africa. It takes away from our diversity, our culture, our heritage and the beauty that we so often take for granted. The single story needs to die and an assortment of stories needs to take its place.
In today’s world, mainstream media has shifted away from conventional avenues, putting the power of story-telling in the hands of ordinary average Africans like us. With access to the internet and social media, the responsibility of changing Africa’s current narrative has shifted away from politicians and the media empires. It is now our burden to bear. All of us must engage in active story telling about our home. We need to start telling our stories, the truth about Africa. Taking responsibility for what we are going to be perceived as. Reminding the world that the problems we face are not unique to us. That we are a multifaceted continent of highly interesting people. We need to start educating the world as well as each other on the many facets that make us African. Each one of us must engage in rewriting centuries of degradation.
It’s time we changed our narrative and shed these perceptions. It’s time we decided that Africa doesn’t mean war, corruption, violence, ignorance, poverty, disease, and hopelessness. Instead it means extended family, culture, tradition, beauty, revolution and hope. It’s time all our stories, our authentic African stories became the African Narrative.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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