In 1979, Bob Marley released one of his best albums titled Survival which featured the song Africa Unite. The song is crafted along the calls by Marcus Garvey for Africans outside Africa to return to their motherland or to their Father’s land, a reference to the continent that gave us Haile Selasie who holds a special place in the lives of the Rastafarians. In the song, Bob Marley sang his heart out on the issue of African unification.
African unification is a conversation that we need to keep having without using it to cloud out the diversity the continent has to offer. Yes we face challenges and have dreams that appear quite similar however we have also been a victim of being viewed and treated as though we were one homogenous area from Cape Town to Cairo or Mombasa to Western Sahara. This situation has benefited those who are too lazy to put in the time to understand us better. To them we are not 54 countries and thousands of ethnic groups but just one huge country.
Some of us have also been guilty of propagating this notion in the way we brand things African. You will often hear someone referring to how an African man or woman should behave oblivious of all the diverse cultures across the continent. The tourism industry has suffered a lot from the grouping of all African countries as the same. Many would be visitors end up thinking the whole continent is a place suitable for the famed African safari experience complete with lions and the lone Acacia tree majestically growing in the savannah grasslands as the sun sets in the horizon.
To be relevant, countries now have to find ways of differentiating themselves from that singular African story and sell their own story to whoever is willing to listen. To do this well, every opportunity to sell the uniqueness of a place is utilised. For example I loved that at the inauguration of President Uhuru Kenyatta there were Rwandan dancers to give the audience in the stadium and others watching on TV a sample of what Rwanda (not Africa) has to offer. Some of the new aircrafts belonging to Rwandair have unique Rwandan décor to give travellers that customised experience as they fly with the airline.
It has become very common to find a Kenyan wearing a bracelet with the colours of the country’s flag. I used to enjoy trying to guess the nationalities of random people while queuing at border crossings or airports but these days the Kenyans have those bracelets that make my game dull. Some Ugandans will also don those Uganda Cranes replica jerseys making it easy to pick them out as well.
However that football jersey is no longer as cool as it was back in the day. So people have been coming up with other unique ways to express their being Ugandan. Amos Wekesa, a renown tour operator with a business in Uganda as well as Rwanda will often be seen on trips outside the country, wearing a T Shirt with the words Ondaba – I’m so Uganda.
Ondaba is a Luganda word that means’ do you see me?’ and according to Wekesa, it is always an icebreaker for conversations with strangers. He claims that with these conversations he gets to speak about Uganda in all the nice ways he can fathom as a way of urging the person to visit Uganda or also talk it to other people. In other words there is no challenge talking about Africa, the challenge is proving to a stranger that we come from different African countries and each country has something unique to offer.
An enigmatic T-Shirt or stunning Rwandan décor on the inside of a large aircraft could be the beginning point. It shouldn’t be the end though, we need to ensure that our visitors get to touch, feel and see the uniqueness of our countries. Just the other day I saw a story about how Emirates will start serving ugali on flights to Kenya for example. They are trying to customise the meals served in order to give passengers those unique experiences that make them feel at home.
The airline industry is one of the most competitive ones and it says a lot if a Gulf based airline is willing to go the extra mile to serve Ugali or injera on its flights. I hope our airlines and other businesses can pick a lesson in branding and marketing.
Views, expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the New Times Publications.