Two high-profile visitors recently came to Africa, but while one shone the light on a broken continent, the other portrayed a vibrant, beautiful one. Moky Makura contrasts the outcomes of USAID’s Samantha Power and F1 champion Lewis Hamilton’s visits to Africa.
In recent months, there have been two high-profile visitors to Africa that have piqued my interest. One was the more traditional visitor we have come to expect – the type who in their wake reinforce the stereotypical narratives about Africa as a broken continent. The other, less frequent, is the type that gives the world a rare glimpse of the continent as a safe and adventurous destination.
Samantha Power, the USAID administrator, went to East Africa in her capacity as head of one of the largest providers of foreign aid to Africa. She set out to draw attention to a drought in the region that could potentially push millions of people into starvation.
The other visitor was British-born Lewis Hamilton, who with seven world championship titles (he was robbed of an 8th last year when one of the race organisers (now sacked) in the last grand prix of the season, changed the rules at the last minute) is regarded as the greatest Formula One driver of all time. He visited Africa to experience the best the continent has to offer.
Although both visitors shone a spotlight on the continent, both have had very, very different outcomes in terms of narrative and impact.
The media coverage around Power’s trip took me right back to 1985. The year when Ethiopia was at the peak of a three-year famine that killed 1.2m people. Michael Jackson and some of the most famous musicians in the world recorded We Are the World. Over in the UK, Bob Geldof staged the huge benefit concert, Live Aid – and the image of a broken Africa in need of saving was confirmed to the world.
Thirty-seven years later, the stories and the images I saw around Power’s trip proves that little has changed in the way Africa is viewed, treated and portrayed, even though so much has changed on the continent – including our ability to take ownership of the challenges we face.
Kenya and Ethiopia are in a much stronger position today to address a drought than they were 37 years ago. Last year the Kenyan government declared the drought a national disaster and released $17.7m through its National Drought Emergency Fund. Ethiopia has prioritised and invested heavily in the agricultural sector which has underpinned the country’s economic growth. But none of this was evident from the stories covering the trip.
As I sighed and got ready to draft yet another piece about the coverage I had seen… enter Lewis Hamilton.
The F1 champion spent two weeks in Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, and his trip was picked up globally in the media and shared on his Instagram account, which has 29.7m followers.
Like Power, Hamilton came to visit but with a very different, more refreshing agenda that is equally necessary. He came respectfully to explore, discover, celebrate, and enjoy Africa for what it is, rather than for what it isn’t; for what it offers rather than what it lacks.
He described his two weeks in Africa as “some of the best days” of his life. “I’m not the same man I was before this trip, all the beauty, love, and peacefulness I experienced has me feeling fully transformed…. Namibia, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania, thank you”.
Hamilton didn’t showcase the broken continent, comment on our politics or politicians, the state of the economy, rate of unemployment and social injustices. He didn’t make poverty, conflict, disease, poor leadership or corruption the hero of his trip.
Through him, millions got to experience an alternative and equally relevant side of Africa – the Namib Desert, gorilla trekking in Rwanda, feeding giraffes and playing with baby elephants in Kenya.
In 2019, Africa was the second-fastest-growing tourism market globally and the impact of his trip has the potential to send millions of dollars into the coffers of the countries he visited.
His trip challenged the ‘broken continent’ narrative perpetuated by Power’s visit. Harmful and stereotypical narratives like this have implications for business and investment, trade and aid policies, migration and innovation on the continent. It robs Africans of our humanity, dignity and the ability to have our own ‘African Dream’, and it makes us feel ‘less than’. Hamilton’s trip did just the opposite.
It was a masterclass for high-profile visitors on how to visit Africa with respect and leave us with our dignity. He normalised Africa for millions of his followers and portrayed its people as something other than data points and victims – an equally important perspective that is needed.
I am hoping the USAID communications and trip teams take note.