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Why you shouldn’t look at Africa through a western lens.

If you’re like most people, you probably have two basic images of Africa. Either you think of something like this:

2014-05-18-AfricaGood.png
Photo credit clockwise from bottom right: Olivier Darmon, Andy Schepis, Gerry Van der Walt, and Tommaso Nervegna.

That represents “the good” Africa: safaris, colorful tribes, and Egypt’s pyramids. It’s the stuff we see on National Geographic.

Or perhaps you thought of images like this:

2014-05-18-AfricaBad.png
UN Photos by John Isaac.

That’s “the bad” Africa: war, famine, poverty, pestilence, and peril. It’s the stuff we see on CNN. It’s the fabled “Dark Continent.”

In short, Africa is either Eden or Hell. But who created this ‘image’ of Africa? is it the true representation of what Africa is or is it the negative narrative about Africa which media wants us to believe.

The bad: the creation of a Dark Continent

Tellingly, we can trace these negative narratives to the beginnings of Western Civilisation itself. In Histories, Herodotus (aka The Father of History) relates a cautionary tale about what happens in Africa. Five Nasamonians – “enterprising youths of the highest rank” – were off exploring southern Libya. After several days of wandering, they found some fruit trees and started helping themselves. Then, several “men of small stature”, “all of them skilled in magic”, seized and captured them, taking them for inscrutable and dastardly magic-dwarf purposes.

In this way, Herodotus suggested that Africa was not only different, but also more threatening, sinister and dangerous than Greece. Subsequent generations of European writers followed suit, substituting fantasy for fact in remarkedly antagonistic ways.

Europeans created an image of Africa that was the perverse opposite of Europe’s – its mirror image. Europe’s general superiority would, by comparison with and in contrast to this image, be self-evident. Europe’s own idea of itself was thus predicated on its image of Africa (and other so-called backward regions).


Here’s the thing… Looking at Africa with a westernised lens is all we know. We had no lens before we were told we had to have one to be considered civilised, and the ones we were given were lenses of so called civilisation and modernism, everything we apparently weren’t.

One of the greatest ironies in the history of the collapse of any civilisation must be the initial interaction between Africans and Europeans. The Igbos in the east of Nigeria, for instance, initially saw the Europeans as madmen of strange appearance and ill-formed ideologies. On banking, the Igbos wondered how an adult in his right mind could hand over his possessions for others to keep for him. By the end of the 19th century, the “madman” had overturned their civilisation, and they had adopted his.

 Illustration: Thomas Pullin

Today most of the nations in Africa should not even be called African nations, but western African nations. The language, political ideology, socio-economic structures, education, and everything that makes up a nation, even down to popular culture, do not originate from within these countries. African nations have a total dependency on foreign political philosophies and ideas, and their shifts and movements.

It is the feeblest position a state and its people can be in, because it is a position of chronic subservience. It also means that whatever becomes normalised in the west will eventually be adopted in, say, Uganda or Togo.

This has resulted in Africa being slowly emptied of its essence, and becoming a relic, no different in substance from a statue or a museum.

Celebrations of Africa on the international scene mostly involve dancing, music, traditional fashion and other cultural artefacts – hardly ever showcasing African-originated economic ideas, social ideologies or intellectual theories. It is not that these do not exist, but the world has successfully convinced everyone – including Africans themselves – that everything African is inferior.

The good: emerging, rising, vindicating

But now, Africa is not only an emerging market; it’s an emerging continent. Again, why now?

It is partly because some people think the best way to repudiate the negative stereotypes of Africa is to pump out wholly good news. There are many facets of a larger rebranding project. We are seeing more and more Africa Rising narratives because it is. And the changes are not confined to economic growth – large-scale political violence and war has also declined sharply over the past decade, for example. Things are indeed changing on the ground.

There has been many efforts to retelling the African narrative done by many organisations over the years. To tell the good and the bad but mostly to tell the truth of who Africa was before the Berlin Conference 1884. There is an increasing interest in Africa both from Africans and other nations who want to know this beautiful continent. Resist the urge of wearing any lens at all, it would rob you of true authentic experiences… It is unfortunate that Africa’s heritage is eroding at the expense of this so called civilisation and YES we are far gone but its never too late to take back our identity.

The most viable pathway would be for Africa’s elite to look within the vast political and ideological resources on which successful civilisations (the Zulu, the Igbo, the Malian dynasties of Timbuktu, the Oyo empire, etc) were built. In most Igbo states, for instance, there was an egalitarian system where an older member of a clan represented his people in the elders’ council. There were no kings or presidents. Perhaps there could be a way to adapt this unique political structure to replace the western one which has so far failed.

We need to look into these systems and extract coherent policies that can help form workable and uniquely African social and political systems. This is the only viable path to preventing the continent from fully becoming western Africa – and the only way to ending the continent’s long-term political and cultural decay.

We believe in the quote by George Kimble which says “The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it”.

How you choose to see Africa should be fuelled by wanting to dispel your ignorance of it.


Sources:
– Africa has been failed by westernisation. It must cast off its subservience | Chigozie Obioma – The Guardian
– History of Africa through western eyes – The Guardian
– Why your image of Africa is wrong and how to change By Francis Tapon| Huffpost.

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