Africa FocusFor three days in March, delegates to the Africa International Media Summit (AIMS) pondered the role of African women in the media as part of the broader discussion on reshaping the image of Africa. Held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was the fourth annual summit, leaving one more to go in the five-year “Re-brand Africa” mission undertaken by the Africa Union, African Development Bank, African Communications Agency, the Diaspora Africa Forum, the Africa Business Roundtable and the Economic Community of West African States.

For centuries, Africa has been the victim of other people’s information domination, these groups charge. “Historically, Africa’s image in the world has been largely managed by non-African interests and institutions. Those who had the means to create information and to disseminate it widely had pre-empted the definition of what was good, what was right, what was important and what was civilized,” the AU said in a paper it presented at an “Experts Meeting” in Cairo, Egypt, in November 2005, on key challenges and opportunities in creating a Pan-African radio and television channel. “In general, even the achievements in science, in art and culture that were African in origin or inspiration, were often attributed to others, because their provenance was obscured in Africa’s inability to proclaim its stake. Through literature, visual arts, the mass media, and popular culture, the agenda of world discourse has been hijacked by other cultures and peoples for a long time,” the AU declared.

As a result, Africa’s image tends to consist mostly of negatives: bizarre happenings, quaint customs, natural and man-made disasters, hunger, disease and poverty. “Images of starving women and children, of disturbed families seeking refuge, of communities torn asunder by conflict: that is what others have wanted to portray as the finality of a ‘hopeless Africa,’” the AU said.

A “winning Africa brand” will be based on stories and images of the continent’s historical and current contributions to human experience in various fields, as well as its potential for exceptional progress in the future. “So that while not indulging in new distortions of reality, by underplaying difficulties and condoning wrongdoing, the new African-derived information about Africa will be able to highlight  the positive, and  give prominence to ideas and phenomena that have either been deliberately obscured by others or that were previously little known.”

That “winning brand” is slowly coming to light, thanks to the entrepreneurship of Africans and people of African descent worldwide. Information about Africa is more widely available than ever before, through cultural products, films, videos, music, publications, Web sites, news and other programs. One example is The Network Journal’s first book, Africa: Strictly Business: The Steady March to Prosperity, by yours truly, which was published in March.

Sometimes, the fruit of such entrepreneurship leaves a bittersweet taste. Blacks Without Borders, for example, Stafford and Judy Bailey’s documentary about African-Americans who went to South Africa and found the dream of wealth and social gratification that they could not find in America, spurred positive and negative responses alike from Black audiences in the United States. Some argued that it was important to see Blacks from the Diaspora going to Africa and becoming successful. Others were dismayed by what they saw as obscene materialism, while still others spoke with foreboding of a new kind of imperialist, this time in Black skin.
This sad situation only reinforces the imperative of substantive dialogue between the two sides in forums such
as AIMS.

What is truly “dangerous,” says one college student, is the type of film or documentary that ostensibly sets out to shed light on the damage to Africa wrought by Western policies, but which ends up perpetuating the negative image of Africa as described by the AU. This particular student spoke angrily after a viewing in New York of What Are We Doing Here? a documentary by four brothers — Brandon, Nicholas, Daniel and Tim Klein — on why aid to Africa in the last five decades has been largely ineffective and often harmful.  The student and other Blacks fumed at seeing images that impede the continent’s international relations and economic development. Etched in the minds of the standing-room-only, more-than-90-percent-non-Black audience is a land of HIV/AIDS, famine, disaster, malnourished children surrounded with flies; of war, violence and conflict, tribalism, dictatorship, corruption, poverty and filth.

As Ethiopian-born historian Yosef ben-Jochannan (Dr. Ben) says, “Until the lion learns to speak, the story will always be that the hunter killed
the lion.”