Since her Oscar win, a number articles have discussed how privilege relates to the recent success of Lupita Nyong’o. By now we all know that the Yale School of Drama graduate grew up as part of Kenya’s upper middle-class, lived abroad, and speaks four languages. This is great because her success and story also brings to light the reality—the diversity—of the African experience. Our stories don’t all resemble those you find on NGO websites or that commercial you saw. It is also great because it is a reminder of the importance of nurturing all of Africa’s talents, even those that are expressed through the liberal arts and those that come through individuals whose privilege affords them to do so.
So Lupita’s father is a former university professor who holds a PhD and is now a prominent Kenyan politician, and her mother is the director of a cancer foundation who also runs her own communication company. Her extended family, it seems, also hold their own impressive credentials, the lawyers, doctors, Harvard Business School graduates and so on. This is great—go team Africa!
Lupita’s story is even greater because the last thing most African parents will entertain is the idea of their sacrifices going towards funding a liberal arts degree and career, especially one in fine arts. Law, medicine, finance, nursing, pharmacy, and the sciences we are told will secure our future, because it is a tough world out there and that is what will secure job and residency or citizenship. It is hard to argue against. After all, only a very few can comfortably support themselves off of the fine arts or will even get to reach Lupita’s level of success. This is especially so for minorities and those in economically challenged nations.
Unquestionably, African cultures fully embrace the arts—the continent has produced many great writers, poets, musicians, sculptures, painters, and other creative. Storytelling through recitation, theater, and dance is part of the norm. The arts, however, are something most Africans believe you should familiarize yourself with for cultural enrichment. As a career, they are seen as pursuable only after you’ve earned that “respectable” degree and job. It is all sound advice, but who then is left to tell our stories and reflect our cultures, from an African perspective? Who is best positioned to do so?
Recently, I attended the New African Films Festival in the Washington DC area. It featured movies by African scriptwriters, directors, and filmmakers. Most of the movies included actors from the countries they represented, and were shot in their respective countries. I was struck by the richness, depth, and diversity that was represented on screen. Usually, we don’t get to see the complexity of African characters and cultural issues—Africans are mostly presented as one-dimensional characters playing the usual roles. The background characters in a scene set in a generic Africa, the gun-carrying soldiers or pirates, the mother seeking healthcare for her child at a refugee camp, and so on. Prominent roles are often played by non-Africans who often fail to fully express intricate African mannerisms and expressions.
While watching one movie from Ethiopia, it dawn on me that I had never seen the country presented that way. The scenes of Ethiopia were beautiful: plush green grasslands and woodlands, colorful valleys, and vibrant city life. I had gotten used to seeing dilapidated or bullet riddled buildings, and dry harsh deserts when Ethiopia was depicted. I also realized I had not seen Ethiopian females depicted in such strong, inspirational, and complex manners. The movie, Difret, is based on a true story. It addresses the issue of child bride abduction through the experiences of a 14 year old teenage girl and the female attorney that sets off to save her life once she is charged with murder for killing her abductor as she tries to escape and defend herself.
Also striking was a remark that one of the movie’s producers made during a post screening discussion. Dr. Mehret Mandefro—an America-Ethiopian physician, anthropologist, Harvard graduate, Fulbright Scholar, and White House Fellow who produces visual ethnographies about the social determinants of health—spoke about how she has seen more success in raising awareness about the issues she cares about through filmmaking than through scholarly publications or other advocacy efforts.
Other movies, like Nigeria’s Half of the Yellow Sun or Kenya’s Something Necessary, had a similar effect—they offered fuller representations of their countries, cultures, and peoples to publics that gets limited opportunities to see or hear about a non-generic Africa. These stories were presented and told by those who, because of their privileges (be it in the form of membership to a certain class, citizenship to a developed nation, financial means, family background, education, career, or whatever else), are better positioned to do so, without sacrificing to much of their future. After all, who else is best positioned to do so?
The idea of finding Lupitas who don’t come from upper- and middle-class Africa, or have some other status that can be seen as an advantage or privilege is unlikely. So privileged or not, hers is a story to embrace. It is a reminder of the importance of nurturing all types of talents and the benefits that come with doing so.