For generations, the palaver tree was a symbol of communication and collaboration throughout Africa: people would gather under its protective shade to listen to stories, share ideas and news and resolve community problems and conflicts.
Though the tradition of sharing remains deeply rooted in African culture, it has been undermined by the economic and political upheavals of recent decades, depriving many Africans of their sense of belonging. The void left in its place has been filled by a negative narrative coming from outside, what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the single story”. This has created a distorted, one-dimensional view – eagerly embraced by the west, but also by many Africans themselves – that sees the continent only through a prism of war, disease, poverty, starvation and corruption.
Adichie, in her excellent TED conference talk in 2009, questioned how these negative perceptions have impacted African development. She’s not alone. Other African authors, such as Chinua Achebe, Amadou Hampâté Ba and Ousmane Sembene, have written remarkable books that challenge post-colonial narratives.
The single story has helped to generate millions of dollars in “aid” and an industry dedicated to spending it. It has enriched corrupt African dignitaries and raised the profile of western celebrities like Bono and Sir Bob Geldof . It has fuelled conflict and ultimately undermined African leadership. It has not helped Africa move forward. It has not protected the vulnerable, cured the sick, educated the illiterate or ended conflict. The failure to represent Africa fairly has reinforced western prejudices and deflected international development efforts from what should have been their core objectives. Africans have become passive recipients of often counterproductive aid instead of active participants in positive change.
Most African countries have now celebrated 50 years of independence, but the negative message is still circulating. Sadly, members of the African diaspora, cut off from the reality of life in their countries of origin and searching for a new identity in the west, are sometimes complicit in this deception, telling stories that merely serve to perpetuate the negative stereotypes that are harming Africans. I realised this at a recent workshop I was running in Washington, where I watched an articulate American-Nigerian, with one foot in the US and the other in Africa. So the problem is not only the western messengers who feed us with inaccurate stories. Too often, we generalise, talking of Africa as if it is one country. Nobody is pretending that Africa’s many serious problems should be played down or ignored, but the rest of the world, and Africans themselves, need to hear the good news stories as well. Africans in particular need to take ownership of the positive narrative to become ambassadors for positive change.
But change is coming. Africans are becoming increasingly critical of conventional news sources. They want to see a narrative that does them justice. For the first time, western news outlets are being challenged by bloggers and highly qualified in-house writers from Africa who are not on the payroll of well-known media like CNN or the BBC. We are seeing a new generation of accidental writers emerging. Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are central to these developments. Indeed Twitter – where Dambisa Moyo, author of the controversial book Dead Aid, has 20,000 followers – is in some senses the new palaver tree, a place where Africans can communicate and share ideas.
From outside and inside Africa, we are also seeing a shift in the tone of the language coming from the international development community and global corporations, at last engaging with Africans to repair the damage created by decades of the “single story”.
Looking to 2011 and beyond, the prospects look bright. There’s a huge opportunity for the media and the international development community to reinvent their communication strategies for the continent. There is no single story of Africa or any African country. Although serious problems remain that need to be tackled head-on and reported accurately, Africa also needs to be given credit for the exciting advances being made in terms of progressive leadership, social entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, health and the arts. These positive narratives need to be heard loud and clear both inside and outside the continent.