As our narrative on Africa shrinks, the continent rises

Published by The i paper (15th January, 2018)

For a brief moment Donald Trump sounded presidential on Friday as he signed a proclamation to mark the public holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. Speaking of a man who fought with such dignity to win basic civil rights for descendants of slaves stolen from Africa, the property tycoon talked about ‘the self-evident truths Americans hold so dear: that no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are created equal by God.’

Yet these words were rank hypocrisy as they fell from the mouth of a man who has shown such bigotry towards many other human beings. ‘Mr President, are you a racist,’ asked reporters in response to suggestions he had just dismissed African nations as ‘shithole countries.’ He ducked the question, but the answer is clearly yes. This was just the latest example of Trump making derogatory comments and racial slurs, even flirting with white supremacists.

The Republicans are stuck in such a dark place some leading figures defended their president even as the African Union expressed ‘shock, dismay and outrage’. Namibia – or Nambia as Trump called the country last year – was among several nations issuing angry response, saying such language had ‘no place in diplomatic discourse’ and pointing out ‘the Africa we know and live in is one that is recovering economically and rising.’

For all the struggles and setbacks, much of the continent is progressing thanks to the transformative power of capitalism, consumerism and technology. Africans are becoming better educated, healthier and wealthier, symbolised by an astonishing increase of almost ten years in life expectancy for babies born since the start of this century despite soaring populations. Economic growth is speeding up again – and many star performers are nations that do not rely on turbulent commodity markets.

Trump’s contemptuous comments sparked a firestorm on social media, as with almost every dribble of bile that spills from his lips or display of stupidity in tweets. Such is the intensity of America’s culture wars that his shrinking base of fans will probably love this latest provocation from a disruptive president who flouts usual rules. Yet for all the righteous outrage among liberals, Trump’s outburst should provoke wider soul-searching. Many others have shared his role in perpetuating similar false and harmful stereotypes of Africa.

I remember my nerves before my first visit off the beaten track there, rapidly settled by reality within minutes of landing in Mali. I have since heard similar from several musicians arriving on the continent for the first time with Africa Express, a collaborative music project I helped set up more than a decade ago. ‘Everything about Africa is normally preceded by clichés of poverty and disease until you go there and realise the energy and beauty of the people,’ said one well-known artist shortly after arriving in Kinshasa.

This is not to ignore serious problems that exist, not least in a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo with its riches being looted and a leader refusing to cede power. But almost the sole image we see is one that shores up the old Dark Continent stereotypes, fed by corrosive neo-colonial attitudes and fuelled by self-serving aid groups seeking cash with their pictures of starving children. They are joined in unholy alliance by politicians posing as saviours of the global poor, naive celebrities trying to cloak themselves in compassion and, yes, journalists and writers in search of blood and chaos.

Many of these are the same people expressing outrage over Trump’s comment – although few said anything when French president Emmanuel Macron spoke about the continent having ‘civilisational’ problems. Perhaps they should listen to Owen Barder, perceptive vice president of the Center for Global Development think tank, who told the bloated aid industry that ‘if you paint developing countries as potential sources of terrorism, disease and unwanted migration to justify your budgets, don’t be surprised if politicians join you in denigrating those countries.’

Barder is right to point out the discomforting link between Trump’s overt racism and the conspiratorial stance of those benefitting from such stereotyping, just as they stay silent in face of appalling despotism to keep funds flowing. In fact Africa is changing so fast obesity is now the growing problem, with more people in poorer countries going to bed having consumed too many calories than go to bed hungry. Yet many in the West still perceive only a place tormented by unique problems of corruption, conflict, disease and poverty – although the US is plagued by corruption and tax-avoidance and even Europe is hardly immune to destructive conflict.

The impact of staying locked into stale narratives while stymied by migration fears is profound. Britain is funding dictators, failing to exploit soft power strength and thwarting trade. I have heard from infuriated Kenyans and Nigerians vowing never to come to Britain after hostile officials assumed prosperous people were desperate to leave homes and families for life as an illegal immigrant. And as rival nations woo this swelling middle class, many of our businesses stay away from fast-growing markets and tourists ignore a continent of stunning diversity in its 54 countries.

We will be the losers in this global race. Already anxious Europeans are highly sceptical over their futures. Yet Africans are more positive and happier than those famously-optimistic Americans. This was highlighted by a Pew study of 42,000 people in 38 countries around the planet this month, which found Nigerians the most likely people to say they were having a good day. Americans were twice as content as Europeans, yet no match for the median across six African nations. It shows President Trump talks shit about Africa – but sadly he is far from alone in such attitudes.

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