Africans know little of each other, and what we do know is filtered through the distorted lens of Western media stereotypes. Until we start listening to each other’s stories, our hopes for a united Africa will remain a dream says Moky Makura.
In June this year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism movement, the hashtag #NigeriansMustFall was trending in South Africa. It was in response to a viral video of a half-naked South African lady twerking for a group of unidentified Nigerian men in Cape Town. They had allegedly drugged her.
The video sparked outrage among South Africans and online protests against Nigerians living in South Africa accusing them of crimes and telling them to go back to their country.
This put me in mind of my mother’s attempts to protect me and guide me towards a better future by giving me advice at varying stages of my life. She once told me not to kiss boys or I would get pregnant – she was wrong about that. She also warned me not to marry a Hausa man because despite sharing the Nigerian nationality, Yoruba people like us didn’t share the same ideals with them.
Africans are ignorant of other Africans
The South Africans who supported the hashtag and my mother are not ignorant people, but both represent the story of many Africans; that we are largely ignorant and intolerant of each other.
Sadly and despite all the digital connectedness, South Africans and Yorubas are no closer to understanding or liking Nigerians or Hausas and this is because we all have dangerously low levels of knowledge about each other – especially when compared to what we know about America and Europe.
The ‘Africa is a country’ construct often used by foreigners to tell a single story of the continent hides the reality of how we as Africans actually view ourselves.
We are of course not one country and have never been. But right from the early days of independence, leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana dreamt of a United Africa in which all the disparate parts would work together for a harmonious whole.
To this end, institutions like the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) and Regional Economic Communities were created. However, despite some success, we have been unable to achieve the lofty post-colonial, pan Africanist utopia.
And now we have a new mechanism set up to achieve a similar goal. Africa will soon become the world’s largest free trade bloc – the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Its success is predicated on Africa’s ability to trade with itself. It requires the continent’s 1.3bn people to make, buy and sell products and services from each other; and that requires them to trust and believe in each other’s abilities to produce and purchase what they want.
But all the trade agreements in the world won’t make a difference if deep-rooted prejudices driven by ignorance prevent us from truly connecting.
Seeing ourselves through Western narratives
Sadly our ignorance is self-inflicted. Our sources of knowledge about each other, our education, travel, entertainment, business, tourism and news systems have been and continue to tell us more about the West than each other.
The little we do know about our countries and the ethnic groups that live within them is often informed by Western narratives because of the sources we look to: global news outlets which by their nature focus largely on the negative; Western pop culture that sell a single concept of happiness based on a Western ideal which eludes many Africans and finally our history is told to us through the biased lens of our colonial past.
Fifty-four countries, 3,000 ethnic groups and over 2,100 languages with little to unite us but our Blackness and geographic location is the reason why Yorubas like my mother didn’t trust Hausas; why Hutus and Tutsis descended into genocide; why Kenya’s ethnic groups are perpetually at loggerheads and why xenophobic incidents still persist in South Africa.
These are stark reminders that the stories we are told about our world and each other ladder up to narratives that shape our opinions and inform our behaviour.
We need to share our stories
It’s not enough for us to simply be able to name all 54 countries, recognise the flags and most of the continent’s heads of state; to truly understand who we are, we need to share more of our stories – contextualised, nuanced human stories that show us who we really are. Stories matter – they’re a window into the continent’s multi-faceted personality and the most powerful way of informing us about who we are.
These are the issues that drive some of the work we’re doing at Africa No Filter but we know it takes a village to build a continent and growth only happens one story at a time.
Moky Makura is the executive director of Africa No Filter, a pan-African collaborative which amplifies African voices and challenges stereotypical narratives about and within the continent. Follow her on Twitter @mokymakura.