“We have to be able to tell our own stories [...] It is going to be your job to redefine what people think about Africa.” – Akon, YouthConnekt Africa, Kigali 2017
The grim portrayal of Africa in mainstream media, particularly Western media, is one of the most damaging remnants of colonialism.
Beyond the sinister necessity to incite pity at best and disdain at worst, the negative depiction of Africa harms the continent and contributes to its susceptibility to external disruption.
The intentionality of Western journalists in covering calamities extensively, while willfully overlooking economic success stories, has created a narrative of a hopeless and wild Africa.
A case in point of the skewed reporting that illustrates the fundamental differences in how African and Western reporters cover African events is the coverage of the recently concluded YouthConnekt Africa.
Under the theme “From Potential to Success”, YouthConnekt Africa brought together over 3,000 participants from government, entrepreneurial and investor communities, multinationals, and startups to shape the African technological ecosystem.
On the final day of the summit, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, announced the creation of four projects: a $10 million African Young Entrepreneurs Fund; a partnership with African universities to teach e-commerce, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence; training opportunities for 200 young African entrepreneurs at Alibaba’s HQ in areas of e-commerce, AI and IoT; and prizes for park rangers over the next ten years for their efforts in conservation.
Two major American publications ran the story. Under its Tech section, Fortune, published the article “Alibaba’s Jack Ma Pushes to Protect Endangered Species in Africa”. In it, the author, a technology writer, raves about endangered African elephants, black rhinos and gorillas, omitting the technology and entrepreneurial components at the heart of Jack Ma’s trip to Africa.
Perez Tigidam, a Nigerian, covered the event for CNN. In contrast, under the headline “Why Jack Ma went to Kenya, Rwanda with 38 Chinese billionaires in tow”, Tigidam wrote extensively about successful African tech innovations and investment opportunities in the region.
Despite this obvious bias, it would be naïve to impute all responsibility to Western news outlets alone; charities and human rights organisations also play a major role in this travesty.
Under the guise of benevolence and philanthropical motives, many NGO’s help perpetuate the grim picture of Africa as part of their fundraising efforts.
With catchphrases like “With a dollar, you can feed Mariya’s family for a month” or “Spare a dollar and send Jean to school”, these organisations tug at unsuspecting donors’ heartstrings, prompting them to donate to what they believe are noble causes.
Optimistically, these benefactors sign up for automatic monthly deductions, lest their forgetfulness mean Musa won’t learn about democracy and Papi won’t wash his hands.
To what extent Mariya and Papi benefit, assuming they aren’t fictional, remains a mystery.
The Federal Trade Commission once exposed US charities that spent less than 3 per cent of donations on charitable activities. Another report, by the True and Fair Foundation, uncovered nearly 300 British charities that spent an appalling 10 per cent of contributions on charitable activities.
Amnesty International, too, has been involved in controversies of salaries exceeding £500,000.
When charity is not charitable but self-serving, when aid is not aiding but subjugating, surely, Urusha nyina w’umwana imbabazi aba ashaka kumurya.
Does Africa grapple with these issues? Certainly. However, poverty and violence are universal realities. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens abound in America. Thrift stores, like Goodwill and Salvation Army, that sell second-hand goods at bargain prices, are numerous.
And to quote Akon at YouthConnekt “There are more people dying in Chicago than there was in the war in Iraq. But you will never see that […] because they choose to show you what they want you to see. It is about country integrity. You have a certain reputation to keep. No one puts their family business out into the street.”
Indeed, the grass isn’t always greener across the ocean; the filter is, perhaps, just more tinted.
A miserably depicted Africa is a vulnerable Africa, exposed to exploitation and abuses of all kinds. And by allowing others to make gloomy predictions about our future, by consenting to have our stories told on our behalf, we render ourselves despondent, and ultimately, dependent.
The writer is a commentator based in Kigali.