Africans are so used to us and our continent being portrayed negatively that we latch onto any positive story about us in international media. Whether it’s about idyllic holiday destinations, masais playing cricket or mobile money transfer systems, we welcome the positivity. And perhaps because we’re used to a narrative that seems bent on painting us as the irredeemable basket case of the world, we accept ‘positive’ portrayals without question. We leave ourselves open to falsely generous narratives and fail to critique them or their rigour, accuracy and nuance. We’re just relieved someone is saying something nice about us.
We seem too easily disarmed at a positive storyline to the extent that we’re beginning to enable a pernicious narrative on the continent. A narrative which, on the surface seems generous and kind, but when further unpacked, actually emboldens the notion that Africans are inherently incompetent and incapable.
I first came across this narrative a few years ago when the Africa rising commentary was gaining traction. Look at Africa, it said, it’s actually not doing badly. Lots of economic growth, growing middle class, maybe we can make money here after all, it said. But the core reason behind Africa’s rise was not us or our intelligence, it was population growth. The main argument was that Africa’s population is the fastest growing in the world and soon one in four people on the planet will be African. And that’s why we should be noticed, according to this narrative.
It was as though our rise was being linked to some serendipitous stroke of demographic luck rather than to the ingenuity, determination, intelligence and grit of millions of Africans. I’ve seen Africans retweet the ‘Africa rising population story’ with pride. They want the world to know we matter. But the problem is that people look at Africa’s growing markets as the main motivator for engagement with us. Many do not seem to care about our ability to adapt, solve problems and turn problems into opportunity. Anyone who lives in Kenya, or any country in Africa, knows that many of us are problem solvers. With a low number of formal jobs, millions wake up every day with plans on how to generate income and hopefully wealth for themselves and those who depend on them. With limited financing options for their ideas and basically no government social security net, most Africans know they must figure out how to get money on the table on a daily basis by themselves.
The mental math, emotional calculations, soft skills, negotiation capability, ingenuity and problem solving skills demanded on some days can be substantial. But these qualities seem ignored. We rarely hear of the knowledge and skills systems Africans are building and using to drive economic growth. Instead, the narrative that is gaining traction is the population growth story, and how it’s the reason behind the rise of Africa.
The subtle nature of this narrative, clothed in complimentary language, actually erases the agency of Africans in the growth of the continent. And that is saddening. But this is not the first time Africa has been underestimated. Let them continue. We’re working.
Anzetse Were is development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org