The way the world sees Africa and how Africa sees itself has changed quite dramatically – in the words of Burna Boy, we are finally ‘in the house’, says Moky Makura.
When my son was younger, he told me about his dream car – a Porsche Cayenne and how he wanted me to buy one. On the short drive to school almost every day we would compete to see who could spot the most Cayennes, and there would be at least three or four every time. Until we started playing that game, I had never noticed even one, but pretty soon they were everywhere.
The point of this story is not about the number of Porsche drivers on the continent – a fact that may surprise a few readers, but that until I paid attention, I simply didn’t see what was right there under my nose.
It took a statement from one of Africa’s biggest singer-songwriters to make me see what was hiding in plain sight; “Africa is in the house man; Africa, we’re in the house.” This is what Burna Boy shouted out during his acceptance speech at this year’s Grammy Awards, when he won the Best Global Music Album. It was the trigger I needed – he made me realise that the way the world sees Africa and how Africa sees itself has changed quite dramatically.
He was right. We really are ‘in the house’. We’ve arrived.
Africa is no longer that single story of a continent synonymous with conflict, corruption, poverty, poor leadership and disease. We are equally a continent of creativity, innovation and opportunity – I just hadn’t been paying attention when the script flipped. And it wasn’t one single event. There’s been a perfect storm of global and local moments that have shifted the world’s perception, enabled by iconic movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, which renewed discussions about race, gender and misrepresentation across the world.
It’s happened in the big moments; such as, when WTO members made history by appointing the first woman and first African, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the Director-General of this global institution. And in the small moments; when the half-British, half-Zimbabwean actress formerly known as Thandie Newton proudly claimed back her African heritage by reverting to the original Zulu spelling of her name.
It’s in the way the Western media has prioritised Africans in their storytelling. In the last month, two Africans have featured on the front cover of two influential global media brands; Sara Menker, an Ethiopian businesswoman, was on the cover of The Economist’s 100 most influential companies edition; and Burna Boy made the cover of the UK’s GQ.
It’s in the rising number of stories we see that present a nuanced and unexpected side to the continent. At almost eight million views, a documentary by the German state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle about the life of the super-rich in DRC has become one of the most-watched YouTube videos in Africa.
It’s in the way we respond to those same Western outlets when they disrespect us; like when Botswanan writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa (who created the satirical hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar that went viral in 2015) convincingly took on the New York Times on Twitter, comparing two articles about Covid in Asia and Africa, and the alarming differences in how they were written.
Big and small victories
It’s in the big wins; Germany signing a declaration last month committing to ‘substantive returns’ of Nigeria’s famous Benin bronzes, which were taken by the British army in 1897, leading the way in the restitution movement to return stolen artefacts to Africa. And in the small wins – Twitter opening an office in Ghana.
It’s in our evolving relationship with American celebrities and with Hollywood – which let’s face it, has historically done more to reinforce old stereotypes and tropes than change perceptions. Earlier this year, Beyoncé’s Black Is King put Africa in the spotlight, as did Eddie Murphy’s Coming 2 America. Both attracted some accusations of stereotyping, although they provided a global platform for African talent to shine.
It’s in the high-profile collaborations between global brands and Western organisations with artists who put Africa and their heritage at the centre of their work. Nike has led the way, but one of the most recent was between Laolu Senbanjo, a Nigerian-bred, US-based visual artist and activist, and Malaria No More, unveiled in NY’s Times Square.
And those were just the moments that I spotted…
The Africa narrative has been dominated by a collection of persistent, negative stories that have been refined over time to represent a central idea and belief about the continent; that its people are broken, lack agency and are in constant need of help. Remember Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, Michael Jackson’s We Are The world and The Economist’s ‘Hopeless Continent’ cover? This narrative has shaped perceptions and determined how the world has responded to us. Till now.
Today, there are more stories and more moments that are flipping the script on that old, tired, single story. We really are in the house now.
Welcome home, Africa!