So goes Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s searing satirical piece, entitled ‘How to Write About Africa’, which appeared in Granta magazine in 2005 and subsequently went viral.
The article offered comic relief to many Africans who had bottled up resentment to the centuries-old narratives about the ‘Dark Continent’, which were more often than not shaped by non-Africans.
In recent years, many more Africans have joined Wainaina’s ranks – evangelists trampling these stereotypes and spreading the gospel of ‘Africa rising’.
As part of this new narrative, the news media constantly reminds us that Africa is home to six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies. This year, The Economist declared Africa “the world’s fastest-growing continent”, while Time noted Africa is “the world’s next economic powerhouse”. A few years back, a McKinsey & Co report described our economies as “lions on the move”.
Indeed these lions have newfound assertiveness, thanks to a period of relative political stability, a decade-long economic surge, changing geo-political relations on the back of China’s growth, and access to social media platforms.
In this mission to redefine the long-battered image of Africa, Kenya offers an interesting case study. Much of the country’s confidence comes from its status as a regional economic hub, political heavyweight and technology leader.
Kenya is also, arguably, leading the African pushback against Western media’s tendency to cover mostly coups, wars, famine, hunger and diseases on the continent.
“These are the images that we must aggressively seek to banish from the global media space and sphere about Africa. Not because they do not exist, rather, that they will belong to a past, an inglorious past, that we seek forever to consign to the annals of history,” Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta declared on World Press Freedom Day earlier this year.
With Kenyans at the forefront of Africa’s tech movement, it’s no surprise that the younger generation is using social media to challenge stereotypical images. In the lead-up to the March general elections, KoTs (Kenyans on Twitter) were increasingly vocal about which stories Western media chose to cover.
KoTs used #someonetellCNN to force the broadcast giant to apologize. An international correspondent had allegedly stage-managed a report showing some Rift Valley residents planning retribution attacks for the 2007/8 post-election violence.
Not only are Kenyans challenging Western narratives, they are also producing their own. For many Kenyans, one of the lasting images of the media coverage of the election is that of NTV anchor Larry Madowo’s ‘helicopter journalism’. On election day, Madowo started off with a live report from a polling station in Nairobi. A short while later, he was reporting from Garissa Town, then Lamu, then Tana River County.
Another example came after the poll. Kenyan student Waringa Kamau, who is studying at the Washington and Lee University in the United States, wanted to find out if KoTs’ concerns that Western media deliberately portrays Africa in a negative light extended beyond her fellow Kenyans. Her documentary, Africa in Western Media, shows that the students she interviewed agreed with KoTs.
With the growing optimism, there is also an increasing concern that the news media is under pressure to downplay any negative accounts. Kenyan media has been criticized by Kenyans themselves for trivializing some of the violence and irregularities that occurred during the run-up to the elections.
Even the broader ‘Africa rising’ narrative has been condemned. It is accused of implicitly concealing the fragility of Africa’s economic growth and the various challenges that could hold the continent back from genuine, inclusive development. Some of these are ongoing aid dependence, governance issues and the fact that the economic surge is largely driven by the extractive industry, as Rick Rowden points out in his Foreign Policy article, ‘The Myth of Africa’s Rise’.
So, while a shift from the ‘hopeless Africa’ narrative is long overdue, Kenyans and their African sisters and sisters may need to move into a new paradigm, where happenings on the ground are examined more closely.
We need to find the balance when telling our own stories, otherwise the image of Africa rising will not hold and the journey to inclusive development may be stalled before it starts.