If I were to share the title of Dayo Olopade’s book, The Bright Continent, with the average American, I would expect them to be confused. Africa, a bright continent? How could it be considered bright? What could be bright about a land filled with nothing but civil wars, AIDS, and extreme poverty?
These misconceptions of Africa (sub-Saharan Africa in particular) and its people are no accident. They are due in large part to mainstream media outlets and what they choose to cover in their reports from African nations. Reporters almost exclusively focus on the region’s failures and calamities such as the three mentioned in the previous paragraph (plus famines, poaching, massive landslides, and so on). If one were to rely wholly on these portrayals of Africa, they would likely dismiss it as a forsaken wasteland incapable of amounting to anything meaningful in the geopolitical arena.
Yet in spite of this gloomy coverage, Africa’s future truly is bright like Olopade contends. Solutions for at least some of its (seemingly) never-ending problems are slowly emerging, and are largely concocted by Africans themselves. So why is there such divergence from these promising prospects in the media’s portrayals?
I believe these paradoxical perceptions continue due to a colonialist thought process that has subconsciously been passed down from generation to generation, both in the U.S., and the West in general. However, in the not-too distant future, sub-Saharan Africa could easily join North America, western Europe, and east Asia as a leading region whose opinions/actions merit careful consideration and respect.
Since colonial times, Westerners have been accustomed to sub-Saharan Africa and its people being presented as victims of atrocity. David Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost offers an insightful glimpse into the early days of this tendency. It is worth noting that throughout Hochschild’s examination of the Congo’s colonial history, both the Belgian oppressors who dominated the area and the activists who fought the Belgians to improve conditions for the natives adopted this victim framework in their reporting. The Belgians claimed that by colonizing the Congo, they would subsequently save its people from the Arab slave trade. Edmund Morel and his followers, on the other hand, sought to raise awareness of the barbarities inflicted against the natives within their own societies. But in order to achieve this aim, they relied heavily on painful descriptions of kidnappings, fatal beatings, horrid working conditions, etc. No matter which side of the issue one proclaimed to be on, they were imbibed with the widely published notion that Africans were victims who could do nothing to help themselves.
This tradition of victimization seems to enable an unfortunate confirmation bias in the minds of most Westerners. When unforeseen circumstances arise in the continent, such as the spread of malaria or a violent military coup, Western reporters and their readers/viewers view the events not as stand-alone happenstance, but as part of the endless cycle of disasters leveled against the poor, dark-skinned Africans who cannot save themselves. With each misfortune, the bias grows more entrenched and harder to dismiss.
In addition to misguiding Westerners about the true status of sub-Saharan Africa and its people, this confirmation bias serves a second purpose: blinding them to efforts made by Africans to improve their lot in life. After all, the perpetual-victim framework dictates that Africans need the West’s help to alleviate their conditions. Therefore, anything done to this end by Africans that does not involve Western support, or fit the West’s mold of development, can be readily dismissed as a hapless sufferer’s vain attempts at fixing their problems.
Olopade notes several examples of this uniquely African drive to lift themselves up that are rarely, if ever, covered in Western media. On a broad scale, there is the informal/gray economy not recognized as legitimate by Western standards, yet amasses $10 trillion worldwide and sustains millions of people. Then there are more specific cases, such as the healthcare workers who re-purpose shipping containers into small-scale health clinics. Or the homemade Nollywood films that have exploded in popularity throughout the world. Olopade even lauds email scammers for possessing an indomitable kanju spirit.
These instances illustrate an ingenuity hardly ever highlighted in the West’s accounts of sub-Saharan Africa. Olopade, on the other hand, is quick to point out (and continually remind) that these entrepreneurial, homegrown developments are taking place all over the African continent without the West’s help; sometimes they happen in spite of the West’s help. Either way, this flies in the face of the colonialism-inspired assumptions maintained by the majority of Westerners.
With that in mind, I agree with Olopade’s assessment of Africa as a bright continent. A recently posted TED talk projects that by the year 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will hail from Africa due to fertility rate trends in Africa and the developed world. Most of them will be in the prime of their lives, developing innovative solutions to their homelands’ major issues as Olopade repeatedly stresses. Such prospects detract credibility from the Western paradigm of sub-Saharan Africa as a land of hopeless victims, and lends credibility to the notion that Africa will elevate themselves to a region of supreme significance in world affairs in the not-too distant future.