“Negative image of Africa” is the title of this discussion, and this title does something with me.
I was born in Africa, in a country called Zambia. One of those countries on the continent no one ever hears anything about because it’s peaceful, and therefore “boring”.
When I was three my parents moved back to the Netherlands. For the next 25 years I grew up in a country modern, cold and rich. My ideas of Africa were formed at the dining table, with a father working to alleviate poverty and talking of Africa.
I remember us closing the curtains often on a Sunday evening to watch Super 8 movies and slide shows from our years in Africa. The images coming from those slides and movies were drastically different from what I saw on the television: a continent with hunger, famine, flies on eyes and continuous wars.
Eventually, it was the TV image that won from what came from the Super 8s. And I too started to slowly lose an interest, to eventually years later increasingly abhor the continent where my roots lay, my cradle rocked. Until…
Until the day came I flew to Africa again, this time as a journalist. To cover a peace festival in of all places: Timbuctu. The smells of my youth overtook me, and I sensed a feeling of home that I had never felt before. A year later I moved to Nairobi, Kenya. As a correspondent. My job took me to all those places I had seen on TV before.
And now, 13 years later I have permanent residence for South Africa.
What has always amazed me is this clear need amongst so many people to have these extremely outspoken ideas about Africa. It’s a verbal war between Afro-pessimists versus Afro-optimists. But where are those who manage to look at Africa without the need to have a judgment, and instead just observe ‘what is’…?
It is actually possible to experience Africa in its amazingly full spectrum of “the best” all the way to “the worst” and learn from it, without continuously having to change this or that. It is this deeply felt desire amongst “outsiders” to interfere that has done incredible harm to all of Africa: its natures, its peoples, its cultures.
Why is Africa the only continent about which so many people have so many outspoken opinions?
Yes, it is possible to look at Africa without judgments, without opinions, and just be mesmerised by the intense ways in which life offers itself here to whomever is able to open up to it. How I know that? It is what my own book on men in Africa (Spots of a leopard: on being a man) makes people say: “Finally a book in which the author has managed NOT to look at Africa as if it’s a zoo!!!”
Perceptions about Africa are stubborn. And one thing I learned to my dismay and shock while working as a journalist for media houses in Europe was this: “News is not about ‘new things’, news is about strengthening cliches.” The cliche about Africa is that only bad stuff comes from Africa, and so that’s what “we” (journalists working here) tend to emphasise: that nothing but trouble originates here.
Oh yes, apart from the odd story about Africa being the cradle of humanity of course.