This Is the Time for Africans to Tell Our Story [column]

The New Times Kigali Oscar Kimanuka
Displayed with permission from allAfrica.com

Over the years, the rest of the world has read and heard stories about the African continent and its people. These stories, more often than not, portray Africa in a negative light, painting it blacker than it really is – something that we all know and we must use figures to point at.

International media outlets have always got a lot of flak for failing to cover Africa fairly, ignoring big stories and perpetuating stereotypes. Until Africa learns to tell its own stories, particularly the big ones that span the continent, we have got no choice but to publish someone else’s views designed for foreign audiences.

The end result is that Africa continues to be defined by usual stereotypes: it is poor; it is conflict-ridden; it is starving and dangerous. It is the helpless and hapless continent, or when those invariably foreign editors are in a good mood; it is « Africa rising or Africa on the growth, » the positive generalisations just as sweeping as all the negative ones which came before.

This view echoes a common lament among African politicians, policy makers and civil society activists, which goes something like this: one of Africa’s biggest problems is that Africa is not allowed to tell its own stories.

Some of the African news have often been decided in far-off Western capitals – London, Paris, New York – and written by dashing foreign correspondents who do not understand the local complexities and base their narrative on sweeping, misleading generalisations. Sometimes the reports are wrong or distorted and far away from the situation on the ground.

How many times have we read very pathetic stories written about Rwanda or watched some irresponsibly edited documentary by Western media organisations? Not once or twice.

Other African countries, too, suffer on the news lines of the so-called international media houses.

Amidst all this, the African media seem to be lackluster and passive. Chinua Achebe used to quote one Nigerian proverb that says; until the lions learn to write, the story of the hunt will always be told by the hunters.

Well, the lions still have a lot of learning to do. It’s not hard to understand why Africa is struggling to tell its own stories. Some of the reasons are money, skills. Overheads, especially for print and broadcast media, are significant.

There’s little training for journalists and little financial incentives for the continent’s best and brightest to become journalists.

Our media need to redefine the role they play in perpetuating the image of Africa that is created by Western media. This should be remembered when discussing freedom of expression in Africa: sometimes our newspapers, and television and radio stations are accorded all the freedom, but they are either unwilling or unable to express themselves due to factors best known to them.

It is high time the media in Africa played a critical developmental role and helped provide a marketplace for ideas. They should have the educational role on this continent which is hungry for positive information about itself.

Africa is a continent with a rich diversity and history. In fact, Africa is the cradle of mankind. But for some reason, our story is being told by outsiders who are completely oblivious of our past and present.

It is, therefore, a serious challenge that Africans are still unable to tell their own story, especially to the rest of the world. It is not a curtailment of freedom of expression as I have already observed, and our governments are not to blame on this.

All is not lost though; Africa is beginning to tell its own story. However, it is still in an early stage, it is just starting to happen. Yet there will be no way to tell Western media how they should cover Africa.

The Western media’s obsession with all manner of negative things about Africa, such as war and famine, will be changed by the many positive stories that are coming out of Africa.

The Western media cannot afford to ignore the progress that Africa is making without risking their relevance. Yes, Africa has problems, but the continent is on the move.

As President Paul Kagame has always said, it is us to create our path, it is us to tell our own story and it us to define our destiny.

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