Africa: How It Became The New Bandwagon

While there are those of us who have been writing about, discussing, dissecting, showing different perspectives of, and living and breathing Africa for a long time, it is only in recent years that western media has started talking about Africa and Africans in terms beyond the usual AIDS, corruption, starving children, dictators, internet scam, one-dimensional stereotypes.

However, it is very clear now, with today’s launch of The Guardian’s Africa network that the tide has turned and that a more positive view of Africa is becoming more commonplace in the media. At the very least, if positivity is not the order of the day, there is – thankfully – a lot more interest and curiosity about the Africa that exists outside of the usual stories.

Given that the mantra of many newsrooms is “if it bleeds, it leads”, it would seem strange for publications to turn away from writing about the worst aspects of African life and focus on its successes. If misery loves company, please believe that misery also sells a large number of newspapers and grabs multitudes of online eyeballs. Once in a while, though, publications like a story with a twist in its tail; a story that challenges  perceptions because it goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. Africa is one of those.

In reality, the change in western media’s perspective on Africa has come about primarily as a result of a change in global economics. As European and American economies began to contract and slide deeper into recessions, economists noticed that some the economies of some countries, countries that they least expected, were doing the reverse. They also noticed that a number of these economies, such as Ghana and Angola,  were African. Indeed 7 of the 10 world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa. While western nations have been experiencing growth of less than 3% per year, a number of African nations have seen impressive growth of over 5% year on year.

Business publications like the Financial Times and The Economist (which, ironically, had deemed Africa a ‘hopeless continent’ just a decade ago) started to discuss these ‘emerging’ economies in new terms. They started to cover success stories. They started to look at the opportunities and possibilities in these underserved and untapped markets. Analysts and investors started paying closer attention with management consulting firms like McKinsey publishing special reports on Africa’s rise. Foreign companies started opening up shop.

Another reason for the shift in perspective was that western leaders started to become increasingly threatened by, suspicious of and concerned about the closer economic ties that were being forged between Africa and China, as well as Africa’s relationship with India and Russia. While the west was busy disparaging the continent, refusing to budge from its paternalistic, colonialist, Africa-needs-us mentality, China, India and Russia were getting on with investing heavily in Africa apparently sans the golden handcuffs that usually come with western aid/investment.

awake to africa

From a foreign policy point of view, China’s inroad into Africa is of particular concern to western leaders (America in particular), because China’s communist influence poses a clear ideological threat to western democratic ideals. With Africa still in the early stages of democratic rule in many nations and its political affiliations still fragile, western leaders feel the need to keep an eye on what is going on there for fear of further loosing their footing.

In the China v America competition for influence, power and ideas, the alliance between China and this unexpected third party (Africa) became media fodder because it was surprising. Very few in the western media expected to see Africans and the Chinese getting on so well.

The rapid spread of technology also meant that we Africans could use the internet to start telling our own stories. No longer were we relegated to being gazed at from afar, subject to the skewed perspective of  journalists who couldn’t locate Africa on a map let alone understand the continent’s history, and diversity of cultures, customs and present day realities.

It also meant that Africans who had been raised in the diaspora, and/or who were studying, living or working there also had a voice. They could connect online and share ideas. Again, as recessions started taking hold in the west, African who had emigrated started going home, taking their education, skills, ideas and paradigms gleaned and mixed and created outside of the continent back to the continent. A reverse brain drain – a brain gain as it has been dubbed – began to take place. Publications like ARISE magazine started popping up, showcasing what has been called Afropolitan culture.

There are more reasons – such as the huge population growth in Africa, a growing middle class, a large youth population, the rise of African culture outside of Africa, such as the growth of the African music industry and Nigeria’s film industry Nollywood, that has fuelled this interest. All of these things mean more money: more opportunity for investors, more money coming into Africa and more money available for Africans to spend. The African picture now looks like growth, growth and more growth – and western media could not ignore this reality for too long.

Admittedly, the US has been slower to pick up on these changes in its media although that is also starting to change. I personally know that the US government is keen to open America’s eyes to the realities of the opportunities in Africa. Just last week the Congressional Black Caucus hosted its annual Africa Braintrust event. It was entitled: “Africa Rising: A continent of opportunity”.

I’m glad that things are changing, because there’s nothing worse than having to read stereotype after stereotype about oneself and one’s people and land. It’s even worse when that narrative is in the public sphere and others relate to you as though it is the absolute truth.

Yet, I am somewhat wary of this mainstream bandwagon jumping. It is, after all, Africans who have fuelled this interest. We were the ones who have been showcasing and talking about Africa all this while, leading it to this tipping point. We talked about it when nobody wanted to hear us, when their idea of who we were meant more than anything else.

So, it’s vital that Africans continue to have the say about our continent. Now that Africa is becoming trendy it will be all too easy for our voices to be drowned out, replaced by writers on the hunt for the next story, replacing our voice and our perspective with their own.

Let’s keep on talking, keep on sharing, keep on letting people hear our perspectives. Finally, the rest of the world is now more open than ever to hearing us. Africa is indeed on the rise.

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