map outline of Africa with child carrying water

How we talk about Africa

WE Communications Blog: Relevant, Riveting Content

— Patricia McClelland 

“My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music”, and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.”

One of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a brilliant TED Talk on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. It made me think about the intricacies involved in the stories we tell and the work we do for clients in Africa. Over the years, the mainstream narrative of Africa has shifted from one of chaos and poverty, to ‘Africa Rising’, the next great economic hope and source of innovation. But who owns the narrative, who tells the stories, what stories are told, and which ones aren’t is seldom questioned.

Talking about what bothered her about her roommate’s response, Adichie explains: “Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronising, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

As communications consultants, we need to be aware of the power dynamics that fuel narratives and realise how problematic they can be in our storytelling. The ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is positive in that it shows another side to the continent. But the danger is that this story of optimism becomes the single story, and that people start to think of Africa as a place of startups and mobile phones, ignoring stories of ordinary people who don’t have water or electricity, or stories of people with too many #firstworldproblems to tweet about – and most importantly, all the people in between.

The need to recognise one’s ‘default position’ towards any group of people or ‘target audience’ should be a key step in formulating communications strategies. One of my favourite initiatives is the Rusty Radiator Awards, which calls out NGOs across the world for stereotypical portrayals of Africans. As this very funny video highlights, the real crime is these stereotypes rob people of dignity. They fail to show the people in the videos as complex individuals and take away their agency, defining them only by their circumstances. Where these adverts are viewed, often overseas, people have no real interaction with Africa, and this becomes their single point of reference.

Everyone is guilty of stereotyping or making assumptions at some point in their lives – it’s a natural response to our environment. But as Adichie explains, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

As consultants, it is so important that we think critically, that we question our own stereotypes, and that we interrogate the references we make, the narratives we amplify, and how we define the audiences we are targeting. If we don’t do that, we’ll end up perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and we’ll miss opportunities to tell stories that matter.

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