by Priscilla Semphere
A couple of times a year, my family drives to Mphunzi, a small village on the outskirts of Dedza, Malawi. We veer off smooth tarred roads onto a dusty one with ceaseless bumps and potholes- a road more accustomed to hooves and feet than it is to car tires. At intervals, the winding road becomes bracketed by running children, eagerly waving at us as we drive by.
As we draw near my grandmother’s home, the welcome is similar. At the sound of the nearing car, neighbors emerge from their huts to look on. Small children escape from their baths and run across the terrain, the dust they kick up clinging steadfastly to their naked, wet bodies as they totter along, their mothers trailing behind them, calling out greetings.
In many ways, Mphunzi is like my world. A world with the joys and sorrows that anybody with a beating heart is subject to. Births are celebrated. Deaths are mourned. Weddings are danced over. Depths of night after night are slept soundly in. Just like anywhere else. Doubly, it is starkly different. I feel it thickly in the air each time I step out of the car to the gazes of my mostly barefooted cousins. I by no means come from a background of wealth, but standing there with them, I am filled with a sudden awareness of what I have, and what they lack. My gait is self-conscious, uncertain, aware of difference.
Mphunzi is different in that it is, in many ways, the Africa I see when I make web searches. An Africa I saw on occasion, but one I never fully lived in. An Africa with drum circles and crackling fires. An Africa with cracked heels and ploughed fields. An Africa with huts. An Africa with young brides and old customs. Mphunzi is, doubly, the Africa the media shows you, and the Africa the media contorts. It is the Africa whose very existence has been forced to its knees and made to call out for pity. The Africa that many of us have grown to dispel as an inaccurate depiction of ourselves.
In many ways, it is evident that Africans are becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of our realities. Everyday, we leverage social media and become active participants in the construction of the image and understanding that the world has of us. Whereas this is undoubtedly exciting and bears a historical and political significance where our identities are concerned, I believe that there is a lot to be aware and wary of as we seek to rectify Africa’s long-tarnished image.
As I reflect on the efforts that I have witnessed and participated in on social media, I cannot help but think of Mphunzi. Of my grandmother and her maize-field. Of my cousins. With gaps in their teeth and holes in their shorts. With their inventive games, and their laughter that rings loud from the crisp crack of dawn to the setting of the sun. I have realized that often, in my very valid pursuit to be seen as human, to be viewed as equally capable as my western counterparts, my efforts have swept their realities under the rug. I think of them, and wonder whether my hashtags do them service at all.
In countless rants against ignorant attitudes held over Africans, I have heard many an African express, frustrated, that “Africans do not all live in huts” and that “we do not all speak with clicks”. While these statements are completely true, the dismissive air with which these traits- the inhabiting of huts, and the speaking of clicks- and many more, are treated, presents itself as fundamentally problematic. By distancing ourselves from these very real, definitive aspects of multitudes of our African kin, we ‘other’ them, and in doing so, eliminate their realities from the definition of what it means to be the sort of African worth celebrating- the sort of African we want the world the view with newfound dignity.
Often, in our very valid pursuit to have our continent seen in a better light, we have obliterated some of its less glamorous realities from the narratives we are constructing. It is imperative to acknowledge and celebrate these realities as we do those of towering cities and beaches with sparkling sands. It is happening, too, with a delightful frequency. Africans are sharing photographs which, in the past, would have been triggers of pity, and we are re-framing them. Musicians are showing everyday Africans, those who hustle on the streets to make their livelihoods, those who listen to the news through staticky radios.
In the wake of Internet movements such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, it is excellent to see that participants in the construction of a positive image of the continent have rightfully included places like Mphunzi. Images of Africans dressed in their traditional attires. Images of African boys and girls playing games with makeshift footballs. Africans in rural areas that are far from flashy or ‘developed’, in the western sense of the word. Images (which would once have caused pity) of very real Africans living their lives are being repositioned and shared through a lens of hopeful celebration.
Rather than annul some of the aspects of Africa we deem ‘negative’, our focus needs to be fixed on re-framing the way that we look at them. Many times, rather than erasing the images of the little running children and deeming them inaccurate depictions of who we are, all that matters is that we see them as people just like us- capable of joy, of sorrow, and of everything in between. They do not have to have iPhones to have dignity. They do not need to dress fashionably to hold esteem. To truly build a holistic understanding of the African continent, we have a responsibility to ensure that the image we are building is inclusive of the multiplicity of the African existence. The power we have not only lies in our ability to tell untold stories- it lies in the fact that those that have been told hold much more meaning than has been interpreted.
Telling positive stories can be daunting when they are so rampantly juxtaposed by negative ones. But refraining from telling these stories on the grounds of that difficulty makes for inaccurate understandings of reality. Therefore, with awareness of the nuances that exist in our realities as Africans, the diversity of our experiences, and the realization that we all must occupy a space in new narratives, let us move forward into the future with continued zeal. Let us be conscious that Mphunzi exists, and many more Mphunzis with it. In our efforts to fix how the world sees Africa for the better, let us keenly ensure that we do not turn a blind eye to certain experiences that exist, and are diversely and validly African.