AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

The Danger of a Single TED Talk
Elliot Ross | October 2nd, 2012

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Africa.com have made a movie that’s going to change the way you think about Africa. If the trailer is any indication of what the film’s about, then we’ve reached only one conclusion: Africa is officially boring. We’ve blogged about this kind of boosterism before, including Vogue Italia’s special “Rebranding Africa” issue earlier this year, which decided UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon should be the continent’s new face, salivated over Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt oil minister, and scrupulously avoided any mention of anything “sad, trashy or poor”.

To cut a long critique short, we’re pretty sure Africa isn’t a brand and we find the clamour for “positive news” from Africa inane and condescending. Plus if Africa.com’s movie really does go on for an hour, as has been threatened, it’s going to be unbearable.

Who exactly is the audience for this kind of thing? It seems to be about attracting investment, but the style of the film is more likely to appeal to the development crowd — people who likely already consider themselves availed of a “positive” idea of Africa — than to hard-nosed capitalists. It will also appeal to all those Nigerians who were so outraged to see Lagos’ poor turn up on MTV the other day through the offices of Rick Ross, apparently making them look bad.

In the old days we got starving (or sometimes smiling) children and Bono. That was the age of aid. Nowadays it’s all about trade and what you get is this weird neoliberal romance where everybody’s middle class and desperate to show you their mobile phone.

The Africa.com initiative is very much a project conceived in, and aimed at, the United States (their CEO used to be a Goldman Sachs banker) and I can only think that on some level it arises (belatedly) from an anxiety at the way the Americans have been unceremoniously elbowed aside by the Chinese in recent years when it comes to making money in Africa.

The movie promises the usual “pro-Africa” cast of characters, and of course that means sitting through yet another viewing of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”. (It would be nice if Adichie did another one called “The Danger of a Single TED Talk” because the army of online disciples who force everyone to watch “The Danger of a Single Story” over and over again show no sign of letting up in their exuberant rejection of her central argument in that video.)

We also get Nigeria’s neoliberal finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Diezani Allison-Madueke’s invitation to appear in the film must have got lost in the post). Okonjo-Wahala cracks a joke about investment in telecoms, the point being that Nigeria has a lot of investment in telecoms but “nobody” knows about it. The joke isn’t all that funny because actually loads of people already know about Nigeria’s telecoms boom. Even Arsenal FC seem to be aware of it.

No doubt there’s plenty more of this sort of stuff to come, but this “new” way of looking at Africa already feels like it’s out of date.

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36 thoughts on “The Danger of a Single TED Talk

    • I have to agree. Elliot, I like this site, and I like alot of what you post, but this is cynicism over the edge. The majority of African’s want exactly what you and I have: a cell phone, a computer, a 46″ flat panel TV, a bank account with money in it, credit cards, decent furniture, lots of shoes, jogging apparel, a nice bicycle, recreational stuff, etc, etc. And why shouldn’t they? I do not like the materialistic obsession of the west, but it is viral and infectious as capitalism. Regretably or not, Africa will not be made into someones’ interpretation of nirvana any more than Canada or the USA will be. And frankly, I find Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story to be incredibly moving, and if the reaction on the faces of my studnets faces is any indication, they do too.

  1. I really like your writing Elliot, and agree with a lot of it. Whenever Africa is discussed, everything but the heart of the matter is talked about, and that’s neoliberalism, imperalism, capitalism, and racism. But seriously, be careful not to turn into one of those people who just shit on everything.

  2. I too am quite curious to see which corporate or ngo effort (because we know they are usually quite taken by music videos and the like) will impress this crowd.

  3. Agree with both of the above comments. This article doesn’t get it. There is still a lot of ignorance in the Western world about Africa. The idea of ‘the hopeless continent’ (A cover story of The Economist magazine in 2000) is still pervasive, and this movie is clearly an attempt to disabuse ignorant people of the notion that Africa is forever poor, forever riddled with conflict and forever hopeless. These efforts to fight the hegemonic discourse of Africa as a hopeless continent will sometimes come across as tacky, but they are respectable steps in the right direction to educate all and let them know Africa is on the way up. It’ll take time, but this movie is an admirable effort to help bury the idea of the hopeless continent that still clouds too many people’s understanding of Africa.

    • I think it is good for AIAC to keep asking which way is “up” – sometimes it can’t be helped if that gets up the noses of those who are on “top” – but sometimes, it needs to be said in ways that invite, engage and challenge beyond more than the like-minded who will clap at what may be felt by others as barbs cloaked within criticism

  4. I like the debate. On the one hand, I understand that stupid people need to be shown that Africans and Africa rock. On the other hand, if they are so stupid, it shouldn’t matter what they think. Why should I have to prove that I just rock, that black is beautiful, that it doesn’t get finer than Serena, it doesn’t get hotter than Michelle, and they ARE black. Black like Bill Clinton. Black like Ba-rock!

    And weirdly I’ve gone from absolutely loving Chimamanda’s voice to bloody hating it. #onelove

  5. For Africa to me… is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.
    Maya Angelou

    the truth is our world politics are to be ashemed of.

  6. Elliott while the title of the article is mildly witty, the tone of your article takes the same single minded viewpoint that many elite “Africanists” take: you alone clearly understand how to speak about Africa, therefore anyone else who does it and doesn’t subscribe to your perspective must be wrong and confused. What I find inane and condescending is your inability to support any kind of message about Africa that isn’t sarcastic and dangerously elitist.

    While I don’t agree with half-hearted attempts to whitewash the past and the current challenges, I also don’t see the utility in attacking people who decide to put together a project that is interesting and shares with me information about the continent that I didn’t know before. There are 54 countries in Africa and no offense to your website, but you can’t be the definitive voice about what’s going on for 1 billion people.

    Just like NGOs who use poverty and hardship to milk donors shouldn’t be the only ones speaking about Africa neither should privileged bloggers who attack other people’s projects. I think your perspective is interesting but I think the point that you’re missing about all of these new projects is that Africa is not a single story. Your perspective is valid but there are other stories to tell as well. So while I will occasionally watch a documentary about wars and corruption, I also want to watch a film that tells me about an interesting scholarship program that is integrating Johannesburg previously all-white schools. Africa is multifaceted and I refuse to allow one person, to decide what messages should and should not be shown. That includes you.

    I think the trailer is interesting and I look forward to seeing the rest of the film and other projects that encourage a diversity of voices. That is clearly needed in the African media space.

      • Amen to that.
        I learn the most from this blog when it talks about specific events or people with a critical eye. That is what helps to refine my ever-evolving understanding of ‘Africa’. Not the constant criques and discussions of discourse. Keep it real, people!

      • To say that this sort of film is unnecessary suggests that you live in a very limited world view, Mr. Ross. It is noted that you may be familiar with many of the themes in the film, but it does not appear that you are the target audience for this film.

        The use of popular music, and the large user base of Africa.com, which I have read has millions of readers in 200 countries around the world, all suggests that this film is intended to reach a much broader, mass audience that is not very familiar with Africa. If that is the case, then kudos to Africa.com for expanding the knowledge base about Africa.

        With a name like Africa.com, my guess is that the site serves a range of people, including a large number who are at level of sophistication akin to Africa 101 in college. This crowd needs a primer on Africa.

        It seems unlikely, as you suggested, that the intended audience would be “the development crowd.” I suspect that the development crowd has a more serious agenda than engaging with popular music such as that by R&B singer Lira and hip hop artist MI, who are featured in this film. This film seems “fun,” including its title, which is catchy. I really get the idea that the film is targeted at regular folks worldwide, including Africans who should know more about what is happening across their continent, and African Americans who surprisingly are among the least informed about Africa.

        I find this type of criticism, Mr. Ross, to be very self absorbed, as you do not seem to understand the world beyond your own academic circle of well informed emerging markets experts, and what value a piece of art may have for someone who does not operate in those leagues. There are many highly educated and sophisticated people in this world, who still have little idea of what is happening in Africa today.

        I think that this trailer is very exciting, and I expect that the movie will be as well. I have never seen Africa presented in this format, and encourage you to be more thoughtful in your reviews, as this type of reckless criticism, aimed at those committed to elevating Africa’s perception in the world order, are all to commended, even if the particulars do not suit your own taste.

  7. So I kept seeing that trailer and I refused to watch it but I did just so I could be somewhat informed before I read your piece. I think this point sums it up just right:

    “In the old days we got starving (or sometimes smiling) children and Bono. That was the age of aid. Nowadays it’s all about trade and what you get is this weird neoliberal romance where everybody’s middle class and desperate to show you their mobile phone.”

    To me it’s no different from racial minorities in the U.S. trying very hard to prove they are not like the negative stereotypes we all receive in the media… that they want to be included in a structure that oppresses them. I think all of that energy can be directed elsewhere.

  8. Oh my, Elliot, you stand accused of being an “elite Africanist.” I still don’t know what to make of that. I suggest the only way to dismiss that accusation is to show us the size of, and artwork in, your New York apartment. If it is more than a 500sq feet and you have even one Yoruba mask in there, the accusation stands!

    I really like the title of the video: Africa Straight Up. I keep thinking of other titles:

    1. Africa on the Rocks.
    2. Africa: shaken, not stirred.
    3. Africa and Tonic.

    What other ways can one serve Africa, beside chilled and with a mini umbrella to boot.

  9. I will come back when I have watched the whole video. For the moment, there is a massive movement going on everywhere to create a story for Africa. All stakeholders are creating a story that suits their ambitions. But most of these stories are “created” and therefore need challenging until we find the one or the 54 narrative or most likely do away with the whole idea. Challenging these things positively is good. Challenging those who challenge is also good. Let’s wait for the video and let’s be kind, it will likely have a good use and likely also be annoying in parts. That is allowed.

    • @Joel: Like you we also want to see “the whole video.” If you read Elliot above he was writing about the trailer; the problem, as many have suggested is that this kind of “documentary” is quite predictable in its politics and have little to do with what ordinary Africans want.

  10. This calls up Coca Cola’s “Billion reasons to believe in Africa” ad campaign. We need voices like these to check the syrup. It’s not being cynical. What is cynical is people using “positive” messages as they seduce their way into the “emerging” Africa, “re-branding” a brave new africa, the new consumers. Where do you think all those Samsung Galaxies are going to go?

  11. I would take the critique more seriously if it came from people who actually understand the African experience. Instead all we get is cynical condescending comments from some know it all white pseudo-intellectual.

  12. Of course, it’s true that there is no single story about Africa and any effort to report something positive might be honoured, but still: There are random stories and there are stories which go straight to the heart. Focusing on consumerism, showing some rich Africans and talking about money investment are in my personal opinion random. What is important, is to point out the human side, the daily struggle of ordinary people, the obstacles they face (which are partly due to the Western world) and the people who support ordinary people like certain NGOs, individuals, civil organisation, politicians etc.

    Humanizing, subjectifying ‘Africa’ means to show it from its own perspective and to ask the viewer to bear with it, instead of complying with some Westerners or with the minority of Africans, who loved to belong to the West.

  13. if this video is really aimed at Americans, then i think it’s sufficient. the levels of ignorance about Africa in the western world are beyond belief! and let’s not mess about, perception can affect business decisions. i found the trailer informative and look forward to the video. it’s a promo thing so i wouldn’t expect much negativity.

    • Me too. And did the post allude (however derisively) to the danger of a single story? How about this lumping of 54 countries (plus the diversity within each) into a synthetic single story? What can up that? Oh, and an aside on Chimamanda — for me, the more I listen to her voice, the more I love it!

  14. Now this is bullshit… Obviously you’re intimidated by the ongoing African awakening! Punk-assed white egotists like you better know that it’s game over for your imperial posture.

    Yes, Chimamanda’s Single Story speech is haunting you, just admit it. She’s a genius, far better than you and your shallow views.

  15. The full movie has been released and it is actually quite balanced. They address poverty, corruption, and failing educational systems but instead of leaving the story there, they look at what people are doing to change it. I suggest everyone take a look. http://youtu.be/qKUVfcXB14w

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