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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.