AFRICA BY THE AFRICANS:<br />
Young Tastemakers Aim to Challenge Stereotypes

Sandra Appiah, Ngozi Odita and Issac Babu-Boateng

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.”

...we don’t feel like Africa has to be rebranded. We already know what the brand of Africa is and what the potential is.

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