When my friend Mma recently visited a gynecologist in the United States, the woman examining her told her that the process was going to hurt, but since she was from Africa, she must be used to it. I really wish I could say I was horrified when Mma recounted the incident, but I wasn’t. Instead, I slipped into momentary torpor, and as my system rebooted itself, my mind scrunched the incident up and tossed it into the ever-brimming recycle bin of Trashy Things Westerners Say to Africans Abroad (TTWSTAA).
TTWSTAA are exactly the sorts of things that gave steam to movements like #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou a couple of years ago. Photographs of skyscrapers, white beaches, and luxury resorts from around the continent pop-corned all over my timeline. I liked them. I shared them. I, too, was going to change Africa’s image in The West, one triumphant hashtag at a time. But as time has passed, I've grown weary of what I now feel are the misdirected attempts that many of us make at “fixing Africa’s image” to The West.
Don't get me wrong- there is immense value in that has come out from our efforts to present ourselves as a dignified people. The impulses that drive our efforts are understandable and extremely justified. We've had a pathetically long history of Africa being cast as everything from war-torn, to disease-ridden, to (according to Mma's doctor) teeming with girls who are used to having their lady parts probed with metallic objects. It’s understandable that we’ve grown frustrated. However, as frustrating as it is, I am through with trying to fix the image. Here's why:
1. Africa's Parasocial Relationship With the West.
America enjoys a level of notoriety on the world’s stage that makes it the epicenter many of the world's aspirations. The geopolitical, social and economic power it holds make much of the world look to it, learn about it, consume its films, and its music, all the whiles aspiring to end up on its screens, in its schools, and in its corporations. The American Dream is, in a lot of ways, the third world’s dream. Every Nambian child dreams of the day when they will frolic on the gold-paved streets of this country. Many people in the world gaze towards The West with intense longing (this is, of course, not true for everyone out there but please, go with me). What results is an imbalance. The relationship between America and my neck of the woods is parasocial, i.e. “a one-sided relationship where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other's existence.” It’s a tragic brand of unrequited affection. In a social sense, the West does not know us. Not beyond the general way a celebrity has a concept that their fans exist. Regardless of their economic dependence on many of our countries (don’t flinch, you read that correctly), we are obscure fragments at the peripheries of their consciousness. And insofar as it has nothing to gain, America (read, “The West”) has no need to learn about us, or about the fact that we don’t live in trees. Whether or not we live in trees is of little importance, and makes no livable difference in the realities of the inhabitants of the West. The result? A whole army of Africans ready to teach and correct perceptions about an Africa that few Westerners care to learn about. This is why I am done trying.
Our Image May Not Really Be What We’re Trying to Fix
The more I think about it, the more I realize that what our attempts at fixing Africa’s tarnished image really are trying to do is reclaim dignity. There’s something that happens to your very sense of self when someone regards you as inferior in your appearance, knowledge or skillets because of where you call home. It's a preposterous reduction that's made of us, and it is justified that we want to push back against it. As noble as these attempts are, however, they are often misdirected and reduced to superficial indicators of ‘progress’, like how many skyscrapers we do or no not have, or how English, French or some other colonial language is our official language. The truth is, all these things that we offer up as evidence are simply meant to reinforce the fact that we are deserving of dignity. But they can be harmful, because dignity is much more than a towering building with ninety-eight floors.
Ignorance Mutates Into More Insidious Forms
In my brief experience of America, I’ve noticed that ignorance in The West can evolve and get replaced by a more subtle evil- quieter, more 'positive’ generalization of Africans that de-complicates them in the same way that negative stories do. There is something insidiously archetypal when someone overestimates your abilities for the same reason that their counterparts might underestimate you. You begin to feel like a generic product of a fixed equation- a certainty that comes out at the other end, all things held constant. Things like “African students are always hard working”. “African students sacrifice so much to be here.” "African women are so strong". Africans are this or that, and nothing in between. I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but African students are not all hard working. Some are lazy. Others are exceptional and greater than your faves. Other’s are just your average Thokozani trying to make ends meet.
We are a textured people- we embody every facet of what it means to be human. This generic overestimation is a subtlety that is so difficult to contest that it tires me to even think of trying to fix it. Ignorance isn't just about what you do not know about a place. It's more insidious than that. It is a posture, a disposition that informs the very ways anybody interacts with the persons and places that they're ignorant about.
Who directly benefits from Africa’s fixed image, and at whose expense?
I wrote a couple of years ago about The Africa We’re Ashamed Of. You know, the parts that follow the “I’m From Africa But” statements. E.g. “I’m from Africa but I don’t live in a hut,” or “I’m from Africa but I’m not dying of AIDS.” My greatest concern with this is that while it’s intended to tell a different story, it does so at the expense of the very real lived experiences of many on the African continent. The result of this is that it paints a one-dimensional image of the African continent that is not at all concerned with acknowledging and dealing with some of our harshest realities, but is obsessed with inflating the often superficial and materialistic aspects of it to overshadow them. This means there is no dignity in living in a hut, or living with HIV/AIDS despite the socio-economic, political and societal constraints (and in many other cases, without them). I think our energy is best spent on affecting Africa’s reality- not just its image. Let's carefully interrogate whose gaze, whose benefit, and whose cost goes into our efforts to "fix the Image of Africa".
And Finally, As Evidenced by 45's 'Nambia', The West might (read "will probably") never learn
The West might never regard Africa as an actual place with actual human beings with actual lives, complexities, desires, vices, motivations, quirks, nuances and intellect. It may never see us as people. It may never care or advocate on our behalf for as long as that advocacy does not suit its own agenda. TTWSTAA are probably not ending anytime soon, and I see no need for spending my energy on rectifying and educating people who might simply never get it.
I am happy to engage with those who are open, those whose posture is angled towards learning. Learning that doesn't cost me my dignity, or cast them as the benevolent westerner who condescends to learn about me, even though they don't have to. Learning that isn't tokenizing, that is dignifying. (No ma'am- you don't get points for "getting it" because you worked in the Peace Corps in Uganda). I am open to being a part of what changes people's perceptions of my continent, but it's no longer my life's mission- it is a welcome byproduct of my efforts to do stuff for and to home. Quite frankly, I am blissfully unbothered if, in 2017, you still think I live next door to Mufasa. Joke's on you- your people went and told you those lies, not me. That is not my mess to fix, thank you very much.
Now, if you will excuse me, I'm gonna ride my pet zebra on out of here and call it a day.