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 271.

    Madonna as Africa's President ? God help us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    this article is a waste of taxpayers money

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    Well, if I just accept that some of the comments on here are actually from African people and some masquerading as such, I find their comments depressing. All this nonsense about traditional medicine, how the greedy west has destroyed beautiful africa and so on conveniently misses the genocide, homophobia, racism, child soldiers, ethnic cleansing etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    What is not true here? That Africa is present in the media mostly thru celebrity endorsements? That NATO doesn't occasionally bomb the countries that don't suit its interests? That Africa has young population full of hope, unlike the western countries full of grumpy aging population. This was an African writing about Africa. If he said something about Europe, you might argue he is misinformed.

  • Comment number 267.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    The worlds bad image of Africa is deliberate. Guns are shipped,wars are stirred up, natural resources are stolen or bought on the cheap and the resulting poverty&suffering is broadcasted on international TV to humiliate and to reaffirm this created image. This is so we in the west can have a comfortable standard of living. except that now, westerners are squeezed too to please the filthy rich.

  • Comment number 265.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.


    Ignorance and Arrogance entwined - Astounding. Do let us know what it's like when China has exhausted all its agricultural and mining assets in eastern and central africa would you?

    Oh, you thought altruism and a sense of helping 'Africa' brought them there did you? Oh dear...

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    I like seeing more Africans speaking up for themselves so that one gets a better picture of what truly happens. If the news is just coming from one side it will end up being biased.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    the fictional Africa described sounds to me like a much preferable situation than the reality that exists today. Is South Africa a good example of the self styled non-Switzerland African image the author is trying to portray? Help starts at home

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    For me there is the undeniable flavour of the ethnically & socially cleansed versus the ethnic & social cleansers about this piece.

    In the interests of solidarity

    Don't forget though

    'We are all in this together'...whoever SHE is

  • Comment number 260.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    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

    Comment number 258.


    It's too simplistic to say that the only reason we are wealthy is our colonial past. Don't forget the scientific and industrial revolutions, the formation of law and order, democratic systems. All contributed to wealth creation and gave us an edge.

    That's not to say there hasn't been exploitation, but this article is a one-sided rant. There are certain things we can be proud of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    "254.Tsunami of Logic:
    Britain plucked large swathes of Africa from the stone age and those countries have been sinking back into the stone age since they became independant!"

    There's nowt wrong with the stone age. After all, that's where Christianity came from, that's out national religion you know. God save the Poop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    WHAT has China involvement in Africa has to do with anything. China is in Africa not as colonialist. China did not build any Buddhist School or Fallagun Development centre in Africa. China is not telling Africa what to do. China is not preaching democracy to Africans. The West is jealous of China presence in Africa. The West an old bitter losser

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    @241- Scenario: You're injured in one of the many African warzones. Blood is steadily pumping out of a deep cut. You have the choice of a) being treated by a red-cross, western medic, laden with modern technology and medical packs, or b) a village witch-doctor who will apply some herbs he has just chewed and then ceremonially wave a stick over the afflicted area. What do you do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Britain plucked large swathes of Africa from the stone age and those countries have been sinking back into the stone age since they became independant!

    Those Africans who think of China as a new friend & benefactor are foolish indeed. China has her own agenda and no love for the African! She will bleed the continent dry of resources for her own benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    "...give birth to only one baby per couple..."

    If we all restricted ourselves to no more than a couple of kids per couple then the whole planet would be a lot better off. Nothing imperialist about that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    246. mwedzi
    if you doubt me, research what your car runs on,
    Research it? It runs on BP petrol refined at Grangemouth in Scotland. The oil fuelling Grangemouth comes out of the North Sea. While Nigeria & sudan export a decent amount of oil its little compared to Saudi or Kuwait. I think you're onto a loser trying to claim 'Petrol is an African invention'


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