Africa suffers from a very bad image that portrays poverty, conflicts, diseases and underdevelopment. Africans themselves are not far off even when they live outside the continent. Breaking off the various tags that trail us is a big challenge. While many conscientious Africans both at home and away live their honest lives and work very hard to provide for themselves, they often find that they are disproportionately made to feel guilty or even responsible for the actions of others who share the same skin colour or origin. You know that feeling when you hear about a violent crime in the media, and your first thought is “I hope he is not black”.
A few weeks ago, the ever explosive Nigerian twittersphere was ignited by a satirical article by a notorious American journalist, Ann Coulton, titled “To speak to a Nigerian Prince about Your Health care Press 1 now”. In this article, meant to ridicule the hiccups with the Obamacare website, she described all Nigerians as fraudsters and criminals and even suggested that one could get a degree in credit card fraud from the University of Lagos. The article further exacerbated the sarcastic comment by an American lawmaker also ridiculing the health care plan by suggesting that Obama had hired Nigerian email scammers to run the website.
There is so much to be said about all of this, and many bloggers have paid due service. My major lesson from this is how stereotyping works. As the famous Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, put it in her Ted Talk titled “the dangers of a single story”: The problem with stereotypes is not that that they are untrue. It is that they are incomplete. While there are indeed many Nigerian email scammers, we forget about those hardworking Nigerian doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs making fantastic progress at home and abroad. Sadly, it’s only when such blanket hate speeches are made that we all start searching for heroes.
I have always been excited about reading book by or about very successful Africans. I believe it is so important to learn about people who have made it through life despite facing potentially similar challenges and circumstances. It is so inspiring to get to know how people succeeded not because they were born with a silver spoon but because they had the courage, determination and discipline to challenge the status quo and set very high targets for themselves. It is uplifting to know that you do not have to accept a specific type of behaviour, a level of achievement or a part of a city assigned to people that look like you.
These heroes abound all around us, and many of them unsung. We owe it a duty to have them together with their achievements up our sleeve not only as a way of challenging the societal stereotypes but also for self-motivation. We need to make sure that the work of our heroes are elevated above the atrocities of those by which the society wants to define us. They need not have written a book or to have been written about to qualify as heroes. The doctors that staff European hospital, the project managers and planners at construction firms, the innovative entrepreneurs that risk into ventures that others have distanced from due to lack of infrastructure and lending facilities. These are all heroes and we need to make sure they all remain visible.
I have been reading the autobiography of Mo Farah, the Olympic athletics gold medallist. Very often, we all get to know about the victorious finale of the stars. It is however really insightful to understand the struggles and challenges he has been through. Challenges which I am most likely to face myself. It is enlightening to know that despite the fact that people believe East Africans are naturally good at sprinting, that there is so much discipline, training, methodology and personal sacrifice that goes into winning a medal.
Pundits will continue to argue whether Barack Obama as the first black US presidents has made any difference to African Americans or Africans. The truth is when a dark skinny guy with a funny name dreamt that he could become a US president, it is already a lot. When he stood up with his “yes we can” campaign slogan, he is challenging us to say the same.
There has been so much talk about “Africa Rising” based on microeconomic figures that the common man knows little about. The truth is that I want Africans to rise first. I want Africans, wherever they are, to be ignited by the same kind of passion that powered “the Age of Enlightenment” and eventually led to the industrial revolution that made Europe the ultimate global power. It was during this Age that the Europeans challenged all the superstitions and societal orders that existed. It was this thinking that resulted in a shift of power from Asia and Middle East to Europe. When people changed, the countries and continents followed.
And I hope that as Africans rise, they will take Africa with it. I hope we will all hold our heads high and proudly reciting the last lines of this famous poem by David Diop:
“But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.”
And with Nelson Mandela passing away, we have lost the greatest of our heroes. He has inspired so many of us. The best tribute we can pay him would be to live up to his ideal. An ideal, as he put it before his long term imprisonment,” of a democratic and free society in which all persons will together in harmony with equal opportunities.” He has shown that there is nothing African about clinging to power even after you have depleted your political credit. He has demonstrated that there is nothing unafrican about being free from corruption, about forgiving and about fighting for justice.