Painting Africa with a single brush: the dangers of telling a single story
Western media has a tendency to tell “a single story” of Africa, and particularly so of African women, which creates a stereotypical perception of Africa and opens the door for unhelpful white saviourism.
Last year, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah recently released an anthology called The Sex Lives of African Women, which explores the sexual lives of women in several countries in Africa. The book was borne out of a desire to diversify the image of African women and their sexuality in media, since, as Sekyiamah has said, the image we are often presented with is one where African women are “repressed or constantly pregnant or they don’t have sanitary towels or they’ve been cut [as part of female genital mutilation]”.
This image obviously misses out on a lot of complexity, but is symptomatic of how the West tends to view Africa: as one uniform region which is poverty-stricken, disease-laden, steeped in violence and conflict, and dependent on Western aid. The image has been perpetuated by Western charities and media. For example, a study showed that in six European countries, “social and political instability”, “violence”, “death”, “corruption”, and “poverty” are the most common terms used in relation to Africa, and in total the coverage on Africa only accounts for 4% of all the foreign news coverage. This means that when people in the West hear about Africa, it tends to be one-sided and very negative.
In the UK, the charity Comic Relief has received extensive criticism, including from David Lammy, for tattooing “images of poverty in the African continent” to encourage donations and for only presenting “Africans as helpless victims to be pitied” rather than equals. Comic Relief also has a history of sending white celebrities to make films about those living in poverty, and presenting Western donations, mosquito nets, food parcels and digging wells as the solution to everything. This white saviourism gives the impression that African people are incapable of helping themselves, and that the same universal solutions can be applied everywhere. It completely disregards the grassroots projects happening all over Africa, established by African people, and that African people who live outside the continent send back more money to their families than the Western world sends in aid.
Aside from children, who are often the faces of campaigns, women are largely presented as oppressed victims who need to be saved. It is true that there are deep, entrenched inequalities which women face. Gender-based violence is pervasive and maternal mortality rates are high in several African countries — especially so in South Sudan, Chad and Sierra Leone — and in many countries women and girls struggle to obtain education and participate, economically and politically. But, equally, it is important to remember that progress is being made: for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa maternal mortality rates have gone down by 40% since 2000, the average number of years girls attend school has increased substantially in the past 50 years — in Morocco, the number has increased from 2.2 to 13 years, and in Burkina Faso the number has increased from a single year to 8.7 — and the political participation of women is increasing in many Africa countries, most notably Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, and Senegal, who are all in the top ten countries in the world with the highest number of women’s representation in Parliament. While economic aid and charities are helpful in some cases, progress is mostly made through grassroots initiatives led by local activists who are familiar with the particular contexts in their countries.
These activists are often women. Some examples include Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi who founded the Feminist Coalition, which focuses on women’s economic and political participation in Nigeria, and, during 2020, they crowdfunded food and medical assistance for SARS protestors. Stella Nyanzi is a political activist and poet in Uganda who uses her poetry to protest against Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni. Senior Chief Theresa Kachindamoto in Malawi has annulled more than 2,500 child marriages in Malawi and sent the children back to school. She has also challenged gender norms by being a woman in a position of authority, has convinced other royal families to appoint women as chiefs so that there are now 55 female chiefs, and has worked to curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These are only some of the many women who work for change in all parts of Africa, living proof that they do not need to be saved by white Westerners.
Western media needs to stop painting Africa with this single brush, or, in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, stop telling a “single story of Africa”, and particularly of African women. This single story robs people of dignity, makes it hard to recognise equal humanity, and opens the door for unhelpful white saviourism.
At JAN Trust we empower minority women and work to combat stereotypes by speaking out against racism and all forms of discrimination. We continuously challenge the media’s portrayal of marginalised groups and those who are not white men in the West.