Will the real Africa please stand up?

10 Min Read

Oxfam UK’s new advertising strategy, which aims to portray a different image of Africa, has been generating a fascinating storm of reactions in the blogosphere. As a British person who has spent a fair bit of time in Africa, I have been watching with interest and adding my two cents here and there.

But after adding a comment to this article by Nigerian journalist ToluOlugenesi, I started to wonder how much I really knew about British people’s perceptions of Africa… and on a more personal level, I started to wonder what my friends and my family, the ones who have not spent time in Africa, really think about the continent.

So, when I was asked to contribute a guest blog to this site (thanks, Ida!), I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a little survey. With a bit of help from some friends, I came up with 10 questions about perceptions of Africa –What do you think of when you think of Africa? What do you think people in Africa think about Europe? If you could ask a group of Africans one question, what would it be? etc. etc. I posted a link to an online questionnaire on my Facebook page with strict instructions to only answer if you were from Europe and had not lived/worked in Africa (and a warning to my African friends not to cheat and skew the response ) and I sat back and waited…

The responses came trickling in – I got a total of 13 in the end. Not exactly a huge sample, and clearly not representative of the population as a whole, but still, I found the answers fascinating.

To get it out of the way, I’ll start by confirming that amongst respondents, negative perceptions of Africa are still pretty dominant. Images of famine, poverty, corruption and civil war featured in almost every person’s response. Nobody would deny that these things do exist in Africa but, as Richard Dowden has argued, they are ‘rare and local’ and it is worrying that they are so pervasive in people’s image of the continent. In the defense of those who answered, I should also say that quite a few said they struggled to talk about their perceptions of Africa as a whole given that it is such a huge place with so many different countries.

But perhaps more interesting were the ‘positive’ associations which people mentioned. There was frequent reference to “communities”, “indigenous knowledge” and “vibrant cultures.” One person stated, “I’m sure the people there are kind and lovely.”Another commented on the continent’s“compassion”, and a number suggested that Africans are less “materialistic”than Europe. These comments seem to reflect an alternative view of Africa – the age-old ‘noble savage’ stereotype.

I’m not that surprised that these perspectives came through in the survey; I frequently hear people here in Europe talk about the wisdom of Africans or their fabled happiness in the face of adversity (“they’re so poor but yet they seem so happy…”). It is the same perspective that led Korean Air to their now infamous ‘primitive energy’ advertising campaign.

In fact this perception is not limited to the man on the street – the so-called experts in the development industry are also susceptible to it. I have been amazed to see the exaggerated reverence with which some African guests in this country have been treated by policy makers and NGOs desperate to gain their pearls of wisdom. In fact, some canny individuals seem to have made a career out of traveling the world to appear on panel discussions as the token voice of Africa. Of course I think we should be welcoming to guests, but suddenly promoting them to the status of gurus worthy of advising senior decision makers just because they are from Africa sometimes seems a little bit… you know… racist.

I am also surprised how often people will take one “African voice” and act as if it somehow represents the entire continent – perhaps even the entire global south. It reminds me of the African-American comedian Reginald D. Hunter who, when asked what black people think about an issue, is prone to look over his shoulder saying, “hang on a second, let me just consult the black committee…”.  Of course I think that perspectives and knowledge from Africa should feed into global debates but that does not mean that we need to unquestioningly accept individual opinions as definitive; indigenous knowledge from any community, from any continent, can sometimes be wrong! In fact, this is one of the reasons why I think there is a need to invest in African researchers and research institutions to allow them to continue to systematically gather information and rigorously test hypotheses.

In Europe there are sadly still some racist people who view Africans as inferior – although I am glad to see that my survey did not reveal any of these amongst my friends and family! But I wonder whether the alternative view – seeing Africans as inherently kind, wise and exotic – is also racist? As Europeans, I think we need to acknowledge that African people are neithermore noble nor more savage than any other peoples. There are stupid African people just as there are geniuses. There are kind Africans and horrible ones. In fact, what I think people in Europe could most usefully learn about African people is that they are just people who cannot be described by any one dominant narrative.

I think this point was captured most eloquently by one survey respondent who said:

“I feel quite xenophobic writing these opinions down, and I don’t count myself as a xenophobe at all. It’s made me realise that my views are influenced by two conflicting sets of media – the news about the tragedy of famine/war/poverty and the glossy ‘African tribe’ trope of Hollywood movies. I feel like this ignores a giant sector of people in the middle – people who are invisible to the Western world because they are, for want of a better word, boring and normal.”

For this reason, my favourite advertisements about Africa in recent years have been the ones produced by Mama Hope (I challenge you to watch this for example and not feel a little bit happier about the world). They do a wonderful job of showing African people who are normal, everyday people. I also have to mention this hilarious video that pokes fun at the European obsession with do-gooding charity singles.

The survey results revealed many other interesting things that could generate a whole series of blog posts. I was surprised to find out that the respondents generally knew that Africa is a lot more religious than Europe (I didn’t know that was well-known), and a number of people mentioned their distress at the persecution of minorities – particularly gay people – in certain African countries (something which I have written about here).

But I will finish this blog with a few of the questions which my respondents said they would like to pose to a group of African people. I will be sharing the link to this blog with my Facebook friends, so for those of you reading this who are from Africa, this is your chance to answer a question and give a perspective from a normal, everyday African.

Do you consider yourself to be an African (as opposed to just identifying with the country you are from)?

What makes you proud to be African?

Where do you see Africa in 20 years’ time?

What do you do to have fun?

What distinguishes your culture from that of surrounding groups?

What impact has Mandela had on Africa outside of South Africa?

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Kirsty Newman works as a Research Uptake Manager at the UK Department for International Development (DFID) but is blogging here in a personal capacity. Kirsty has also worked on scientific capacity building programmes in Africa for both the UK Parliament and the Wellcome Trust. Before branching into international development, Kirsty was a research scientist. She has a PhD in HIV immunology from Edinburgh University and she worked on Malaria research in the UK and Tanzania. She has strong ties to many African countries but her first love remains Malawi where she lived for a year early in her career. Kirsty’s own blog on research, international development and ‘other stuff’ can be found here:http://kirstyevidence.wordpress.com/

She is also on twitter as @kirstyevidence

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