Wakanda forever?

By Moky Makura, Executive Director of Africa No Filter

This blog is part of a thread that aims to challenge existing narratives about Africa and its development.

In 2018 the fictional country Wakanda from the movie Black Panther was the fourth most mentioned African country on Twitter – after Egypt, South Africa and Kenya. The fact that Africa’s fourth most talked about country doesn’t exist tells us two things: pop culture is a powerful tool for narrative work and we need to do more to make Africa’s 51 remaining real countries more compelling. 

This data point was unearthed during a literature review to understand what insights already exist about narrative on Africa in the media. The review was part of Africa No Filter’s mission to unpack prevailing stories, frames and narratives about and within Africa to understand where we can intervene to shift and support how the world sees Africa and how Africa sees itself.

We analysed 56 documents of literature (post 2000) including research reports, books, chapters, and academic journal articles. Although by no means comprehensive, the literature review does provide a snapshot into the narrative space. So, what did we find? A few surprising facts like the one about Wakanda, but admittedly nothing we didn’t already suspect.

Western narratives about Africa in the media are around two strands, i.e. Afro-pessimistic and Afro-optimistic. Stories about the continent and its countries are usually around poverty, poor leadership, corruption, conflict and disease. The framing is typically negative, and we know this leads to narratives of an Africa, and a people that are broken, lack agency and are in constant need of help. The University of Southern California’s Africa in the Media report analysed 700,000 hours of US entertainment and news and 1.6 million tweets in 2018, and it confirmed that when references to Africa were not neutral, they were more likely to be negative.

Although the continent has been highlighted as an emerging destination for investment, with high GDP growth rates, an increase in peaceful elections, stability, falling poverty and the spread of technology, more needs to be done to ensure these Afro optimistic stories break through and that Africa is presented in a more nuanced and contextualised way that reflects the continent today. Despite the progress, the literature on Afro-optimism points out one key flaw in the narrative that makes these progress stories less impactful. The suggestion, for example in the “Africa rising” narrative, that the continent is one country and there is no sense of where economic growth is taking place.

The ‘Africa is a country’ framing conveniently used by development experts and economists to tell a single story of the continent, hides the reality of the diversity of 54 countries, 3,000 ethnic groups and over 2,100  languages with little to unite us but our blackness and geographic location. It also hides how we as Africans actually view ourselves. We are not one country and the monolithic nature of how we are referenced can be easily changed by differentiating African countries, portraying different voices and telling what we are calling ‘alternative’ stories about the continent.

Studies that analyse African narratives about Africa in the media are surprisingly few. Most of the studies we found looked at how South Africa portrays itself against other African countries. We were able to find studies from Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana and DRC and across these countries, narratives often mimic western narratives about Africa, and many times the sources for these stories came from western news services. The irony is that Africans are learning about themselves from western sources.

And the stories that African countries report on each other are ironically around ethnic conflicts and corruption. The fact that Africans had very little interest in, or good things to say about each other was another surprising fact. With the recent launch of the African Continental Free trade Area (Afcta), a game changer for Africa’s development with the potential to unite 1.3 billion people, a genuinely connected Africa at all levels is even more critical and narrative work is an important contributor to connecting Africans and changing perceptions.

In his book Factfulness, the Swedish academic and statistician Hans Rosling, wrote about the danger of selective media reporting which prioritises the negative and often extreme sides of any story. Sadly, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is still a principle in some newsrooms, especially during this pandemic. We have allowed these negative and harmful storylines to not just prevail but define us as Africans – the belief that we are somehow ‘less than’ is not just an external message it is also permeating the minds and hearts of African youth. The horrific stories of African migration, conflict, insecurity, poor governance, poverty and disease are factual, but they are not all that Africa is.

The truth is that most Africans are not on migrant boats en route to Europe. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) the top three countries of origin of asylum seekers to the EU since 2014 are Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Africans live under democratically elected governments in relative peace, with only six out of 54 countries – Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan – considered as crisis hot spots of armed conflict.

And with the world’s help, Africa has made significant progress bringing poverty rates down; two out of three Africans live above the global poverty line, and according to a 2011 AfDB report, the continent has the fastest growing middle-class expected to reach 42% of the total population by 2060. But these are just facts, data points… and despite their importance they get lost in the narrative. As Rosling’s book and global studies reminds us, peoples’ deeply held beliefs are not based on facts, and facts don’t matter when it comes to how people see the world.

And that’s why the stories we tell and those that are told about us have a cost. They inform the narrative, the resulting behaviour and the power dynamics. The African proverb which speaks most directly to the power dynamic of narrative (for there is an African proverb for every situation) is this one; until lions learn to write hunters will tell their stories for them. So, if we want to push Wakanda out of the top 5 of Africa’s most talked about “countries” we are going to need to monitor narratives like this recent example from BBC Africa on COVID in Africa, provide contextualised storytelling and actively work to shift narratives. The success of all development work on the continent is underpinned by our ability as Africans to believe in ourselves and not in the stereotypical harmful narratives that bring us down.