Africa – Image in the mirror

Africa, what do you see in the mirror? A reflection of your true self or an image that fails to capture and reveal who you really are?

To many outsiders, Africa invokes scenes of utter desolation, backwardness, calamity, and human sufferings. A continent torn by senseless and endless wars, arid landscapes under the scorching sun, people fleeing poverty and persecution, helpless and nameless victims waiting to be saved, a place rife with corruption, chaos and laziness, are images of Africa that are deeply ingrained in the world’s consciousness.

Despite its huge size and extreme diversity, Africa is all too often conflated into a single country and painted with the same brush, regardless of one’s location on the continent. The one-sided rendering tends to oversimplify and overlook the complexity of Africa’s realities and the lives of its people, reducing them to a set of stereotypes that the world is familiar with.

At times, images of Africa’s amazing natural beauty and vibrancy brighten up this gloomy picture, such as streaks of bright colors on an otherwise dark canvas. However, images depicting the continent are presented randomly to the world, much like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that were never put together, making it hard for anyone to imagine that these conflicting images refer to one and the same place.

How easy it is to forget that the West is largely responsible for orchestrating and widely circulating this unflattering picture of Africa in an attempt to justify its actions and defend its interests in this region. Unfortunately, the world has grown accustomed to seeing Africa through the lens of the West, which usually portrays the continent in a negative light.

The predominantly negative portrayal is what has come to define Africa. This is the image that has shaped the world’s – including China’s, the continent’s newest ally – perception of and attitudes towards Africa.

Ironically, the image that seemed irreversible has changed in recent years. The downtrodden portrait was given a facelift to show Africa in a more favourable light. An entirely different image has emerged, that of a rising Africa. It was as if the forgotten continent has suddenly sprung to life.

The remodeled face of Africa was made all the more attractive with strokes of positive narrative. Africa is the new ‘land of opportunity’ with a vast and untapped potential begging to be unlocked. It represents the ‘last frontier’ holding the prospect of tremendous economic gains and offering the highest rates of returns on investment in the world (What’s driving Africa’s growth?).

Some have hailed the rebranding of Africa by the West as a welcome move. Even so, one should question the real motive behind this sudden turn of events. There is little doubt that the West’s positive portrayal of Africa was triggered to a large extent by China’s rapid advances on the continent, which constitutes a genuine threat to its interests in the region (Week 7: The Race to Win Africa).

On its part, China sees in Africa a strategic partner, offering the right assets and opportunities at the right time, and an ideal springboard for its grand entry into the world. Clearly, China’s positive rendering of Africa is an offshoot of the charm strategy it has deployed on the continent.

Sadly, none of these images, both negative and positive, give a true and complete rendering of Africa. Each image conveys a ‘single story’, to borrow the expression of the brilliant Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie (The Danger of a Single Story). The negative image tells the story of a ‘hopeless’ continent whereas the positive image narrates the unfolding story of a ‘rising’ Africa.

This ‘black or white’ perception of Africa, as viewed through a narrow and skewed spectrum, strips the continent of its substance and robs it of its dignity. After all, Africa is much more than a simple sum of these two images. But what is even worse is that both the image and the story are the work of outsiders and not of Africans themselves.

Amidst of it all, where is Africa’s own image?

My argument here is not so much about how the world sees Africa but rather how Africa sees itself.

This is an issue that speaks to each and every one of us Africans, regardless of our level of education or status in our societies, an issue that takes us out of our comfort zone and puts us on the spot.

In my interactions with fellow Africans, I have come to realize that a number of us have bought into the negative image of Africa. There are those who, in venting their frustrations, go to the extent of claiming that Africa and Africans are indeed cursed to deserve such a pitiful state of affairs prevailing in our continent and respective countries. A powerful and scary statement that attests how we ourselves have come to believe in this negative portrayal!

If we take a look at ourselves in the mirror, we would be surprised to find out that the image that stares us in the face is the same one that outsiders have created for us. Our portrait is modified according to the whims of its authors, without any involvement from our part. Strangely enough, we have accepted, normalized and internalized this image, the story it tells, and the process by which it is generated so much so it is now deeply embedded in our minds and ways, becoming one with ourselves.

The problem is that our negative self-image tends to permeate through all aspects of our being and our lives as individuals, as citizens, and as leaders. It shapes our perceptions and attitudes towards ourselves, those around us, our nations and continent, and the rest of the world.

The effects are obviously devastating.

On a personal level, we are at odds with ourselves, effectively estranging or ‘othering’ ourselves to the point of negating our true self, doubting our worth, despising and rejecting everything that represents us. Our poor self-image has destroyed our self-esteem, our confidence, and the respect we bestow on ourselves.

This self-deprecating image is replicated at a larger scale as we project ourselves onto our communities and our larger societies. On a practical level, it manifests itself in the way we run our lives, our families, our businesses, our countries, and our continent.

We readily embrace everything that is foreign, everything that is not us, to the point of loosing ourselves in the process. We are desperate to fit into outsiders’ mould and live up to their expectations. Not to risk upsetting their perception of us, we prefer to see ourselves through their eyes and remain faithful to their rendering.

We define ourselves according to outsiders’ criteria, constantly seeking their validation. We conform to their values and lifestyles, alienating our own systems. We uphold the African heroes, role models, and beauties they have picked for us, failing to recognize and honour our own.

We choose the path of victimhood and dependency preferring outsiders’ assistance, money and knowledge to pull us out of dire straits, instead of taking responsibilities for our problems. We adopt the aid mentality instead of opting for self-reliance and our own solutions. The traces of dignity we have left are wiped out every time we pass on the begging bowl to outsiders.

This is why we undersell ourselves, choosing to export our prime resources and products to outsiders at prices and terms that always put us at a disadvantage, when we could have developed trade ties among African countries. Prices of all African major commodities are fixed outside the continent, in places like London, New York and Geneva exchanges to name but a few.

All the while, we keep shortchanging ourselves procuring sub-standard products and services from outside the continent, even at the risk of our own safety, instead of harnessing our own capacities. No wonder that Africa has become a dumping ground for poor quality and counterfeit goods, and even for electronic waste!

This is why we underrate our own assets, preferring to contract huge foreign debts, whereas Africa is awash with financial resources that could be leveraged for our development. All we have to do is to arrest the illegal flow of money out of Africa (Illicit Financial Flows: Africa a Net Creditor to the World), mobilize African private finance and equity funds such Mkoba in Tanzania and invest the resources we are stashing away in foreign banks. Personally, I find it quite appalling that 14 Francophone African countries are still channeling 65% of their foreign exchange reserves into France’s Treasury (How France Financially Enslaves 14 African Countries).

This is why we strive to make our countries more attractive to foreign direct investments, as we value the investments coming from outside than those originating from within our countries and continent. Since we attach great importance to our ranking on the index of ‘Doing Business in Africa’, we constantly try to outdo each other to offer outsiders the best investment opportunities and packages that we deprive our own citizens.

This is why we jumped on the ‘Rebranding Africa’ bandwagon, simply mirroring outsiders’ efforts of changing the negative perception of Africa. We are organizing conferences in foreign capitals – and not in Africa cities – to sell our new image in a bid to attract potential foreign investors to the continent. One such example is the ‘Rebranding Africa Forum’ launched in Brussels last year with the next edition scheduled to take place in October 2015 (1st Rebranding Africa Forum: emergence of Africa in the spotlight).

It seems as if we are willingly surrendering the control of our lives and our destinies, giving outsiders free rein to rule over us, our nations and our resources and letting their interests take precedence over our own needs and aspirations.

On an emotional level, we are so removed from ourselves that we have become insensitive to our own plights. We choose indifference and silence in the face of injustice, violations and horrendous acts over open condemnations, direct confrontations and concrete actions.

This is especially glaring when tragedy strikes.

This is why we fail to come together as one to protect our people against attacks and mass killings on our own soil and put a stop to such atrocities that are claiming thousands of innocent lives in Nigeria, Kenya, South Sudan, Libya, as we speak.

This is why we blindfold ourselves to avoid facing the real issues behind the mass migration of African citizens to foreign shores. How many more Africans have to pay with their lives or suffer at the hands of human traffickers while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea in search of ‘greener pastures’ in foreign lands, before we decide to find a lasting solution to this unprecedented human hemorrhage? (Risking death in the Mediterranean: the least bad option for so many migrants)

Where are our leaders, especially those African leaders who rushed last January to attend the rally #jesuisCharlieHebdo in Paris as a show of solidarity to France (Six African presidents attended Paris Charlie Hebdo unity rally. Why are so many outraged?)? Have we become so insignificant in our own eyes to the extent of disregarding our own plights, preferring instead to commiserate over the tragedy and misery of outsiders?

One peculiarity about our poor self-image is that we don’t want to see this same image reflected back at us by those around us and those who look like us. These people – our people – are as poor, as disillusioned, as wronged, as frustrated as we are, yet we feel no empathy towards them. Instead, we prefer to lash out at them, disrespecting them in the most abject way.

In my view, this must be the only valid explanation for the spate of xenophobic attacks targeting African migrants in South Africa (Death in South Africa as Mobs Target Foreigners). To start with, how would we even use of the term ‘xenophobia’ when we are among African citizens? These despicable acts  committed by black South Africans on other African nationals illustrate the extent to which self-hatred can be divisive and destructive, striking right at the core of our Africanity and going counter to the spirit of African unity.

To all that, I say emphatically: The death of an African citizen is one too many. Every African life matters. We matter.

But how did we arrive at this situation?

Colonial history naturally takes a large part of the blame for instilling in us self-loathing and spreading animosity amongst ourselves. Modern media also plays a major role of cultivating a distorted image of Africa and its people, which it continues to do so in an increasingly insidious manner.

Although it is easy to engage in a blame game, especially if it involves finger pointing at others, we have to take responsibility for our share of the blame. We are equally, if not more, guilty for this shameful state of affairs. We have become too complacent with the image that outsiders pin on us, too entrenched in our ways to change the status quo, making us in effect accomplices to outsiders’ plot.

Perhaps, is it because we, African citizens, peoples and nations, never really embarked on a journey to ‘decolonize our minds’, as advocated by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – who first coined the term – and Chinua Achebe (Vehicles for Story: Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on Defining African Literature, Preserving Culture and Self), two towering figures of African literature? Even so, when are we going to come to terms with our past to chart a new present and future?

However we look at the issue, we have to stop making excuses and start taking responsibilities. We have to step back and interrogate ourselves about the path we are willing to take in order to change the status quo.

Why is it so important for us to be the authors of our own image?

Image is a powerful tool that can make or break us. How we see ourselves says a lot about how we relate to ourselves, to our people, and to the rest of the world. It reflects on how we view and value ourselves and the world around us. It shapes our identities, our mindsets, and even our ‘raison d’être’ as citizens and people of Africa. It is therefore crucial that we take ownership of our image.

Let us not fool ourselves. We can never own outsiders’ image, because it was never meant to truly represent us or serve our purposes. It will always be their image, telling their story, and promoting their interests. Despite our best intentions to stay true to their rendering, we will always fail to live up to their expectations. Why try so hard to be what we are not when finding our image in the mirror, one that is aligned with our true self, is a natural process?

 The question is: Are we willing to go that road, to walk that extra mile, to become the agent of change? How willing are we to see our true reflection in the mirror?

The image we wish to see should not be a duplication of outsiders’ rendering of ourselves or a reaction to it. We should be able to see our true reflection, with all our beauties and imperfections, if only we dare to take an honest look at ourselves, if only we choose to acknowledge and embrace our strengths as well as our weaknesses, if only we are the owner and the author of our picture, our story, and our rule of the game.

Changing our image in the mirror is possible. But the change must come from within and not from outside. All it takes is a conscious decision and a strong willingness to do so.

The change process will require a lot of soul searching on our part and we have to be open for change in order to set the process in motion. We will have to challenge and deconstruct the image that is imposed on us, to break the mould and start afresh, to question our present to decide our future, and maybe even lose ourselves completely in order to find our true selves.

The first step will be for us to redress the wrong to ourselves, our people, our nations, and our continent. Let us start by commanding our attention to ourselves; let us start by rebranding Africa to Africans; let us give more weight to how we see ourselves rather than how the world sees us; let us paint a better image of ourselves, one that truly reflects who we are.

More importantly, we have to let our actions speak louder than our words, just as China let its success speak for itself despite the criticisms and negative portrayal it had to endure for the path it chose to take. We have to be the change we want to see. We have to find our image in the mirror, and educate those around us, our societies, our nations, and our continent how to find theirs.

Once we find our true image, we will be able to correct our misconceptions and adjust our views and attitudes towards ourselves. Only then will we be able to recover our lost dignity and regain respect for ourselves and our fellow Africans, because image is ultimately about dignity and respect.

The change of image will certainly not happen overnight. It will be a journey, probably a long one, but one worth taking for the sake of Africa and its citizens.

Now here is a challenge for you, Dear AfriZens: Stand out, don’t fit in. Dare to be, to think, to act differently. Dare to look at your true self in the mirror. I bet you will see an entirely new image of yourself and the world around you.

Are you ready to take on the challenge?


‘Only fools don’t change’

Félix Houphouët-Boigny, first President of Côte d’Ivoire

 (15 May 2015)

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  1. I agree with the arguments and conclusions of this piece. It very much echoes the ideas and reflections of such thinkers as Franz Fanon! Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko. Africa! We find ourselves confronted by a double edged sword. On the one edge is our long history of conquest and subjugation since slavery. Even our very contemporary existence as modern nations is in fact a very recent outcome of that subjugation, and one that we have no qualms murdering each other about. On ther hand this subjugation and domination has been so internalized into our genes that it has become us. Our very existence is about despising us. Everything we do is about trying to be as un-us as possible – skin lightening, hair straightening, the phony accents, rejection of our cultures and religions. And of course we produce the least publications, contribute the least to knowledge production and so on. But still, should we not agree with Fanon that the only solution, the only way to decolonize our minds, is emancipatory violence??


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