Afro-pessimism in the African context is the unrelenting negative depiction of Africa in western media, portraying an image of arrested development. This has been exemplified by the London based Economist Magazine, which printed the scandalous front-page cover in May 2000 describing Africa with the headline “The hopeless continent”. In Jan 2018 the bigoted views of a then-seating-president of the United States, Donald Trump, referred to African countries as “shitholes”. In 2019, the New York Times published a controversial job advertisement for a journalist position in Kenya, stating that the successful candidate would write African “unexpected stories of hope”.
The genealogy of Africa as a “dark continent” dates all the way back to Hegel’s philosophy of history, shamelessly suggesting that Africa plays no part in the world-historical progress of the consciousness of freedom. The work of Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne shows religious manuscripts, written poetry and jurisprudence text adopted before colonisation of the African continent. Worrisome in this analysis, is the continued Eurocentric measure of African history which erases the rich history of cultural, political and economic interconnection.
A report on “Africa in the Media” shows how tenacious the US media is in depicting an overwhelming negative focus on corruption, famine, terrorism and electoral crises. In addition, Africa is portrayed as a country with 44% of TV shows and movies mentioning “Africa”, with no reference to a particular country. Articles that narrate the story of a country within the African continent make sweeping comments and singularly mention Africa while neglecting the name of the state made reference to. The danger in the story that is perpetuated in the media, which neglects to mention African countries, is it creates a single-sided story of Africa and solidifies the misperception of a continent with 54 countries. This fails to educate the world, a world that takes much of its learning from the media.
The world continues to structure the political and trade economy to the historical continuum of the colonial project (globalisation I) and further the expansion of economic neoliberalism (globalisation II). The Eurocentric development model measures progress in relation to Western liberal democracies, furthering the ideologies of ‘pop-Hegelians’. However, despite this there is a continuous misconception that Africa needs charity, as opposed to investment and partnership.
What is striking is that post-World War II when the West was in shambles, the Marshall Plan rolled out economic aid to Europe that was aimed at infrastructural development that targeted the steel, engineering and mechanical industries to combat poverty, unemployment and dislocation. The core difference in African aid to that of the Marshall Plan is that aid to Africa does not target private sector growth which leads to economic growth and thus global market integration. Private sector efforts by the Africa Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation and other microlending institutions focus on NGO and government agency loans, with little focus on private sector growth.
Political activities can be difficult and even pervasive to the economic growth and livelihoods of citizens, however these truths do not shadow the individuality, culture and humanity of the people. Contrary, on the global stage, the misconceptions of Africa are fueled by the media which reports primarily on the negative happenings in the African continent. Threby, reducing a continent of diversity to one of corruption, safaris and starvation.
Schools across the world teach little on Africa and when the curriculum does cover Africa, the focus is on the Sahara Desert, colonisation, disease, and animals. This proves problematic further in life, because the ignorance is met with pictures on commodities that exemplify “charity”. This is not to argue that Africa is in need of further development to curb poverty, it is rather to highlight that there is something incredibly “soul tiring” about the continuous image underdevelopment. This is engrained in the reactions received by African scholars who find themselves in western schools whose classmates are shocked at their eloquence or ability to perform well academically.
Image by the author: a water bottle sold in the Co-op (a UK food retailer).
Co-op Food, the food retail business of the consumer co-operative movement in the UK, has a water branded water bottle on its shelves that shows an image of a child looking malnourished who is from the African continent. This image is used as an advertising tool for charity work done by the Co-op. I am willing to put forward the argument that this water bottle would sell all the same without the image on it and the organisation could further its work in creating access to clean water. The idea is not to hide the gruesome truths about Africa, but rather highlight this one-sided story of the African continent which is continuously used and further perpetuates one narrative.
Africa is not a place of one heritage, one language or one country. It is a place of cultural diversity, with over 2,000 languages spoken, 54 countries and over 1.2 billion people spanning on a topography of 30.37 million km². A place that embraces differences, respects uniqueness, and thrives on cultural diversity. The complexities are what makes one African. Holding a hybrid identity of one’s country of origin and continental roots.
It is about understanding the challenges faced on the African continent, the horror of its history and the reality of its present and simultaneously honouring its growth, authentic beauty and its people.
Rebranding Africa is rooted in understanding that there is a gap in knowledge worldwide, one that is rooted in the imaging in the media and the ignorance rooted in school systems worldwide. However, it goes further than that, and it is simply in understanding that Africa is complex and honing its complexities
This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2020-2021 AutumnTerm.
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