By REMI ADEKOYA
On a Polish TV station last weekend, I was asked to comment on a documentary depicting life in the slums of Katanga, Uganda, aired in the context of what was described as a “demographic ticking bomb” facing the east African nation.
The documentary was a Polish journalist’s take on the latest UN projections, which forecast an impending population boom in Africa. The number of people on the continent is expected to double from 1 to 2 billion within the next three decades. His message was clear: with so many young men coming into the labour market and only a few jobs to go round, conflict, possibly war, is simply a matter of time.
“Does the whole of Africa have this demographic problem?” the show’s host asked me. My first instinct was to retort: “Why do you focus on the slums and not on the positive stories? Why search out the most miserable environments to film in and continue propagating negative stereotypes of Africa as a nest of poverty and problems?”
But this would have been an overly defensive reaction, one which would render me the hypersensitive African who prefers to imply racial bias rather than address uncomfortable issues. After all, the images of misery I had just seen were not fabricated, they were real.
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So I said that while a population boom would create many additional challenges for African governments, especially in the sphere of social services, a huge labour pool also meant opportunities for rapid economic growth, provided enough jobs are created for the millions of young Africans who will soon be of working age. But my interlocutors didn’t seem too convinced about the “opportunities” bit, and I left the studio feeling quite peeved.
However, on the way back home, I started wondering whether I should be annoyed with white journalists who broadcast embarrassing images of poverty in Africa, or at the African governments who tolerate and often create such misery in the first place? Much criticism has been levelled at western media for negative coverage of Africa. They have been accused by some of ignorance and racism. In many cases, this criticism is justified. But as a journalist, I also know news media in general (African included), tends to focus on the negative and not the positive.
Bad news sells well. People feel better about their lives when they hear others have bigger problems than them. A European who’s unhappy he can’t get a mortgage, will, however unwittingly, likely see his life in brighter lights after watching footage of people with no electricity, no running water and little food to eat. But why do many Africans, myself included, feel so strongly about how Africa is portrayed in western media? After all, the average Brit or German doesn’t give two hoots how their country is covered in say, Nigerian or Kenyan media. Europeans are not emigrating to Africa in large numbers so they simply don’t need to care how Africans view them.
But Africans living abroad, fret about the perception of their continent and its inhabitants because their future often depends on the opinions of those in whose country they reside. For instance, I know British passport holders in the UK who keep secret their Nigerian roots at work because of the negative perceptions created by the country’s notorious e-scammers. Also, many African professionals in Europe I have spoken to get exhausted by constantly being underestimated in their workplaces because it is assumed that since they grew up and went to school in a poor, backward environment. A Nigerian, Kenyan or Zambian university graduate working in Europe will likely have to overperform in their job before they are accorded the same respect. Of course there are many different and often positive stories to be told from Africa’s 54 diverse countries. But Africa currently has no microphone of its own on the global stage, with which to tell its stories its own way.
It has to wait in line hoping others lend it theirs from time to time. That won’t do.Al Jazeera has succeeded in giving Arabs a voice on the global stage. Where is Africa’s answer to Al Jazeera? Ultimately though, it is only irrefutable and irreversible economic development that can transform global perceptions about African countries. Nothing burnishes reputation quite as quickly as success.