RETROJIVE*: “So do your family back in Nigeria live in huts?”
After thirty minutes of scintillating conversation about global politics and the evolving dimensions of democracy, with an American undergraduate student I happened to sit next to on the London subway, she proceeded to exit the carriage with a parting question: “So do your family back in Nigeria live in huts?” Ordinarily I should have felt insulted but I was not. I was shocked. After the kind of intellectual conversation we just had, it was hard to believe that such a brilliant young lady could still hold a view of Africa that connoted primitiveness in our existence. No, my family does not live in a hut, we live in a six bedroom house in a nice suburb like other middle-class Americans. No, we are not the only ones and yes, we do have skyscrapers, shopping malls and multiple lane highways amongst others things, but you may never see these on television. It’s more sensational to show pictures of starving children with swollen bellies being rummaged by flies than that of an Africa that is starting to lift itself out of poverty into prosperity. We are not told that economic growth rates are doubling, nor do we see the modern side of Africa with a thriving middle-class of ‘Afropolitans’ living qualitative lives. All we see is poverty and conflict. Though, this is a huge part of Africa’s reality, it is only one side of a multifaceted continent. Professional news reporting is balanced news reporting, but this is a right Africa is hardly afforded. Most international news agencies cover Africa in a manner that projects the continent’s poverty and not its wealth; its failures not its successes; its weaknesses not its strengths. All we see is the constant assailing of the global populace with chilling pictures of the Conradian Heart of Darkness, where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: death, famine, war and destruction ride roughshod through Africa with reckless abandon. Is this all Africa is about? No, its not.
As I emerged from the annals of London’s subway and walked down its cobbled streets, I thought to myself, of course, I should not be surprised that my young American friend asked me that question when that is all she has been fed for years by the media. Not long after this experience, I debated a very popular rock star turned social activist with a penchant for Africa, and he proceeded to tell an audience filled with two hundred people that he had no respect for Africans and that if Africans had done anything to fix their continent that people like him would not have invest his time in helping us sort our problems out. Yet, he is one of the media’s preferred spokespeople on African development issues. I proceeded to tell him, amongst other things, that he could not genuinely help those whom he does not respect and he cannot cry more than the bereaved. I remember that, a few years ago the Economist magazine published a special issue on Africa with the headline Africa: The Hopeless Continent. Hopeless? How come suicide rates are lower in Africa than in the West then? Ever heard of an African suicide bomber? We don’t blow ourselves up , because though life may be difficult, hope is all we have. We are a resilient people, we trudge on no matter what. Hope is our elixir. Late last year, the highly respected talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, in a recent show on fraud, insinuated that all Nigerians were crooks. I always liked Oprah until then, but perhaps she had too many diet pills that day and of course she must have been reeling from the discovery that the head huncho at her school in South Africa, was taking care of the children in her school, well, a bit too much. That’s, right she went afondling , while she was meant to be teaching and protecting them. Oh, wait a minute, if we were to apply Oprah’s fuzzy logic, maybe all Oprah’s staff are child abusers? She did not highlight the fact that there are over a hundred and fifty million Nigerians , being Africa’s most populous nation, and this same country has the highest number of internationally trained professionals and PhD holders in sub-Saharan Africa. Surely they all cannot be crooks. Does Africa need people like this to speak for us? No, thank you but they always will, for as long as we keep quiet or muzzle our own spokespeople.
All the above only reflect an infinitesimal number of the examples of how a continent of 700 million people is misunderstood, misrepresented, misconceived, constantly berated and undervalued by large numbers of opinion makers in the international realm. The issue however is not necessarily about agonising about what people think of Africa and Africans, but how we can ensure that Africa is not just reactive, but proactive in making itself better understood. How can Africa reveal its strengths, its resources, its capacities and its successes to the world without denying its challenges and it weaknesses? How can Africa be better represented in global trade, media, politics, and the ever evolving phenomenon of globalisation? How can Africa better analyse and articulate its challenges in a manner that ensures not only better understanding by global stakeholders but also increased options for effective problem solving?
Africa needs to create platforms for international dialogue and cross-fertilisation of views and ideas on issues ranging from politics to culture, to art, to global security to human development etc. Africa must sit with the world and the world must sit with Africa on the roundtable of collective dialogue, based on mutual respect, in order for the kind of constructive engagement that can yield sustainable solutions to shared problems can be created. We cannot solve problems we do not understand and we cannot be partners with people we misunderstand. Dialogue is the only way to better understanding. By the way, our hut also has air-conditioning and my donkey is called Mercedes, surname is Benz. She galloped here all the way from Germany.
*RETROJIVE: This will be a regular feature in this blog, where I tell stories and share experiences from the past.