Tshepo Matseba spoke with Mimi Kalinda, host of Talking to Africa, a weekly podcast on Africa Business Radio, and author of a book by the same name in which she shares insights about her journey across the continent in her quest to help leaders understand how cultural dynamics of four major African markets, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa are constantly evolving. She is also the Director of Communications at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), a network of centres of excellence incubating STEM education for Africa’s brightest students, also searching for the next Einstein. She leads Africommunications Group, a pan-African communications firm.
What inspired you to embark on this journey to reposition how the world sees and talks about Africa?
I had what some would consider a very eclectic childhood. I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the child of a Congolese father and a Rwandan mother. I lived in Goma (in eastern DRC) and then Kinshasa until I was about 7 years old. I remember always being comfortable in my own skin and loving my origins, without having much of a frame of reference since I had not yet travelled outside of Africa at that point. My family later lived in Belgium and Portugal, and we eventually settled in South Africa. In Europe, I remember sensing that my roots incited in people a reaction that varied between pity and disdain. Africans were given little respect, and this infuriated me. I would later live in the UK and the US and I rebelled when I realised that Africa was almost always portrayed as an “inferior” continent – uncivilised, dangerous and uninhabitable. The stories that my classmates, colleagues and counterparts in the West believed to be true about Africa were hugely generalised, completely biased and, in many cases, utterly untrue. When I lived in New York, I decided to make my first documentary, Miseducating the World. It explored the impact of the negative images of Africa in the US news media on Africans who live in the US – specifically the prejudice they endure. As a mother, I see my children facing the same prejudice. They have different nationalities because they were born in different countries. How they are treated when we travel as a family sometimes solely depends on what passport they carry, and those with African passports attract more scrutiny and suspicion, even as children. It is because of this unfair and unbalanced narrative of Africa that I felt I needed to make a contribution to repositioning the African story.
Why is there so much misconstrued information about Africa?
The misrepresentation can be deliberate, as our history has shown us, dehumanising and pigeonholing “the other” enables economic, political and ideological domination. Africa’s battle for economic sovereignty is linked to the psychological damage its people have and continue to endure. I also think that there are not nearly enough Africans working together to present a different narrative of the continent. A critical mass of Africans who speak truth to power, both in boardrooms and in political circles, would certainly make a massive difference.
“Most importantly, we share the same ambition: an Africa that is free, prosperous and safe.”
Are African leaders committed to the cause of repositioning the continent globally?
There are certainly leaders who are advocates of positive change and who are repositioning the continent’s image by their own progressive actions. We need many more of these if we are truly going to move the needle towards beneficial transformation. A well thought-out and balanced narrative will most likely increase foreign direct investment and tourism. It's in the interest of our leaders to start paying more attention to how our stories are captured, packaged and told, as well as who tells them.
How does the African Union (AU) see Africa’s narrative?
The African Union sees the African narrative as one which we still have the opportunity to own and mould to suit the interests of Africa. The mere fact that the reforms have been initiated and approved by our heads of state is evidence that the political will is there. Transforming the African narrative is not a matter of just talking about it. There are very concrete actions that must be taken to ensure our reality matches our aspirations.
Are there any practical initiatives that are taking place towards positively changing the narrative within the AU?
The AU reforms essentially aim to benefit Africa in three ways: The AU will finance its own budget which will make it more independent. When you finance your own institutions you're in charge of your own destiny. The AU is also pushing for its administration to become more merit-based and efficient. This will deliver results for Africans on numerous mandates, including the full realisation of Agenda 2063. Another key initiative is to advocate for unity of purpose amongst all African states so that they can all speak with one voice on the global stage. Africa’s fragmented approach to international relations has not worked in its favour. The punch of a closed fist has more impact than the slap of an open hand.
How do you translate such a noble concept/idea into practical action in a village, city, business and everyday conversation?
We need to ensure that the ordinary African understands the relevance and purpose of the AU and the reforms being implemented. These reforms will bring us closer as a continent, enable more trade and economic growth and increase freedom of movement across borders, and thus become champions for change.
Is there a single story that we can share about Africa that’s common for all its citizens?
Of course, there are more similarities amongst African citizens than differences. We share a common history of oppression and the pillaging of our resources, which we are trying to overcome. Many of our people share cultural traits and traditions. We even have similar languages and food in many parts of the continent. Most importantly, we share the same ambition: an Africa that is free, prosperous and safe. For the most part, we're all working towards this, and that is our single story.
How will this initiative contribute to various economies of Africa?
The return on investment will be threefold. Firstly, unity and solidarity amongst Africans will increase our ability to favourably negotiate with our global counterparts. There is strength in numbers. Secondly, collaborating to ensure peace and security on the continent is paramount. Issues such as the Chibok girls’ kidnappings and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda should be the concern of every African country. We need to have a pan-African peacekeeping force that's able to avoid and manage these threats internally. Finally, increasing the political and socio-economic integration of Africa can only contribute to our economies as we are able to trade and travel freely across the continent.
How can people get involved?
Changing our narrative starts with us understanding what our current narrative is and its historical context. We need to become more curious about who we are, where we come from as a continent, how we are perceived and why. We don’t travel nearly enough within Africa and without exposure, there can be no understanding. Join the Talking to Africa conversation. You can catch the show every Wednesday at 3pm SAST at Africabusinessradio.com. To find out more about the AU reforms, follow @AU_reforms on Twitter.