The stereotypes about Africa/Africans are too many to list here. They’re mostly negative, myopic depictions that focus on war, famine, abject poverty, disease, and corruption. In other oversimplifications, Africans are written up as model immigrants, overachieving geniuses, or displaced chiefs moonlighting as gas station attendants.
Outside of these caricatures, many Africans are going to work and school, voting in their local elections, and spending way too much time on Facebook. And they’re over the ignorance that has collectively miscast them. In response, a swelling movement of young Africans are launching concerted efforts to wrest the image of Africa from entities and interests that don’t promote a balanced understanding of the continent.
Among this group is South African professor Sean Jacobs who founded the incisive Africa is a Country, billing it as “the media blog that's not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama.” Ghanaians Sandra Appiah and Isaac O. Babu-Boateng launched Face 2 Face Africa Magazine to combat portrayals of Africa as pathological and troubled.
Likewise, Nigerian-American Enyinne Owunwanne started ecommerce boutique Heritage 1960 to promote what she says is “the best of the best, when it comes to African fashion, lifestyle and culture”. Fellow Nigerian-American Ngozi Odita initiated AFRIKA21 to broaden the conversation around what 21st century Africa really looks like, apart from the stereotypes.
It’s weird how history repeats itself.
56 years ago, Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to Independence from British colonial rule determined to “prove to the world that when the African is given the chance, he can show to the world that he is somebody”. This legacy of the misrepresented African was formed more than 200 years prior, when Europe and, later, America made the mad dash to Africa for natural resources and cheap labor to keep pace with the demands of the West’s rapidly industrializing economy. Today, as American and European economies flounder in the global recession, scarcity of jobs/opportunities coupled with forecasts of Africa’s economic growth is making Africa look really shiny again.
Discovery Channel’s “Jungle Gold” reality series depicts “rookie American gold miners” seeking their fortunes in “the dangerous and gold-rich jungles of Ghana” after losing everything in the 2008 real estate crash. The Washington Post recently noted a wave of Portuguese citizens heading to Mozambique, quoting one Portuguese official as saying, “Everyone is feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, and Mozambique offers a lot of opportunities… People think this is El Dorado.”
The fashion industry is also taking serious interest in not only the styles popular on the continent, but in creating strategic business alliances as well. In 2012, for the first time Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week sponsored African Fashion International’s annual event in South Africa. Likewise, Vogue Italia co-sponsored the inaugural Ghana Fashion and Design Week. Editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani reportedly “initiated distribution of African fashion products through shops in Europe and America as well as through QVC” as a UN Goodwill Ambassador of Fashion 4 Development.
Under Sozzani L’Uomo Vogue dedicated its June 2012 issue to the continent, the cover line assuming responsibility for “Rebranding Africa.” Sozzani explained in a Huffington Post piece about the issue: “Africa needs to rebuild a new image, far removed from the one the media usually convey reporting on wars and famines that, although actually occurring, are not the only side to show.”
What’s different about this juncture in history as it relates to the renewed global interest in Africa is Africans can far more easily shut down foreign assumptions and misinformed initiatives even as they create their own platforms to define the continent, and themselves, on their own terms.
When L’Uomo Vogue’s issue hit stands, Jacobs’ Africa is a Country published a scathing review. Calling the issue “an embarrassing and insulting shambles,” the blog post systematically, and convincingly, undermined the “Rebranding Africa” premise.
“I have to say I hate that phrase, ‘rebranding Africa,’” entrepreneur Owunwanne, 31, expressed. She explains, “You look at people who thought Africa was all about famine, war, AIDS, etcetera; and it’s from their perspective that Africa needs to be rebranded. Now, you look at Afropolitans,” Owunwanne continues, using a term that has referred to young cosmopolitan Africans, “we don’t feel like Africa has to be rebranded. We already know what the brand of Africa is and what the potential is.”
Ghanaian Samuel Asiedu-Gyan* who promotes literature and technology in the West African nation and works with election blogging project Ghana Decides echoes Owunwanne’s sentiment. “Those who branded us must do their rebranding,” he says, “for the obvious reasons that the negatives and deliberate misconstructions are falling apart.”
Whatever the motives behind the desire to rebrand, it’s hard to deny the stubbornness of the stereotypes that have come to define Africa on the global stage. For this reason, New York-based Appiah and Babu-Boateng launched Face 2 Face Africa Magazine, embracing “Africa Re-branded” as their tagline.
“When we say ‘rebranding Africa,’” Appiah, 23, clarifies, “it’s not just…rebranding Africa to non-Africans, but to Africans ourselves.” Citing her personal evolution, Appiah who was born in Ghana and lived in Italy as a small child before moving to the States when she was 12 admits, “I was completely ashamed of being African, and there are a lot of people today who are also going through the same stages. There are a lot of Africans here who don’t want anything to do with the continent.”
With the magazine, Appiah hopes to give young readers in particular a view of Africa they can be proud of. “We want to start by instilling a sense of pride in them so that they can see the necessity and the need for them to go back to the continent and help solve some of the issues there.”
For many Africans, there’s more at stake than proving to the world Africa can solve her own problems. Eager to deepen the connection between their parents’ birthplace and take advantage of the continent’s growth potential, the first-generation of Africans born outside the continent are starting to return in waves. Meanwhile, Africans living in Africa want to stay and improve conditions.
Odita, who is producing the upcoming Social Media Week Lagos, has observed the shift over time. Recounting trips to her family’s native Nigeria in the ‘90s, she says “All my cousins, people I knew, friends, everybody was just wanting to exit Africa. They were just like ‘I want to go to school in America. I want to go to school in UK. I wanna leave. As soon as I’m old enough, if I can get a visa, I’m leaving.’” She adds, “Now, when I go home, and when I go other places, whether it’s Dakar or just talking to other people, …young people are just very prideful of where they’re from.”
With the Lagos social media conference and her AFRIKA21 program, Odita, 37, wants to offer platforms that showcase and extend this pride. “I’m always bringing people together to talk about how great the continent is and all the really great things that are happening, but we’re doing it in New York or we’re doing it in Boston. …we should be having this conversation on the continent ‘cause that’s where all these things are happening that we’re talking about. We can get a firsthand account from the people who are creating all these things.”
Desire to focus on Africa’s positives notwithstanding, neither Odita or the others interviewed for this piece are about ignoring the challenges impacting the continent. But, Odita points out, “the only way that you can change people’s perceptions is to show them another perspective. Show them another image, and that’s what branding is.”
Asiedu-Gyan says it comes down to fairness in news coverage. “Europeans have negatives,” he points out. “There are homeless, hungry people living on less than two dollars a day in the United States, how often do we read or watch that on CNN or BBC?”
*name changed because the nature of his job does not allow him to speak on the record