How [not] to Write About Africa

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are growing at a phenomenal clip. Nigeria’s economy grew by 6.7 percent in 2012. Mozambique’s grew by 7.4 percent, Ghana’s by 7.9 percent. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is predicted to reach 5.2 percent this year. Investment funds are starting up by the dozen, finding local entrepreneurs.

In 2011, roughly 60 million African households earned at least $3,000 a year. By next year, more than 100 million households will make that much. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000. Since 1996, the poverty rate has fallen by 1 percent per year. Life expectancies are shooting up.

Only about a third of this new wealth is because of commodities. Nations like Ethiopia and Rwanda, which have no oil wealth, are growing phenomenally. The bulk is because of economic reforms, increased productivity, increased urbanization and the fact that in many countries political systems are becoming marginally less dysfunctional.

Africa should not be seen as merely the basket case continent where students, mission trips and celebrities can go to do good work. It has become the test case of 21st-century modernity. It is the place where the pace of modernization is fast, and where the forces that resist modernization are mounting a daring reaction.

Articles like this one recently written by New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks, are really kind-of-sort-of one of my biggest pet peeves. It’s not because a guy sitting on the east coast of the US wrote an article entitled “The Real Africa“, although that boarders on the comically obscene. It’s not because the article shares falsified information; it doesn’t. It’s mostly because this article, and articles like this, aim to fight against the singular story of Africa as poverty stricken and corrupt by advocating a different, but similarly singular, story of Africa as prosperous and growing.

Indeed everything Brooks says above is true. Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Rwanda are among the fastest growing economies in the world. But this leaves out important details such as Nigeria’s governance issues with terrorist groups such as Boko Haram (which he downplays as almost non-important) and the devastating realities of squelched democratic and human rights by the current governments in both Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 5.17.17 AMYes, some parts of Africa are experiencing massive (perhaps even unprecedented) rates of growth, but remember how much the countries of Africa have been marginalized and exploited and how far they still have to go (See graph). In the 1960s Africa accounted for about 10% of total global export volume, that number is now closer to 2%.

Consider the following by the recently published 2014 Africa Progress Report, it captures the multiple realities of experience and vast disparity of alternatives which seems to be important in modern day characterizations of ‘Africa’:


“Africa is a land of opportunity … business opportunities are there, growth is there and the population is there.”
– President Macky Sall; Senegal, January 2014

“Families have lived off fish for generations…but fish stocks have been reduced. Our revenues have come down. We used to be able to save a bit for our children’s education or to fix our boats but it has now become harder to make ends meet.”
– Issa Fall, Fisherman Committee; Soumbedioune, Senegal, January 2014

These two views from one country in Africa tell very different stories. President Macky Sall was speaking about his government’s “Emergent Senegal” investment plan – a multibillion-dollar strategy for transforming the country’s infrastructure. Ten years ago Senegal was still in the grip of a debt crisis. Now it is able to sell sovereign debt on eurobond markets. The economy is gaining strength, exports are growing and Senegal is emerging as a regional hub for transport, logistics and tourism.

Then there is the other Senegal – the Senegal of Issa Fall. Along with tens of thousands of artisanal fishers who ply their trade from pirogues, canoes built by hand from local timber, his livelihood is under threat. The ocean off West Africa is one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Yet catches are declining, along with the income they generate. The reason: illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by commercial fleets from other countries. Senegal lacks the capacity to monitor the activities of these fleets. Until recently, it also lacked the political will to tackle the problem. Leaders and business interests actively colluded in, and benefited from, the illegal sale of permits to foreign fleets.

Senegal’s experience is a microcosm of a wider story. For more than a decade, Africa’s economies have been doing well, according to graphs that chart the growth of GDP, exports and foreign investment. The experience of Africa’s people has been more mixed. Viewed from the rural areas and informal settlements that are home to most Africans, the economic recovery looks less impressive. Some – like the artisanal fishermen of West Africa – have been pushed to the brink of destitution. For others, growth has brought extraordinary wealth. Africa is now home to some of the world’s fastest-growing markets for luxury goods – and signs of the new prosperity are increasingly visible alongside reminders of the old problem of poverty.

For the first time in a generation, poverty is falling – but it is falling far too slowly. The benefits of growth are trickling down to Africa’s poor but at a desperately slow pace.Next year, African governments will join the wider international community in adopting post-2015 international development goals. One of those goals will be the eradication of poverty by 2030. On current trends, Africa will miss that goal by a wide margin.


The point here is that there is not just one story that describes the ‘real’ ‘Africa’. Some stories are about prosperity, some are about power, and yes, some are about poverty. Some stories speak of political corruption and rights abuses while some speak of political freedom and liberty. Some stories tell the tragedy of violence while others talk of peace. The list could go on… and on… as would any list of the various stories describing life in any region or sub-continent of the world.

The major point in Brook’s article (top of page) is that the narrative that ‘we’ – Westerners – need to ‘save’ those ‘poor people’ in ‘Africa’ needs to stop. A sentiment in which I wholeheartedly agree. It seems what motivated Brooks to write this piece was the #Bringbackourgirls social media movement. In a situation as complicated as that of the Boko Haram in Nigeria the most good any non-Nigerian could do was listen and learn, for it is Nigerian democracy and political process that will cure the ‘disease’.

The question, then, is who can (and should) be listened to when speaking for the African experience? In closing, it seems fitting, to consider the words of Fungai Machirori, a blogger, editor, poet, and researcher from Zimbabwe who recently wrote a piece for Voices of Africa:

The solution to [this quandary] seems easy; that those spoken of should “begin to tell their own stories in their own ways”. But given that accepted opinion leaders often speak from powerful platforms and places with wide reach and validation, it remains difficult for alternative views – especially when expressed in spaces of low prominence – to gain traction.

Moreover, speaking against popular and dominant narratives often relegates the speaker to the margins where they are constructed as either being antagonistic for antagonism’s sake, or expressing counterproductive sentiments. It therefore remains quite easy for the well-developed media machinery to silence – by omission – dissenting opinions and voices, or the alternative voices that it does not want to hear.

The answers to addressing this situation are complex and don’t lie in disengaging from inaccurate representations. Neither do they lie in engaging in angry undirected pushback. That is after all, the easiest way to invalidate an opinion.

In acknowledging and deconstructing privilege – who gets to speak, on behalf of who and why – we have to be realistic in our understanding of how hierarchies develop, gain credence and perpetuate.

With social media now facilitating conversations with institutions that might previously have seemed impenetrable, this at least provides some channels through which to register one’s opinion.  But of course, substantive change entails much more; the sharing of influential space and a greater willingness to welcome, and listen to, multiple alternatives and realities.

The question is: Is the world ready for this?

HT: Who Can Speak for the African ExperienceRachel Strohm



3 thoughts on “How [not] to Write About Africa

  1. Pingback: How to Write About Africa [An Example] | Jeff Bloem

  2. Pingback: Top Posts of 2014 | Jeff Bloem

  3. Pingback: Africa’s Grand Narratives | Jeff Bloem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s