Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Yes, there’s more to Africa than poverty

By Zdena Mtetwa

Let us be wary of becoming blindly defensive Africans who deny the challenges faced by our continent, sweeping the dirt under the rug, as though it did not exist.

But with the same breath, let us also be brave Africans who stand for the brand Africa, highlighting the hard work of our people, and acknowledging the things we have done right.

In the past few years I have had three separate encounters that have occupied the same box in my memory.

The first was a few years ago. I attended a photo exhibition of two photographers: a South African who went to Belgium, and a Belgian who went to South Africa, each taking photographs of the other’s country. What stood out in the exhibition was that the South African focused on the beauty of the cities, the wonderful architecture, and the famous statues. Apart from one or two photographs with graffiti, the pictures were clean, as though there was no poverty in Belgium, no slums. The Belgian focused on the least developed areas of South Africa, dust and paper balls, as though there was no middle class in South Africa, no tarred roads, no fancy buildings.

My second encounter was a documentary screened on “Perceptions of Poverty”, produced by an umbrella organisation of volunteers from all over the world. The screening took place in Brussels, inviting interested people to attend. As the lights dimmed and I heard the background music of the beginning of the documentary, I could not help the “here we go again” feeling in my heart. Having watched too many documentaries on poverty, I have also learnt that most of them have a special focus on the great poverty in the African continent, so much that instead of being documentaries on poverty, they in fact ought to be called documentaries on Africa.

Yet contrary to the usual stereotype, this particular documentary impressed me. It was truly based on perceptions of poverty. Yes it included Africa, but it asked people if they felt poor and what their definition of poverty is before labelling them as such. It considered poverty in all parts of the world, including Brussels and London, where homelessness is widespread. It explored both the poverty of want and poverty of the mind. After watching it my summary of it in a phrase was “fair”.

My third encounter would be something that I would process after several weeks of watching a documentary based on the travels of David Livingstone across Africa. I cannot comment much on the other African countries that the explorers went to as I have limited knowledge on them. But fortunately for me, the explorers also went to Zimbabwe, to Bulawayo, where I come from. Their first stop was a bus terminus of long-distance local buses. Upon interviewing one or two people selling food there, the explorer explained that he was travelling across Africa and filming the day-to-day living of people. The explorer’s comments while driving away expressed his worry that there was no middle class in Zimbabwe — this being concluded after being in the country for two minutes. From then on, apart from one other interview, he proceeded to film the poorer areas along the way. Finally he arrived in Victoria Falls, an impressive natural landmark, and indeed the pride of Zimbabwe. He too was impressed by it, like all who see it are, and thus he concluded his trip in Zimbabwe.

At the end of this documentary I was unsettled by ambiguity. Feeling stuck somewhere between the blindly defensive African who denies the challenges of our continent, and the proud African, who knows beyond a doubt what treasures lie in Africa, I made my conclusions.

There was no lie in the photographs portraying South Africa in that photo exhibition. Yet that is not all there is to South Africa. There was no lie in what was filmed about Zimbabwe, but that is not all there is to it.

Some days after the Livingstone documentary people, in and outside my own circle commented on Zimbabwe. Some feared it as a dangerous place, others were worried about the extreme poverty, others thought the only good thing about it was Victoria Falls.

This is how many people now know Zimbabwe. This is what many people whose only source of information on Africa is documentaries think of the continent.

Dangerous! Poor! Dirty!

No. Let us not be blindly defensive Africans who deny the challenges faced by our continent.

Rather, let us claim our place in the sun, we who know the real beauty and the real potential of Africa. We who know where we come from and how far we have come. We who know how brilliantly we shine.

Let us describe Africa in our own words, through our own pictures. Let us confidently raise our heads and say “No! That is not all there is to Africa!”, because if we do not brand Africa …

Zdena is a Mandela Rhodes Scholar from the 2008 cohort. She holds an honours degree in psychology from South Africa and a masters in international relations from the Catholic University in Milan. She is currently working for Save the Children in Brussels.

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    • Stephen

      I travel extensively thorughout Africa; its hard to see it as anything other than dangerous, poor and dirty. That is the overiding impression. South Africa is slighly better than the rest of the continent, but if you compare it with first world countries (like Belgium) it too is dangerous, poor and dirty. By any societal indicator. And sadly, the prognosis is not good.

    • Chris

      I guess we all have to pep talk ourselves….! Just came back from Lagos, Nigeria. Ouch.

    • Noku Katom

      Wow! That’s all I can say, I am inspired…….The challenge I have noticed is that, we do not have resources to expose our country. Ialways have a problem where Istay, people from outside Africa, who come and rake pictures then conclude how we live. The question is, How do we develop “story tellers’ (lack of a better word) of our own?

      Thank you Zdena

    • DumZA

      Thought-provoking piece Zdena, thanks.

      One of the challenges about perceptions many people have about all things Afrikan is the unrelenting need to keep Afrika in that grip of negativity. It is up to us Afrikan of all shades living in and loving this continent, to push for better, realistic perceptions of our continent among ourselves to start with, and every outside keen to keep the negative perceptions to gratify their own feelings of ‘better-than’ will do their own reflections and take whatever course of action they take.

      We make the mistake of thinking that all that is external (read western) is better than whatever is Afrikan. It may be different, but it is not always better. Your example of the Belgian and SA photographers’ exhibitions is informative, but nothing new there.

      We have to stop dancing to the tune of anyone from outside, and thinking that we
      are ‘less than’. It is up to us to re-brand ourselves to ourselves first, before and not allow others to label us and swallow the labels whole as if that is our truth.

      The fact that Afrika has recently had seven out of the top ten fastest-growing economies in the world speaks volumes about our continent’s potential and future prospects. Very little will come of it if we still think that someone else should approve of how good we are. China or the west serve themselves. Its our agenda to set.

      We must stay out of the boxes others create for us… its called human agency, and we need more of it…

    • Lennon

      Back in ’97 when I got my first internet connection, I stumbled across one of the old Java-based chat rooms. I decided to have a go at chatting with people and, not surprisingly, most of the other users were American.

      I started talking to a few of them – most were pretty knowledgable about Africa and the rest of world, as one would expect of citizens of a first-world country.

      On the other hand a few were completely ignorant and the conversations were litttered with the following questions:

      “Are you black?” There were quite a few raised eyebrows (as it were) when the answer was no.

      “Are you on safari?” More disbelief when I said that I live here. At this point I figured it was time to start trolling

      “Do you have wild animals living in your village?” Yes. Our huts are on stilts so that the tigers can’t get to us.

      “Do you travel around on an elephant?” Yes. They are efficient and scare predators away.

      “Do you have telephones?” No. I’m using a small satellite connection, provided by some rich guy who came to visit, which is hooked up to my 386 IBM laptop.

      “Do you have money?” Yes, we use seashells.

      Many couldn’t tell the difference between Africa and the Republic of South Africa and this made it easier to BS them. At the same time I wondered how after all of the worldwide publicity surrounding the end of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 (or at least Lethal Weapon 2) anyone could be that ignorant of Africa.

    • The Creator

      Excellent article.

    • Tofolux

      @ Zdena, afro pessimism is not a coincidence. If you remember the portrayal of africa’s images in the media especially in the northern hemisphere, it consistently flighted images of starving, dying, malnutrition, deserts, despotic govts, poverty stricken areas etc. If you go a little further, the images of South America was protrayed by druglords, cia, burning fields, private armies etc. These images was strategic in nature for the West especially when overview of their economy accompanies a simple analysis. Also, you would note the advent and dominance of the IMF and World Bank during these periods. The question that needs to be raised if those were the images flighted then are they so many africans who are surprised becos rightly so we could claim that those were not our experiences or our realities.Also, why is it that during this period y there were so many govt overthrown? If one is going to stand up and challenge afro pessimism then do so because not only is it the right thing to do but also that we correctly identify who needs to be challenge. Also, we should stop looking at the battle through an elitist middle-class construct. Why should we appease a strident and hostile middle class anyway? When we talk about redress, it is redress for the majority of blacks in general but africans in particular. Redress is not an intellectual exercise but a case for real action.

    • michael

      Lennon, it is a question of perspective, to the average American africa and its people is not on their radar because it does not really influence their lives.To us it is important what happens in the states especially their economy.It is all relative.

    • African

      Great blog – Africa is full of hope, and the old cliches don’t hold true. Africa is becoming far less dependent on aid, and most of Africa is moving towards clean governance and much better leadership. Viva Africa!

    • Lennon

      Not be be “funny” or anything, but the Amish are not on my radar. However, it hasn’t stopped me from reading about them.

      When somebody says *Republic* of South Africa that a person should have the capability to say: “Oh, is that an actual country?” instead of “Oh, you’re from Africa?”. It’s no different to *United States* of America and America.

    • Lennon

      @ Michael: Sorry. I’m not picking on Americans specifically. It’s just that those who knew so little (if not nothing at all) were ‘Mericans.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Reminds me of the story about the four sons and the four seasons.

      Africa can do so much with so little. Our ability to ‘maak ‘n plan’ is beyond awe inspiring, if only our politics would support it. Liberia is inspirational. Bulawayo, not so lots

    • Richard

      Hundreds of thousands of Africans – if not millions – try to reach Europe every year to escape poverty and oppression. Thousands die in the sea by drowning. Tens of thousands or more try to get through Greece, arrive and don’t go home, it goes on and on. It would be nice if Africans confronted this tragic issue, but, as the author says, it is all just swept under the carpet.

    • wisdom

      good article . here in Zim life is not about selling food at a long distance bus terminus . We have a life and we are enjoying it . I wish these people would make fair documentaries based on facts

    • suntosh

      Great article. This is an ongoing debate we need to have.

      3 culprits:
      – the media (of course): both African and international media
      – our leaders and presidents: few manage to make meaningful differences during their terms of office.
      – “us”: many fellow Africans do not promote brand Africa when they travel overseas & get sucked into bemoaning the problems back home.

      3 possibilities:
      – new, innovate media outlets that balance the images of Africa seen internationally
      – leaders that break the shackles of post-colonialism and ethically serve their countries
      – brand ambassadors that challenge Afro-pessimistic views when they travel abroad

      However – we must also critcally (re)think the role of patriotic nationalism within an expanding global village.
      Maybe others can share their insights on this.

    • michael

      Suntosh, cannot agree more especially the evil of patriotic nationalism.

    • Marie

      My partner and I travelled for 6 weeks across Eastern Africa from our entry at Jeddah, (across the Red Sea), to Dar es Salaam, where sadly he had taken ill. We were astounded by the beauty of the country side, their heritage, but most of all, the charm of the people. Yes, poverty is rife, but they still have something of true humanity, that we, financially privileged people have lost. No photographer could capture that.

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