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

    Comment number 251.

    With that much natural and human resources in Africa i don't see how we can blame anyone else for our underdevelopment. Even the very arid part of Africa could become the future of energy production for half the whole world, that is if the Africans themselves ever think beyond how to steal their country blind.

    Africans please wake up -be informed, be aware and be educated!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.


    You have no idea what you're talking about. 'Western medicine' comes in thousands of different forms, for antibiotics to psychological welfare treatments, a do the methodologies for testing them.

    Be sure to tell the next MSF volunteer you see in a warzone treating maimed children that they can get lost because their treatments are "tested on animals".Jeeze

    You are just inventing lies

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    john (244)

    "Yeah we're all nasty colonialists like Mugabe says."

    I note that Robert Mugabe has chosen to keep his first name, a good ENGLISH first name: "Robert", which proves that he actually admires the British and wants to be one of them. I'd love to tell him this, just to see his look of happiness and revelation.

  • rate this

    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

    Comment number 247.

    @225.Africaisgreat, I sense a life of brian homage 'what did the west ever do for us?' discussion going on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    @Lemong says without western aid, millions who are alive now would be dead. true. and without western intervention over the last few centuries, many who would have lived, have died. don't paint the west as some altruistic benefactor to africa. the west gets more than it gives. if you doubt me, research what your car runs on, what's in your phones/computers, how the west built the wealth it gives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    @240 - "how about we get a different view from another African, for balance?" - Please let me introduce you to 241 for balance :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Yeah we're all nasty colonialists like Mugabe says.

    You know, I don't think of Africa at all. Nighty night.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    The fact iof the matter is that the greatest force for good Africa has ever known was the British Empire. The Belgians, French, Italians, Germans etc., got it hopelessly wrong but we did not! That is why many Africans would welcome the British back with open arms!

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Just out curiosity, how much money has China thrown at the various sub-Sahara African nations to help alleviate such issues as poverty, starvation, and AIDS? You know, those common issues that seem to run through each of sub-Sahara countries? I can take a wild guess at what the "evil" West has thrown into the money pot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    Western medicine rely much on technology. They are tested on animals and then applied to human. Many Western medical profesional are now in Africa using Africans as pigs to test the validity of their medication. Most Western medicine exported / imported to Africa already expired 5 0r 10 years ago. Exp. date on medication are changed to make it look neww. Who are you fooling here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Hard to imagine, but there is one thing worse than this ridiculous "article", and that is the BBC's PC editorial team who allowed it to be published.
    No doubt, they believe it to be "thought-provoking", and providing an African's about we get a different view from another African, for balance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    The accelerating, industrial rise of 'Africa', 'Asia' & 'S Americas' is in many ways more frightening than the industrial rise of 'Europe' & 'N America'.

    The wider envrionment doesn't recognise words, wether personal or scientific, just the effects some of those words have.

    Words such as


  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    The western media exaggerate the bad, downplay the good, regurgitate old bad news no matter how tenuous the link to current events and speculate endlessly about the worst possible outcome. I think Binyavanga Wainaina may have confused the western media portrayal of Africa with western people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    I recommend this article by Binyavanga which explores some of the same ideas, but in my opinion, more coherently :

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.


    Completely agree - The author cites ignorant westerners utilising an homogonised imagining of Africa for their aid giving and 'exploitation', failing to realise of course that he fallen into the same catagory of those people he has a distaste for in homogonising all westerners as Americanised CNN viewers.

    And this chap has won an award for writing I hear? Oh dear...

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    @225. Africaisgreat
    This is beyond arguing, if you're willing to believe that - fine, I'll stick to university and college educated doctors, nurses etc. for my health needs.

    Good luck restoring sight/hearing to a blind/deaf person with a fancy herb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    211. Olyec Oloyi
    Africa was full of suffering and misery long before the west knew of it. Try actually reading about the history of Africa before spouting your inculcated and selective opinion on the subject. Your view of Africa is as misplaced and media-driven as the author of this article believes the average Westerners is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    No mention in this article about the genocidal homophobia which seems to be prevalent around the vast majority of the contintent..

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    #211 Olyec Oloyi

    "What a laugh to hear from some that the West brought medicine to Africa. Africans have had traditional medicine which is better than Western medicine since creation."

    You mean like advocating the consumption of beetroot and garlic to treat HIV infection in preference to antiretroviral drugs-- Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, former health minister of South Africa?!!!


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