Africa should learn to write, tell her own stories

Saturday October 5 2013

By David F. K. Mpanga

It is not unusual to hear complaints about the “Western” (read Northern European and American) media having a condescending, misleading narrative about sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact these complaints about the clichéd reports on Africa in the Western media have become somewhat clichéd themselves. They tend to highlight the shallow understanding or lack of expertise of the Western journalists who report on African matters and point out glaring factual mistakes to support the contention that these journalists are ill equipped or even unqualified to comment on Africa.

There is no doubt that Western coverage of Africa tends to be skewed. My concern here is why we continue to obsess over how the Western media portrays us. Why does a single report by a young backpacker posing as a journalist posted in an American or British newspaper cause our elite to go absolutely mental? Why do we care so much about how the West perceives us and not even bother to find out what, if anything, the fast rising East or South America thinks of us?

I cannot say that I have carried out any scientific research into the matter but my hunch is that these complaints are an outward symptom of a deep seated inferiority complex. Despite their loud protestations to the contrary, the African elite have largely bought into the Western idea of “progress” and actually believe that everything that was native to Africa was essentially backward and everything from Europe was progressive and to be aspired to.

We have discarded our rich cultures, bought into the disparagement of our rich and varied histories and come to believe that Africa was nothing before the Arabs or the Europeans came here. But the pursuit of progress has left a void in our inner beings, because we have jettisoned what our illustrious ancestors bequeathed to us and left ourselves without a native yardstick against which to measure ourselves. In doing so we put ourselves in the position where the only validation that we seek is that of the people or civilisation that we have come to believe to be the most “advanced”, the people from the West.

Anybody who has ever had their heart broken before knows well, there is nothing worse than ceding the determination of one’s happiness to somebody else because that person’s interests cannot always coincide with yours. I believe that we have painted ourselves into a corner where we actually believe that the Western narrative is the only narrative and that in order for us to exist or to be deemed to exist, our place in that narrative matters. In doing so we have surrendered the whip hand to the West. The West does not place Africa very high up on its list of interests and, when it is concerned about Africa it is generally concerned about how the things that are found or happening here affect its primary interests.


So it should not surprise anybody when a report about an incident that has caused the death of several people is reported in the Western media in terms of the number of Western dead or injured. We should expect the tone and subject matter of journalistic pieces, novels and films on or featuring Africa to only use Africa a back drop. Why? Because, in truth, that narrative belongs to the West, they are writing about themselves and largely for themselves.

So what should we do? I would argue that instead of constantly whining about how shabbily we are treated in the Western media, we should redouble our efforts to rediscover ourselves and to tell our own story. There is no single correct narrative, every people and every civilization can have its own. There is no unilinear path to progress, progress can be defined in many ways and can be achieved by countless means.

The West didn’t rate the East very highly and probably didn’t have much good to say about the people of the East just 50 years ago. The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and others didn’t sit around endlessly whining about how the West wasn’t representing them properly. They simply built their own narratives and set out conquering the modern world on their own terms. They are succeeding. Why can’t we?

The great leader and martyr of the Black Consciousness Movement, Bantu Steven Biko once said “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Then George Clinton, the master of 70s psychedelic funk said “Free your mind… and your ass will follow.” So rather than spending all of our time moaning about how we are misrepresented or not adequately represented in somebody else’s narrative why don’t we dedicate ourselves to building our own?

Instead of always seeking for Western approval for everything that we do, why don’t we strive to establish our own benchmarks? We can be many things, but we should not break our backs trying and failing to be what we can never be.
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