#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

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Whole Planet Foundation Advisory Board Member Magatte Wade weighs in on #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

Magatte Wade

Magatte Wade

On June 23rd, Rachel, a young woman from Ghana, launched the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou.  She explained to Mashable,

“I started this Campaign because I felt that it’s time the world knew the truth about Africans, to hear our stories and to see the Africa we know and see rather than what some/most media outlets show to them. Being in Ghana, and being an African as well, I know there is so much more than the poverty, ethnic wars, and the disease. The world deserves to know there is something behind that,”

There are now almost 40,000 Google hits on this hashtag. Africans are posting new images daily in an effort to dispel decades of negative media images of Africa and Africans.

For decades almost all images of Africans have been negative.  News from Africa has typically focused on famine, war, disease, corruption, and poverty.  Charitable institutions, in their fund-raising campaigns, often use photos of starving children to raise funds.  White celebrities are often portrayed shamelessly as a savior figure in the midst of a sea of poor black African children.  

The Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou has a brilliant spoken word piece based on Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s brilliant essay, “How Not to Write About Africa.”

One of the most compelling images from this piece is the reminder that African wildlife is always portrayed as beautiful, noble, dignified:  We’ve all seen thousands of images of zebras, giraffes, and lions majestically parading across the screen.  But African human beings?  Not so much.  African human beings are typically portrayed as poor, incompetent, corrupt, or violent.  At best, in most western films on Africa we are portrayed as the passive side show to the white protagonist’s heroic actions.

What impact do these images have on western attitudes towards Africans?  Worse yet, what impact do these images have on African self-images?

I started my first company, Adina World Beverages, after a trip back home to Senegal.  When I took my first husband there to share my culture with him, I discovered that bissap, the hibiscus-based hospitably beverage that was traditional to Senegal, had been replaced by Coke and Fanta in all middle class homes.  In order to impress guests, to show them that they had “arrived,” the middle class Senegalese all served western beverages. This manifestation of cultural inferiority burned me to the core. Our traditional beverages were healthier, more affordable, and tasted better than did the corrosive products from the west.  And yet our people did not feel proud to serve beverages from our own cultural heritage.

At one point Adina was carried in all Whole Foods Market stores nationally. I then lost control of the company and the subsequent owners eliminated the African heritage component that had given the brand its credibility. A few years ago it was shut down. I have now created Tiossan, a skin care company based on indigenous Senegalese recipes and ingredients. Again I seek to return a sense of dignity to my people. I want them to learn to respect their own culture once again.

I joined the Whole Planet Foundation advisory board because they are one of the few charities that does not rely on pity to promote their programs. Note that every image used by Whole Planet Foundation shows program participants in a dignified, respectful manner.  Whole Planet Foundation recipients are often shown smiling and joyful. Contrast this approach with the many charities that rely on “poverty porn,” the use of aggressively pitiful images to encourage donations.

The global poor do indeed need more resources and opportunities to flourish. I commend the extraordinary generosity of so many of those in the developed world who are eager to help those who are less fortunate than they are. And yet from an African perspective, accepting donations at the cost of being portrayed over and over again as pathetic is a devil’s bargain at best. One of my newer projects is EyetoEye, a crowd funding platform to support African entrepreneurs.  The idea is that just as entrepreneurs are respected in the west, in order to create prosperity for Africans in a respectful manner we need to encourage a movement to invest in African entrepreneurs who are similarly worthy of respect. I want people to look us in the eye as peers and equals, just as I look you in the eye as a peer and an equal.

Microfinance, including the programs that are supported by Whole Planet Foundation, is a great start.  But ultimately jobs and prosperity are driven by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).  If we want to create a proud, prosperous Africa, we will need to work together to grow many thousands of SMEs.  Right now African businesses are almost entirely either microfinance or big multinational corporations. There is a “missing middle” in African development: those indigenous growing companies that create most jobs in most nations around the world.

Every nation that has allowed entrepreneurs to flourish has become prosperous.  Africa is poor not because our people are stupid or incompetent.  Africa is poor because our governments have largely prevented entrepreneurs from creating and scaling legal businesses.  Examine the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings.  Most African nations are in the bottom third – our nations are among the worst place in the world to do business.  My own country, Senegal, happily moved up from being ranked 171st in 2014 to being ranked 161st in 2015 – out of 185 nations we are now in the bottom thirty rather than in the bottom twenty.

I love this picture because it depicts a very different image of what most people think of when they think Rwanda.

I love this picture because it depicts a very different image of what most people think of when they think Rwanda.

Young people from around the world aspire to emulate Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and John Mackey: Visionary entrepreneurs who have changed the world.  My deepest longing is for Africa to produce several such entrepreneurs in the coming decades as our nations become prosperous, first-world nations.  Once we have done so, we will no longer need campaigns such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou.

But for the time being, in order to get to that point, we urgently need the support of well-intentioned people who care about our future out of a love of our potential rather than merely out of a condescending pity.  Please promote #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou.  At the same time, ask yourself, how can I help promote a peaceful, prosperous, entrepreneurial Africa that will be known more for its glamorous entrepreneurial heroes rather than for the negative stereotypes that prevail today.

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