You should care about the way African stories are told

Charlotte Musinga

I recently found a picture from my first day of high school. It was taken as I said goodbye to my mother. She was wearing a beautiful head wrap, Gele, as is known in Nigeria. I was immediately nostalgic of a time when headwraps were a trend, a time when the women around me had a strong admiration for the female African characters depicted in Nigerian movies, to the extent of emulating their ways, their clothes, strong senses of identity, undying love for their communities.

The Nigerian movie industry is commonly known as Nollywood - the Bollywood, and Hollywood - of the African continent. This name caught on as it grew to become one of the biggest cultural influences on the African continent. This expansion also opened the industry up for lots of criticism. In an effort to respond to these critiques, Nollywood became slowly influenced by western pop culture as it adjusted; casting only light-skinned women as reputable characters. The head wraps were ditched and accents with a touch of Yoruba or Igbo were let go. The English language and perfect English accents were treated as a measure of intelligence, effectively romanticizing stories that diminished parts of our own.

Nollywood was unable to maintain its stand to resist Eurocentric views of our continent. Our view of ourselves followed suit. A gap in the market opened, one that was gladly filled by western television with euro-centric stories that flourished.

Fictional and non-fictional stories that grace television screens contain characters that constantly articulate the “children in Africa are dying” line (as if it couldn’t get any cringer). White television tries to express dominance over the developing world while promoting the believable stereotypical single-story: Africans are poverty-stricken or less-than. Is it not believable for an African story to be one that is desirable, successful, or even metropolitan?

Photograph: Prince Akachi | Lagos, Nigeria | @princearkman

Photograph: Prince Akachi | Lagos, Nigeria | @princearkman

It is no mistake that the Sudan uprising in 2019 went on for months and months before anyone cared about the heavily female-led revolution. In September 2017, there was overwhelming global support received by victims of #HurricaneHarvey and #HurricaneIrma, but no one heard anything about the intense floods in Benue State, Nigeria that displaced over 100,000 people (Aljazeera, 2017). The Mogadishu bombing in October 2017, that killed 300 Somalis and left behind more than 300 casualties, happened at around the same time as a church shooting in Texas (Burke, 2017; Green 2017). Still, there was almost nothing in the media about Somalia.

I knew about the Notre Dame fire the moment it happened.

These are only a few examples. I do not want to diminish events that happen in the West, but to show the dynamic of what kind of story is considered more important, expressed in the global prioritization of one over the other. It becomes apparent that wallowing in abject poverty or terror is synonymous with the African identity. The West perceives shootings, terrorism, and climate change catastrophes as normal occurrences in Africa, so why would anyone care about the norm? Disease should never be the norm anywhere, terror should be appalling when committed against anyone of any race, effects of climate change are a ticking time bomb no matter where you live - we have one planet after all. Why do catastrophes matter more when the victims are white?

For most people, the first and only encounter they have with new groups of people is through the media and television, which weaves an influential narrative of how well these groups become familiar and how easy it is to relate to them. If one’s only interaction with the African continent is through the depiction of terror, disease, and poverty, a natural assumption is that the continent is in unlivable conditions. If the Makerere medical school and the medical teams that dedicate their lives to study and underpin disease outbreaks were added to the Ebola story, it would be a completely different and revolutionary one. Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe for instance unceasingly worked with research teams to find a cure for Ebola symptoms (WHO, 2018).

Donors are great, charity is awesome, and people need help. But telling a story of charity work and how helpful it was for a community devastated by an HIV/AIDS epidemic is different than telling a story that includes how the community got to that point. Nobody ever mentions if the charity makes groups more vulnerable to other dangers. Leaving out how the community is handling the epidemic, whether through the adoption of children or creating new lifestyles, erodes the essence of the community’s humanity and relatability. This only tips the story in one direction – a Western direction - and makes the charity more relevant to those outside the communities, creating a hero-savior power dynamic which only perpetuates the narrative which proclaims African gratefulness, “I would be nothing without you.”

Developing nations and people’s identities should not turn into slurs or power calibrating machines. African or not, our collective obligation as artists, writers, content creators, journalists, professionals, and consumers is to do our homework when creating, telling and consuming narratives that aren’t our own, embracing the power of perspective and different points of view.

Good, bad, and even indifferent media helps define our collective reality and set our standards. If an African child grows up never seeing themselves or their likeness represented as successful, it's unheard of to succeed, and well, tragic if their story parallels the undesirable one. In pursuit of success, people would rather associate themselves with the west, whiteness, than have anything to do with an identity that is repeatedly echoed with what is “less than.”

While many have never experienced the burden of living under colonialism or its shadow, oppression, exploitation, cultural erosion and the single-story continue to be perpetuated. People on this continent, with its 54 countries, diaspora, and more than 3000 diverse tribes deserve better stories truer to the African experience.


Works cited:

Aljazeera.com. (2017). Nigeria floods displace more than 100,000 people. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/nigeria-floods-displace-100000-people-170831221301909.html [Accessed 3 Sep. 2019].

Burke, J. (2017). Mogadishu truck bomb: 500 casualties in Somalia’s worst terrorist attack. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/15/truck-bomb-mogadishu-kills-people-somalia [Accessed 3 Sep. 2019].

Green, E. (2017). The Particular Horror of Church Shootings. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/11/church-shooting-texas/545018/ [Accessed 4 Sep. 2019].

World Health Organization. (2018). Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum: a life’s work on Ebola. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/96/12/18-031218/en/ [Accessed 4 Sep. 2019].

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