Africa- Time to tell our own stories

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I recently watched the movie Captain Philips and I thought it was one of the more poignant portrayals of piracy off the Somali coast. My immediate reaction was to describe it as moving and deep, as I identified with the character of Captain Philips played by Tom Hanks. In my mind it was already a front runner for the Oscars or some other such award, but that was before I read Ossob’s review of the film. Ossob, being from Somalia, immediately identified the flaws of the film and what she describes as western “othering”. And what a good job she did. While I absolutely enjoyed the film, I realised it was because I have been constantly fed a diet of western stereotypes of how other Africans, who are removed from my immediate surroundings, are. The character of Muse, while one dimensional and flat – and inaccurate – is what many Africans, myself included, would think of Somalis because that is the only depiction of Somalis we have. I am sure Somalis, Kenyans and Nigerians also have some form of distorted notion of what Mozambicans and Zimbabweans are like. Despite being neighbours, we are forced to see each other through the eyes of people far removed from us, and this shapes our perception of each, no matter how inaccurate the image portrayed is. What I think we have failed to do as Africans is to tell our own story and we have outsourced this to foreigners, who have no vested interests in the accuracy of whatever image is portrayed. Take for example the terrorist bombings in Kenya; it was a while before African broadcasters and media houses caught on and by then BBC, Sky and CNN had long told the story. The immediate reaction would be to say African broadcasters and media houses do not have the financial might of foreign broadcasters. While this might be true, I am cocksure South African channels eNCA and SABC News, which supposedly broadcast to sub Saharan Africa through satellite TV, have correspondents in Kenya and could afford freelance reporters when the crisis broke out. But they caught on too late and when they did, we chose to rely on foreign channels, because they were first with the news. Because we are not telling our own story, unfortunately, we have to contend with the one dimensional, unthinking, savage African image that the western world has bestowed on us. I am certain there was more to Nelson Mandela than the forgiving turn-the-other-cheek character that has become the media staple of late. He was a revolutionary, he got angry and was a fighter, but because we have come to know Mandela through the eyes of the west, we now know him as an unerring saint. I am certain there’s more to Robert Mugabe than a testy fiend, hounding white people out of Zimbabwe and plundering the country while at it. But because Zimbabwe and most Africa have not invested in telling its own stories, we have to live with the unfortunate scenario, where an outsider decides how we think of ourselves and our immediate neighbours. Because we are not telling our own stories, we have created a distance between ourselves as Africans, and we readily identify with the characters that have nothing to do with us, just as I identified with Captain Philips. I remember as a child watching what was then called the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), where there was a character called Kamala, supposedly Ugandan, we were made to believe he was as dull as a door knob. He didn’t know the basics of wrestling and was said to be a simple-minded vicious cannibal from the Ugandan jungle. That influenced my thinking of what Ugandans were like as a child, because that is the only image I had of Ugandans (Kamala was actually American). But how inaccurate it was. But as long as we don’t tell our own stories, make our own movies and documentaries, we shall remain like Muse and Kamala, the one dimensional characters, unable to tell their left from the right. It is time we told and owned our stories.

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