Moving From Changing the African Narrative to Owning It
Growing up in a family that travelled constantly and having to adapt from a very young age to different cultures at a moment’s notice is the kind of story that is often met with mixed reviews. “Sounds so glamorous and adventurous!”; “I would have loved to travel so much as a kid!”; “What a shame; you must have been so lonely!”; “Must have been difficult to make any real friends!” Everyone has an opinion- do children benefit from changing their environments often or does it impede their growth process?
I loved traveling as a child. I loved meeting new people, trying new things, and the challenge of adapting to new environments. My family lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Belgium and Portugal, amongst other countries. I was a fast learner, especially when it came to languages. I absorbed my surroundings and I was in turn easily absorbed by them. When we moved to South Africa in the early 90’s, a new challenge awaited me- learning to speak English. French was my first language and I learned to speak Portuguese in Lisbon when I was eleven years old. I had been obsessed with the English language for years, mainly from watching badly lip-synched movies and wondering what the characters sounded like in real life. As soon as we arrived in Johannesburg, my mother took me out of the French school system and threw me into a South African school, to sink or swim. The first few months of school were terrible and it took me what seemed like an eternity to make friends. But I had a secret. I was addicted to soap operas and would rush through my homework after school so that I could catch an episode of “Days of Our Lives.” I was so desperate to follow the storyline that I would watch the show for hours. Before I knew it, my determination paid off. I went from understanding a full episode to having a vocabulary that was developed enough to hold a conversation. Everything else flowed from there. I could finally fit in.
It feels strange to admit this now but my love for all things communications started with “Days of Our Lives”. It dawned on me very early on that media had the power to change people’s lives and that stories can, quite literally, shape the world in which we live. I started my career in communications more than twenty years ago. At the time, I could not have guessed where I would end up. From Channel O to MTV, I carved my niche as a multilingual presenter in Africa and Europe. Soon, my curiosity led me to explore content production in New York. Coming back to the continent, I was lured into the world of public relations. Now, I own and manage my own pan-African public relations firm, the Africommunications Group (ACG). All roads, however, lead to my mission: to enable the ownership of the African narrative by Africans.
I believe that stories shape perceptions and perceptions shape behaviour. In our efforts to transform Africa into the continent we all dream of, it is pointless to focus on shaping or changing the behaviour of Africans without taking into consideration their perceptions of the world- these are catalysed by the stories we are told. We must start with storytelling if we hope to incentivize a shift in behaviour. Stories are important and powerful. I am convinced that there can be no sustainable transformation in Africa until we are able to truthfully share our stories with each other and the world, in a way that works for us and doesn’t reinforce the hegemonic relationship we have cultivated with the West- one that we have unfortunately grown accustomed to. As long as we are not documenting and sharing our stories, the narrative about Africa will remain out of our control. When the world says Africa is the “lost continent”, we will believe and manifest that reality; and when it says Africa is “rising”, we will buy into that narrative too, without applying any critical thinking to the concept. When are we going to start defining Africa’s rise or lack thereof for ourselves? When are we going to break the cycle of dependency altogether and reclaim our truth, starting with our stories?
Having travelled the length and breadth of our beautiful continent, I am convinced that the time to “change” the African narrative is long gone. It is time for Africans to fully, consciously and deliberately start owning the narrative of the continent. The clients we attract at ACG are fellow believers in the power of narrative and storytelling. Whether they are private equity funds or innovation leaders, they share our conviction that shaping Africa and transitioning from a continent that is “rising” to one that moves beyond potential has to start with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others. What I bring to my work is a deep desire to tell the stories of Africa’s promise, capabilities and realities. We see enough of the stereotypical images of Africa, and volumes have been written on the subject, so I am not concerned with the condemnation of the Western media or other narrative-drivers who participate in the denigration of Africa’s image. I unapologetically declare my main concerns to be: 1. to tell Africa’s positive stories of transformation, triumph and success; 2. to campaign for the ownership of storytelling platforms by Africans for Africa’s stories. The latter is a logical extension of the first- we cannot hope to tell our stories without bias if we don’t own the platforms on which they are told. Take books, for example. Access to statistics on how many Africans write books are almost impossible to find. Hans M. Zell, in his paper entitled How many books are published in Africa?, points out that “the need for more reliable statistical information about African book publishing output, and aspects such as book imports and exports for each country, has always been chronically difficult to obtain, and the picture has become progressively worse in recent years.” Yet, access to statistics of authors from Europe, America and Asia are much easier to find and chances are, they are higher than those of African authors. Africans must start creating their own platforms for storytelling, publishing and distribution so that we don’t continue to be imprisoned by the status quo.
I am passionate about ACG and the work we do because it gives me an opportunity to position our clients’ African stories of impact with a wider audience. Our pan-African experience helps. My team and I understand that a public relations campaign for the Nigerian market requires a different approach to the execution of the same in Rwanda. Research and insights drive our thinking; our own African experience guides our instincts. And in all we do, we are committed to weaving in a narrative that uplifts and empowers Africans while re-positioning the continent’s narrative. We hope that, through our work, we can bring more positive stories of Africa to the fore. We are storytellers first and foremost. This is a conscious choice in our quest to shift perceptions of the continent, internally and externally. We believe this shift will lead to behaviour change- by Africans and our global counterparts- that will benefit the continent in the long term.
Back to South Africa. More than 20 years since I learned English from a popular soap opera, the issues of storytelling, perceptions and behaviour resurfaced during the recent xenophobic attacks that notoriously put the country under the global spotlight. I will not dive into the murky waters of the socioeconomic and political factors that brought about the attacks. On a personal level, I was saddened to see that, as in so many cases where behaviour is dealt with in isolation, storytelling was not part of the discussion. Yet, I remember clear discriminatory behaviour against foreigners in the school I attended all those years ago. Songs were made, children were taunted and insults were thrown around with little consequence. The narrative of separation and difference was allowed to infiltrate the fabric of South African black society for years. This narrative influenced perceptions about foreigners in South Africa. And we all know that the resulting behaviour was devastating to victims of the attacks on all sides. Watching the news during those dark days, I wondered if things would have been different if all parties involved had confronted the “African foreigners in South Africa” narrative back when I was a student. What if, instead of watching “Days of Our Lives”, children my age were offered television shows that portrayed tolerance and acceptance of people who come from different countries, stories of similarities between Africans, or films that confirmed that they are a part of a wider African family with intertwined roots that date back to our forefathers? I bet their perceptions of Africa, themselves and “the other” would not have led to devastating conflict twenty years later, but to constructive dialogue.
We have a long way to go in documenting, retelling and reimagining our African stories. However, there is no better time than the present. Much work has already been done and many have paved the way. At ACG, we’re playing our part. The ultimate goal is to own our stories so that we can own our future. As the African proverb goes, “until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Until we insist on owning our stories, our rise or fall will be recounted to fit agendas that are not our own.
By Mimi Kalinda
Managing Director of the Africommunications Group (ACG)