For eons, we have bemoaned the stereotypical portrayal of Africa by western media and our vexations are justified if not a tad too timid. The image of Africa imprinted on the memory of a suburban kid in Frankfurt is most likely that of a sparse area with parched land and an emaciated kid being hovered around by preying vultures. The National Geographic and broadcast outlets like BBC and CNN can be blamed for such negative and collective misrepresentation of Africa. Yes, Africa has its negatives and such images are not doctored by the folks at Broadcasting House in London but the issue is the way such stories are reported to sound like they are representative of the entire African experience.
When famine and drought devastated Ethiopia and pricked the conscience of humanity in the 80s, such images of destitution and dereliction found their way into the global conversation on Africa. Headlines like “FAMINE IN AFRICA”, “TENS OF THOUSANDS DIE OF HUNGER IN AFRICA” among other foreboding wordings were commonplace in the west. Yes, the headlines did carry some weight of truth but the biggest issue here was the massing of a whole continent to represent an occurrence in just one part of Africa. This continued portrayal of 100s of millions of people with 50 plus countries and a gazillion ethnicities as a monolithic group with a dark past, a cloudy present and a gloomy future has perpetuated the ignorance of people outside the boundaries of Africa.
While a high school exchange student in the countryside of Virginia, I was confronted with the most absurd and demeaning yet pardonable questions any minority could be asked. On my first day of high school, a girl asked me in the most Barbie-ish of voices; “Do you ride elephants to school?” Far from angered, I understood what informed her ignorance. For if anything was ever broadcasted of Africa, it was of rebel leaders amputating the hands of minorities in Liberia or corrupt leaders siphoning petroleum revenue from Nigeria. The onetime Africa made waves during my exchange year was when the sensational KONY 2012 was being serialized. But the lack of knowledge is not only at the grass root level. It permeates all the way to the highest echelons of politics where Sarah Palin thinks “Africa is a country”.
It was against this backdrop that a movement for the telling of African stories by African voices was birthed. The need for the tale of the lion being told by the lion himself and not the hunter had been established. For it was only in the interest of the hunter to glorify his hunt and justify his poaching of game in the forest. Journalists with mane started sprouting in the previously Caucasian dominated international media houses. Prominent amongst them were Umaru Fofana and the late Komla Dumuor, both of the British Broadcasting Corporation. They reported African stories without lacing it with the stereotypical condiments the world had come to associate with Africa. Africa was no longer a single country bleeding from unending wars and starving from the corruption of potbellied dictators. It was now being presented to the world as a body with 54 countries, fast paced cities with the furnishings found in modern cities the world over, budding democracies but simultaneously with the negative stories Hollywood has excessively exaggerated.
Even though the number of African voices in the international media circles was and still is infinitesimal, local media outlets also had the tools capable of changing the narrative of Africa. They have the access to the same social media platforms Wall Street Journal and New York Times used. The hashtag on Twitter is not the preserve of the Huffington Post and neither is Facebook. But the truth remains that the stories which dominate our headlines are the clichéd propaganda of political parties our ears have become irked by. The second type of information reported by media houses are those subtly influenced by western media houses. Lost in the midst of all this are the exceptional stories of everyday Ghanaians doing amazing stuff.
Take the buzz around Abraham Attah for example. Nothing was said about this young chap who reportedly did amazing stuff on the set of “Beasts of No Nation” after an impromptu auditioning (I can’t wait for the premiere thoughJ) in our own media circles until western media outlets started talking about him. We quickly jumped unto the Abraham Attah bandwagon the second it hit town and jumped off the minute it left town, sticking to the common trend of only giving prominence of ours when others did.
Another classic case is that of Fiifi Anaman. I bet you said a big “HUH” after you read that name. I do not fault you for not knowing the name of a 21 year old Ghanaian undergraduate who was shortlisted for the CNN African Journalist of the Year award. Quite ridiculous that his name was not on the front pages of Daily Graphic and the screens of GTV right? It baffles the mind that someone with such a phenomenal feat at a young age did not make the headlines. But you can bet top dollar that the reverse would have been the case should his story have been picked up by The Washington Post.
As Chimamanda made clear, there is a danger in a single story. But when the lion has internet access, a microphone and a pen, it should be the only one blamed for the perpetuation of the hunter’s side of the story.