Redrawing our mental maps of Africa

Africa’s own media have a critical role to play in helping Africans — and the rest of the world — overcome stereotypes to grasp the continent’s inspiring deeper truths, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta argued at the 2015 CNN Multichoice African Journalist Awards in Nairobi last weekend. We agree, and think his speech is worth reading in full:

A few days ago, I was fascinated to learn that researchers, confirming ancient wisdom, have discovered that African elephants have elaborate mental maps — mental pictures of their domains. They show a superb ability to remember where there’s water, shade and pasture. If they get their mental map of the terrain wrong, or if they forget where they are, they risk death.

We are in equal need of accurate mental maps of our world. The accuracy of our picture of reality depends on sound information and analysis. Like the elephant, we need to learn and remember faithfully: if we don’t, we can’t hope to escape or recover from the disasters that have befallen the continent in the past.

In large part, members of the fourth estate draw our mental maps of Africa. You tell us what matters, and how to understand it.  Let’s look at the pictures you drew this week. I glanced at a global newspaper:

Its Africa headlines were the coup in Burkina Faso, a bombing in Nigeria, crimes in Mali and the latest about Ebola. This came just after the UNDP report assessing Africa’s progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals, which showed very encouraging progress:

Child mortality rates fell by an average of forty percent in Africa in the period under review as did poverty in most African countries while improving women’s access to political leadership faster than any other region on earth. Why exaggerate African failure? Why ignore African success?

It’s not surprising that foreigners get our story wrong. The plunder and subjugation of Africa were justified by its misrepresentation as the home of outrage, atrocity and suffering.

The world beyond our shores has yet to escape those patterns of thought. What is surprising is that we too get our story wrong. I looked at a respected African newspaper, and it was equally negative, and equally prone to feeding the same old tired stereotypes. Indeed, the coverage of terrorist attacks — whose point is usually pain, panic and publicity — on Charlie Hebdo, or London, or New York on 9/11 respected the dignity of the victims.

We saw no images of dead or mutilated bodies in the mainstream media. But our coverage of African tragedies often disrespects and devalues African lives. I recall an African newspaper that led with the photo of a Westgate victim; and another in which the bodies of the Mandera victims took centre stage. If we cannot respect the dignity of Africans, who will?

There is an Africa that is dignified. There is an Africa that was afflicted by Ebola, just as there is an Africa, backed by the African Union, which gave its skill, its time and its money to save lives. There’s an Africa at war, but African peacemakers in AMISOM are ending some of our most intractable conflicts.

There is darkness on the continent, and yet, in the last two years, Kenya has connected 14,000 primary schools to electricity; and 97% of Kenyan primary schools are therefore now lit. There is an Africa working to perfect its democracy, and there is the Africa that has undergone the quickest democratization in history.

I have heard of an Africa that is hopelessly dependent on aid and charity; but the Africa I know has some of the world’s fastest-growing economies powered radical transformation in technology and billions dollars of investments in infrastructure. I know that it is the innovation, resilience and sacrifice of millions of Africans that is lifting millions of our people out of poverty.

Stereotypes have an amazing ability to destroy our ability to see the facts; we who love Africa must stand up for her truths.

What do headlines tell us daily about the crisis in Europe of migrants from Africa and the Middle East? When these suffering people travel across the Mediterranean, they become migrants. When they enter Kenya, they are refugees. Kenya, which has hosted over a million refugees from Somalia, is criticised for seeking their repatriation back to homes that our soldiers have helped secure at great cost. Meantime, European nations close their borders, and we are told that their security and cohesion demand it.

These justifications seem to apply only outside Africa, for Kenya’s decision to close its borders was represented as a wholly unnecessary assault on the human rights of vulnerable people.

We need to look calmly at the facts. African countries with scarce resources lead in taking in refugees: of the ten countries which host most refugees relative to their size, four are African, more than any other continent.

This is a story of African solidarity and resilience. If you brought these facts to light, and gave them proper weight in your analyses, we would all be better placed to take up our collective obligations to refugees.

In truth, we depend on African journalists to change the mental maps that lead us astray. Imagine coverage that had told of African leaders’ warnings about the risks of state failure and terrorism before the Libya intervention; and examined the African Union’s plan to fulfil Libya’s desire for democracy in an orderly fashion. It might have saved thousands of lives. Instead, these efforts were caricatured and ridiculed, and intervention was declared the only option.

This time, Africa can represent itself aright. You can honour the struggles and heroes of the African past by looking carefully, and speaking truthfully, about our continent — by giving us accurate maps of African reality.

Ferial Haffajee, with others, led a campaign to bring antiretroviral to some of the most vulnerable South Africans. It is the blunt truth that her journalism saved lives. Joel Kibazo, a veteran journalist, wrote about African businesses and businessmen when few global outlets had any time for African business or entrepreneurs. Murithi Mutiga published a deeply researched and informative piece on Kenya’s green energy revolution, which brings power to some of the most marginalised among us.

We celebrate these men and women. We must: after all, the stakes are our freedom, and the safety and the prosperity of the world in which we live.