Can Africans write their own story?

While contributing to the discussion - “De-risking Africa”, during the just concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, President Paul Kagame said: “The major problem I see is that Africa’s story is written from somewhere else and not by Africans themselves.
Gerald Mpyisi
Gerald Mpyisi

While contributing to the discussion - “De-risking Africa”, during the just concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, President Paul Kagame said: “The major problem I see is that Africa’s story is written from somewhere else and not by Africans themselves. That is why the rest of the world looks at Africa and Africans and wants to define us. They want to shape the perception about Africa. The best thing we can do for ourselves is own our problems, own our solutions and write our own story.”

The deliberate misrepresentation of Africa has been going on for decades. Ask our generation where civilisation started and you will most likely be told it is Europe. Few know that the Nile Valley was the intellectual, spiritual, educational and industrial center for the ancient world. The areas of science, medicine, mathematics, engineering, philosophy and religion, and so many other human activity areas were created there and were distributed throughout the world by various conquerors and travellers. 

Most of what is written about Africa has been written by non Africans from their own perspective which is often clouded with neo-colonialism mentality and not in line with the African point of view. A clear example for us in Rwanda is the story of the Rwandan genocide. Numerous books by Western authors have been written some with clear distortions and inaccuracies of what actually happened. Understanding that this is done by purposeful design is the beginning of developing counter measures. In this era of globalisation it is critical that we write our own stories to suite our interests. This is what happens elsewhere.

There are many reasons – economic, political, and not least, our own dignity, that should drive us to write our own stories. If not for our economic and social development, writing our own stories frees us from being portrayed in someone else’s perspective and it gives us a sense of liberation. As President Kagame has pointed out, this can only be reversed by Africans taking charge and telling their own story, and unless this is done now, we will continue to be disrespected and preyed upon. Are Africans capable of writing their own stories? Yes, they can. Do they have the intellectual capacity to do so? Of course they do. What then, is preventing us from writing our own stories?

Knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of one race. Scientists in the Human Genome Project have proved that 99.9 percent of the human DNA is exactly the same in all races. Africa has great thinkers, academics, scientists, artists and writers. Some have done great things and their achievements have been recognized by honouring them with the prestigious Nobel prize. So, why is it that with such a wealth of knowledge and abundance of intellectuals, the African story continues to be told by non Africans?

The solution to the problem of writing our own story is not a difficult one. The requirements are: talent, writing skills and time. These we have in abundance. The rest is organisation and some resources, which we also have.

I have been impressed by the number of talented contributors to The New Times. I am especially thrilled by the increasing number of young contributors like Nathalie (Munyampenda), Alline (Akintore), Diana (Mpyisi) and others who are writing interesting articles on various subjects. Then there are seasoned writers like Pan (Butamire), Joseph (Rwagatare), Sunny (Ntayombya), Arthur (Asiimwe) and others. We are not short of talent and writing skills.

In order to support our President so that a couple of years from today his message at Davos is that of hope and self-assurance, a few things must be put in place. Firstly, a strong association of writers and potential writers (I believe there are many) must be created. If I recall well, a few years ago Dr. James Vuningoma, while at KIE (Kigali Institute of Education), started a writers association. Without reinventing the wheel, this association could be revived. The association should be a forum for members to share experiences, provide guidance, mentorship and resource mobilisation.       

Writing is time and energy consuming and often not financially rewarding. Many writers write for personal fulfillment. To write researched articles needs resources. If we are going to be serious about writing our own stories, we should be ready to invest in our people, motivate them, recognise and reward their achievements. This could be achieved through a public-private-partnership. In the West, writers make a living out of writing. Publishers pay writers well and also provide incentives to encourage them to write more. This would be a good thing to emulate.

A critical element that is often ignored in Africa is the role of think tanks in development. Empowered think tanks in addition to coming up with creative and innovative ideas, also carry out research and development (R&D) work. We need to create and empower think tanks. The think tanks become the source of what to write on including positive propaganda. The West understands the critical role of think tanks and R&D and has been using them for centuries. Here, I would like to challenge our academic institutions to take the lead. The R&D within our institutions of higher education should produce ideas that can be turned into practical solutions to benefit the citizens.  

Telling our own stories has a ripple effect in that it recognises achievement, motivates and creates heroes. We need to create heroes and idols for our children to have something to look up to with pride. Success stories motivate the young and lift the spirit.

While there are many answers to the question as to why we do not write our own stories, my take is that we have not yet completely overcome some of the neo-colonialism mentality. We need to completely liberate ourselves from mental enslavement. There is need to redefine our lifestyles, our priorities and our goals. In essence, a mindset change.

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