Viewpoint: Binyavanga on why Africa's international image is unfair

 
Madonna in Malawi Should Madonna be Africa's president?

Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan author and a past winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, argues that the world has got its image of Africa very badly wrong.

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Africa's image in the West, and Africa's image to itself, are often crude, childish drawings of reality”

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Let us imagine that Africa was really like it is shown in the international media.

Africa would be a country. Its largest province would be Somalia.

Bono, Angelina Jolie and Madonna would be joint presidents, appointed by the United Nations.

European aid workers would run the Foreign Affairs Office, gap year students from the UK the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Culture would be run by the makers of the Kony2012 videos.

'Wholesome and ethnic'

Actual Africans would live inside villages designed by economist Jeffrey Sachs.

A view from Venezuela: "Africa has been oppressed and abused"

Those villagers would wear wholesome hand-made ethnic clothing, dance to wholesome ethnic music and during the day they would grow food communally and engage in things called income-generating activities.

For our own protection, American peacekeepers and Nato planes would surround the villages - making hearts and minds happy and safe.

We would give birth to only one baby per couple - this way we would not overwhelm poor, suffering Europeans with our desire to travel outside our villages and participate fully in a dynamic world.

We would not be allowed to do business with the Chinese and we would not be allowed to do business with the country formerly known as Gaddafi's Libya.

Africa would discover the child in itself, and stop trying to mess around and be a part of the rest of the world.

Getting back to here, and now.

Any sensible person would say that to cede power to others to decide what you are has never been a good idea.

That is one of the reasons why Al-Jazeera exists.

Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru posing with artwork resembling sunglasses on February 1, 2012 in Nairobi Africa has numerous different images of itself to offer the world

Already, after 20 years of economic growth, as our countries - which are all very young - start to evolve and grow rapidly what starts to happen is that we start to look less cartoonish to ourselves and to others - as we export our entrepreneurs, our writers, our skilled people within the continent and to the rest of the world; as we continue to invest aggressively in digital technology; as we begin a new agricultural revolution; as our countries start to make larger political and economic unions.

Africa's image in the West, and Africa's image to itself, are often crude, childish drawings of reality.

These pictures and words are crude because crude things come out of little investment: Of money, of time, of attention, of imagination.

The picture becomes clearer, the more progress arrives. The more politics becomes lucid and accountable, the more roads, cables and railways are built.

Africa 'not Switzerland'

That process has been accelerating for a while now.

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Everywhere I go, I see young people: confident, forward looking”

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The human ability to learn, grow, and innovate is our most valuable tool.

Africa will never look like Switzerland.

One of the problems with the way it is written about is that it is measured in the present tense by how different it looks from the places that have developed a sophisticated and deeply documented sense of themselves.

Those nations and regions that got in earlier found themselves better able to project their own image to the rest.

There are parts of Africa that are not yet even committed to being in a nation-state as drawn in 1885 at the Berlin Conference, and in the 1960s by the great powers.

A view from Islamabad: "I think Africa is doing very well. Africa rocks!"

There are nation states that will survive those - and new nation states will emerge, new arrangements of people, new ways to manage resources, to use what is there.

There is work to be done. That is no question. Work for the brave, those full of imagination and desire.

There are a billion of us - of every human persuasion you can imagine.

Eight years ago, in my country Kenya, we had stopped imagining we could make anything work. Now Kenya is overwhelmed by new ideas, businesses, frictions, paint work, books, movies, magazines, and industries.

Everywhere I go, I see young people: Confident, forward looking. I have seen them in Lagos, in Rwanda, in the suburbs of London.

There is fresh concrete all over the continent. There are great challenges, but there is aggressive movement - and movement causes conflict.

The Africa Debate

Tune in to the BBC World Service at 1900 GMT on Friday to listen to The Africa Debate broadcast from Kampala: Is Africa's image unfair?

Or take part in Twitter - using #bbcafricadebate - Facebook or Google+

What is much, much worse is stagnation. Places where people just sit and wait for fate. The post-IMF 1990s were like that - but that was more a moment than a permanent reality.

Things are changing fast.

The truth is, we have only started to see what we will look like.

The truth is, with the rise of China, we do not have to take any deal Europe throws at us that comes packaged with permanent poverty, incompetent volunteers and the occasional Nato bomb.

As the West flounders, there is a real sense that we have some leverage.

The truth is, we will never look like what CNN wants us to look like.

But that's fine - we can get online now and completely bypass their nonsense.

Binyavanga Wainaina is the author of One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir and founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani?

 

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  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 259.

    The comments are quite true. Unfortunately they are not news. The BBC never reports on a little old lady going to bingo, coming home to a nice cup of tea etc. It only reports if the old lady was battered to death for her pension money. Perceptions are shaped by what one sees in the news. Africa still has overpopulation, famine, and corrupt leaders, so there is a way to go yet, but keep going.

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 248.

    I find it strange that there is the view that Africa no longer needs the West as they now have China. I would rather see African countries stand on their own two feet. It is a beautiful continent with an abundance of resources, people and potential. African governments are given lots of incentive to allow these new companies in. Companies who add little value to the Continent and merely take.

  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 81.

    Some of what has been written is true. Some of it seem like an angry tirade at the West for not doing more to help her poor baby out of poverty. I think it is us who need to be helping ourselves, by getting smart enough to select leaders who are working for us and not thieves. Then the cycle of recieving what "Europe throws at us" would surely have never been born in the first place.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 66.

    Yes there are problems in Africa, but they are not in every country. The majority of people living on the continent are hard working, honest and conscientious. The news in the UK today is about corruption (the Leveson Enquiry), wars we're fighting (Afghanistan) and poverty (the cap on benefits) . Are we really in a place in Europe and the US to tar an entire continent's population as we do?

  • rate this
    +41

    Comment number 57.

    This is the most rose tinted view of Africa I have ever read. Understandably an African writer is going to look at the continent's achievements. However the simple fact is that millions would die of starvation and countries dissolve into chaos if the West pulled out. Should I donate to charities that focus on other parts of the world instead?

 

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