Say What You Like. It’s Africa

Why is it so easy to project such outrageous claims about Africa and get away with it?

Due to the nature of my work, I spend a fair amount of time attending and speaking at conferences, summits and events related to Africa. As you can imagine, this means sitting through a lot of presentations – some better than others – packed with information, statistics and opinions; again, some better than others.

While I’m the first to admit that I’m more enamoured of words than numbers, it does strike me that many of the statistics about Africa rattled off with such confidence seem to differ, and sometimes widely, depending on the presenter and the particular study they choose to refer to.

The lack of available, reliable and consistent data when it comes to the African continent is a major issue. Not only does it hamper the ability of policy makers to understand the true nature of what is happening on the ground and thereby develop relevant and effective solutions to the continent’s challenges, it also makes it remarkably easy for people to make pronouncements about Africa. Let’s face it, who’s going to challenge you and, if they do, on what grounds?

Demolishing the Single Story

I had a stark illustration of this recently at an international gathering when a learned colleague, in the course of describing the impact of mobile telephony on Africa today, explained to another colleague that Africa has made huge advances in the telecoms sector because there are no fixed telephone lines to be found on the continent. Now, to be fair to the learned colleague in question, he believed that he was simplifying the scenario in order to prove his greater point about how advanced Africa was when it came to mobile phone applications and usage. The irony is, that his good intentions about promoting Africa’s modernity notwithstanding, I’m prepared to bet that the only lasting memory of that conversation on learned colleague number two is that fixed phone lines do not exist in Africa.

Why is it so easy to project such an outrageously untrue claim onto Africa? Because, it seems to me, it’s still positioned as such a dark, primitive and unknown continent to the general masses that people can say pretty much what they like and get away with it.

I’m reminded of a friend who remarked that the only good thing that came out of the horrific terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi was that even the mainstream Western media couldn’t report on the story without being forced to admit that shopping malls actually exist in Africa.

Despite the wealth of websites, blogs, videos and other online media, it’s baffling that in 2014 so many people have such a poor understanding of the size and diversity of the African continent. All the tools that exist today to shrink the world and expand our knowledge of each other seem rather to have narrowed our thinking and expanded our prejudices.

Sometimes, and even more worryingly, this tendency towards a monolithic view of Africa comes from our own. As part of my research for my book ‘I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’, I explored the motivation behind the increasing interest I come across from Africans in the diaspora seeking a career in Africa. Among the unsurprising reasons of wanting to reconnect with their culture, extended families and lifestyle, there was also a strong thread of making the move in order to ‘fix’ Africa and its people and to eradicate all the continent’s ills. Indeed, for some, working in Africa represents an opportunity to show Africans how to make a better job of being Africans (the implicit assumption being that this can be achieved by acting more like Europeans or Americans).

During a taxi ride across London a few weeks ago, my cabbie looked at me sympathetically in his rear view mirror when I mentioned that I was from Ghana. Why? His cousin who lives and works in Israel was banned by his company from visiting Ghana to explore business opportunities last year, he said, because the country is “very dangerous”. I could only hope that this wasn’t an opinion he shared on a regular basis with passengers rather more influential than me.

Fill in the Blanks

Because while it would be easy to shrug our shoulders and blame the media, or the aid industry, or the corrupt African politician that occasionally makes the headlines, or indeed simply put such attitudes down to ignorance and move on, it’s not a good idea to do so.

If we don’t fill in the blanks about Africa with real information rather than easily disseminated myths and misconceptions, it has an impact not only on our own psyche, our collective continental self-esteem, our reputation and our brand positioning in the world, but also on those who want to deal with us or invest in us, and how they go about it.

We do need to respond to well-intentioned saviours telling us that there’s no snow in Africa or marvelling at how well we speak English. Sometimes changing perceptions and opening minds can be done through humour – brilliantly illustrated by the video about the spoof charity single by Africans to raise funds to buy radiators to help the people of Norway deal with the cold.

I am not advocating a position of ‘my Africa, right or wrong’ or defending the indefensible when the behaviour of some of our citizens falls into this category – and we certainly have our share of those. We all know that the continent has its problems and enormous challenges to solve. But that doesn’t mean (at the risk of perpetuating the infantilised image often ascribed to the continent) that we allow Africa to be the kid being kicked around in the playground that no-one has the interest or the courage to defend.

We are all entitled to have our own opinions, but we are not entitled to create our own facts. So while we continue to sit through the conferences and presentations, let’s be prepared to challenge the myths, misconceptions and the plain untruths when they arise. We may not have all the data but we do have the truth of our own knowledge and experiences – and the right to say so.

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