Viewpoint: Binyavanga on why Africa’s international image is unfair
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?