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Editorial - Say What You Like. It’s Africa

I’ve spent a fair amount of time attending conferences, summits and events related to Africa. As you can imagine, this means sitting through presentations packed with opinions and statistics.

While I’m the first to admit that I’m more a fan of words than numbers, it often strikes me that some of the statistics rattled off with such confidence appear to differ, depending on the presenter and the study they refer to.

The lack of available, reliable, and consistent data when it comes to the African continent is a major issue. Not only does it hamper the ability of policy makers to understand the true nature of what is happening and thereby develop effective solutions to the continent’s challenges, it also makes it remarkably easy for people to make pronouncements about Africa. Let’s face it, who’s going to challenge you and, if so, on what grounds?

Demolishing the Single Story

A few years ago, I remember listening to a conference speaker who, while describing the impact of mobile telephony on Africa, went on to state that Africa has made huge advances in the telecoms sector because there were no fixed telephone lines to be found on the continent. To be fair, he believed he was simplifying the scenario to prove his greater point about how advanced Africa was in relation to mobile phone applications and usage. Nevertheless, I would have bet the lasting memory for attendees was that fixed phone lines did not exist in Africa.

Why is it so easy to project outrageously untrue claims onto Africa? With the continent still positioned as a dark, dangerous, and unknown place, it seems people can say pretty much what they like and get away with it.

I’m reminded of a friend who remarked several years ago that the only good thing that came out of the horrific terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi was that even the mainstream Western media couldn’t report on the story without being forced to admit that shopping malls actually exist in Africa.

Why is it so easy to project outrageously untrue claims onto Africa?

Despite the wealth of books, films, and online media, it’s baffling that so many people still have such a poor understanding of the size and diversity of the African continent. All the tools that exist today to shrink the world and expand our knowledge of each other seem rather to have narrowed our thinking and expanded our prejudices.

Sometimes, and even more worryingly, this tendency towards a monolithic view of Africa comes from our own. In my research for my book, I Want to Work in Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent, I explored the motivation behind the increasing interest on the part of Africans in the diaspora to find a career in Africa. Along with the desire to reconnect with their culture and extended families, there was also a theme of making the move to help ‘fix’ Africa and its people and eradicate the continent’s ills. For some, working in Africa represented an opportunity to show Africans how to make a better job of being Africans (the implicit assumption being that this can be achieved by acting more like Europeans or Americans).

During a cab ride across London a few weeks ago, my cabbie looked at me sympathetically in his rear-view mirror when I mentioned I was from Ghana. Why? His cousin who lives and works in Israel had been banned by his company from visiting Ghana to explore business opportunities, he said, because the country is “very dangerous”. I could only hope this wasn’t a sentiment he shared with his passengers on a regular basis.

Fill in the Blanks

Yet, while it would be easy to blame the media, the aid industry, the corrupt African politician that occasionally makes the headlines, or put such attitudes down to ignorance and move on, doing so is not a good idea.

If we don’t fill in the blanks about Africa with real information rather than easily disseminated myths and misconceptions, it will continue to impact not only our psyche, collective continental self-esteem, and brand positioning in the world, but also those who want to deal with or invest in us.

We need to respond to well-intentioned saviours telling us that there’s no snow in Africa or marvelling at how well we speak English. Sometimes changing perceptions and opening minds can be done through humour – brilliantly illustrated by the video of the spoof charity single by Africans to raise funds to buy radiators to help the people of Norway deal with the cold.


I am not advocating a position of ‘my Africa, right or wrong’. We all know the continent has enormous challenges to solve. But that doesn’t mean we allow Africa to be the kid being bullied in the playground who no-one has the interest or the courage to defend.

We are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to create our own facts. So, let’s be prepared to challenge myths, misconceptions, and plain untruths when they arise. We may not have all the data, but we do have the truth of our own knowledge and experiences - and the right to say so.


Founder & Managing Editor, ReConnect Africa

Author of Imperfect Arrangements,‘Imperfect Arrangements’ ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot’ and ‘From Pasta to Pigfoot: Second Helpings’ and the books I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’ and ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’

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