By Moky Makura
You may have seen them; violent videos of black people being punched, kicked, trodden on and spat at. These images are being passed around on social media platforms on a phone near you.
The Nigerians, Egyptians, Malians, Ugandans, Kenyans and Congolese in Guangzhou, the manufacturing centre of China, are being discriminated against because of fears they might be spreading the Corona Virus. They are being thrown out of hotels and apartments, forced to undergo mandatory testing and compulsory quarantine, refused entry in to shops and left on the streets to fend for themselves – all in the name of Covid-19 containment policies aimed specifically at Africans.
Rightfully, these official acts of blatant discrimination are being highlighted and challenged in the greatest public court of all – Twitter and Facebook. Eventually, they were addressed by African ambassadors in Beijing who came together to send an official complaint to China’s foreign minister. Their protest should carry weight – there 100, 000 or so Chinese owned companies operating in Africa and an estimated 1 million Chinese people there. The incidents could also impact China’s soft power tactics in Africa which has led to it becoming the continent’s most important economic and trading partner.
Although the connections between China and Africa run deep, covid-19 has unearthed old, persistent, harmful storylines about Africans and validated the negative narratives. These storylines continue to be a stark reminder that what we read, hear and see consistently over time, shape our thinking and behaviour. Narrative matters.
Scan stories and commentary about Africa on social media and in global and African media outlets – it won’t take you long to see the prevailing sentiment is negative and there are consequences in real life. The University of Southern California’s Media Impact Project analysed 700,000 hours of US entertainment and news and 1.6 million tweets in 2018, and confirmed that when references to Africa were not neutral, they were more likely to be negative.
In his book Factfulness, the Swedish academic and statistician Hans Rosling, wrote about the danger of selective media reporting which prioritizes the negative and often extreme sides of any story. Sadly, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is still a principle in some newsrooms, especially during this pandemic.
We have allowed these negative and harmful storylines to not just prevail but define us as Africans – the belief that we are somehow ‘less than’ is not just an external message it is also permeating the minds and hearts of African youth.
The horrific stories of African migration, conflict, insecurity, poor governance, poverty and disease are true, but they are not all that we are.
The truth is that most Africans are not on migrant boats en route to Europe. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) the top three countries by origin of asylum seekers to the EU since 2014 are Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most Africans live under democratically elected governments in relative peace, with only six out of 54 countries – Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan – considered as crisis hot spots of armed conflict.
And with the world’s help, Africa has made significant progress bringing poverty rates down; two out of three Africans live above the global poverty line, and according to 2011 AfDB report, the continent has the fastest growing middleclass expected to reach 42% of the total population by 2060.
But these are just facts, data points… and despite their importance they get lost in the narrative. As Rosling’s book and global studies reminds us, peoples’ deeply held beliefs are not based on facts, and facts don’t matter when it comes to how people see the world.
And that’s why the stories we tell and those that are told about us have a cost. They inform the narrative, the resulting behaviour and the power dynamics. And right now, no one knows or feels the impact of this more viscerally than the Africans in Guangzhou.
The African proverb which speaks most directly to the power dynamic of narrative (for there is an African proverb for every situation) is this one; until lions learn to write hunters will tell their stories for them.
It’s time for us to shift the narrative and start writing our own story about this progressive and dynamic continent. We should be drawing attention to our African innovations, our history, culture, music, fashion, design, literature, art and film.
African storytellers should not forget that Africa brought the world coffee, Nelson Mandela, Afrobeats, Nollywood and Jollof Rice. We gave the world the last remaining wonder of the ancient world; the Pyramids of Giza, we are home to one of the world’s first universities in Timbuktu, Mali. We are the largest supplier to the world of cocoa for chocolate, platinum for cars, cobalt for batteries, manganese for steel and of Gold.
Our musical pioneers from Fela Kuti, Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita to Burna Boy, Cassper Nyovest, Sauti Sol and WhizKid; our writers; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and our entertainers Trevor Noah, Lupita Nyongo, Idris Elba are just some of the icons that have helped redefine and shift the narrative about who we are.
What we need is for more lions to roar! Let’s shift that costly and harmful narrative about Africa – one story at a time, if not for us, for our brothers and sisters in Guangzhou.
Moky Makura is the Executive Director of Africa No Filter working to shift African narratives by crowding in new, progressive stories about the continent