Why do we get pissed off when Caucasian celebrities and tourists visit Africa and then go on to tell misrepresentative stories about the continent? Is it really because of the false claims they make, or is it because the practice is now so habitual? An alarmingly large number of white folks visit the continent simply because they can and feel compelled to tell the world about their adventures travelling through ‘deepest, darkest Africa.’ All this while most Africans cannot just as casually visit Europe, North America or other places that are saturated with whiteness. It’s revealing of the skewed power dynamics that people from the Global North can volunteer as ‘saviours’ in the Global South but not vice versa. Visa restrictions, cost factors, systemic racism and other barriers are set well in place to limit our movement.
It’s true that there are a small number of white ‘allies’ who are genuinely intrigued, touched and inspired by Africa. These are people who come here to learn and experience African life and to use some of the good parts of their Western education in service to the continent – but they are a minority. Still, how many of them are doing their part to debunk the falsehoods peddled by the other visitors to the continent?
We have our own voices
In some ways it was inevitable that those who would call out the Scottish girl with angelic hair who was trending on Twitter a few weeks ago would be African, be it from the continent or the Diaspora. Time and again, the big Western media conglomerates have shown that they do not want to hear about Africa from Africans. Instead, they are happy to perpetuate more negative stereotypes about war, HIV/AIDS, sexual exploitation and famine. Shocking as it might seem to them and their readers, we actually do have a history and ways of life that stretch far beyond the arrival of the missionaries and settlers who came to relieve us of our ‘backwardness’. Not only that, we are capable of documenting our stories, cultures, traditions and conditions. Our voices are strong and clear enough to be heard without the assistance of agents who cannot separate a sincere desire to be of service from a superiority complex.
The role of white ‘allies’
Unlike those who come to Africa for a gap year (read ‘fun’), the majority of Africans go to Europe, North America or Australia out of necessity. While most people from humble backgrounds recognise privilege as something rare, some of the white folks volunteering or back-packing across the continent view it as an entitlement. An African not only has to prove that he/she has the financial muscle and legitimate cause to enter countries in the Global North, he/she still risks being denied entry or facing unsolicited rejection just because.
I have met many liberal white folks who are aware that they receive special treatment because of their whiteness and so they offer themselves to advance worthy causes. They try their best to assimilate into the communities in which they are located and use their privilege to solve some of the problems there. One might argue, however, that although noble at face value, this group’s actions are merely motivated by white guilt. These individuals can hardly be found when it is time to speak out, yet they enjoy the benefits of being the exception when things are calm and fun. Every ‘woke’ white person knows of or is related to a bigot, racist, etc. and it is their responsibility to, in the true sense of being allies, squash the ignorance. Sometimes nodding in agreement, joining a protest, tapping ‘like’ on social media or talking about this stuff with only African friends is not enough. It is one thing to empathise with the struggle from a comfortable distance, and another to be part of it and to embrace all that comes with it.
What are you going to do about it?
Anger is only good if it inspires action. It is unfortunate that the opinion-makers of the world are mostly non-African. On the other hand, it is a good thing that we are exposed to what everyone who comes here thinks of Africa – good or bad. The hype generated by controversial and negative pieces of literature often dies out soon. The stories themselves are then quickly replaced by others like them. Perhaps now it is time we take a more aggressive approach. We must tell the stories that do not fit typical Western media narratives, as seen through our own eyes and spoken in our voices and on our own terms. And while at it, generate huge amounts of content and create wealth so that ultimately we will not have to look to Western sources and media to learn about Africa.