The fictioning of Africa in the modern day.

An interesting infographic has been circulating around social media recently. The picture which was created by English chemist Anthony England included a map of Africa with the majority of the continent marked as “no Ebola” and the three countries that have been declared as being in a state of emergency: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia highlighted. The photo was alluding to the age old construct of Africa as an amorphous entity; a narrative that always has and always will render it difficult for the diverse cultural values present across the continent to be appreciated. Put simply, this picture was a response to the tendency of the West to speak of Africa as one country with universal problems.

In the West, the identities of African nations as individual states are often not recognised; conflation of these identities ultimately makes it easier for people to dismissively say “that’s a big issue in Africa” and acts as a way of simplifying issues that are very often incredibly complex. Such a simplification makes it easier to draw the line between “us” and “them”. “They” are all united by the same problems across the continent, because they are essentially the same. This is a costly fallacy.

This photo got me thinking about a passage that I had recently read which was written by the Nigerian Nobel prize winner Wole Soyinka. In his writing he proposed the idea that there has been a “fictioning” of Africa. Soyinka notes that in colonial times there was a concerted effort within Europe to invent a particular conception of Africa; “the dark continent”. Whilst the construction today is perhaps not as extreme as it was in the past (Conrad’s Heart of darkness), this fictioning has continued. In the West there has been, for the most part, no attempt to move forward and delve deeper to uncover the reality of what Africa actually represents. A multitude of different identities.

The 1884 Berlin conference, a pivotal moment in colonial history, where European countries divided the continent of Africa into borders that they had defined themselves was arguably the starting point of the onset of this frame of thinking. In this carving of Africa, no attention was paid to local cultures or differences in ethnic identity. The conference was the political consolidation of a conception of Africa created by the European imagination which in turn enforced the abating of a wide range of African identities and transformed them into further extensions of European identities(in this case the use of European refers to the various nations that played a role in colonising Africa, not Europe as a monolithic entity, as I am aware that a lack of distinction would allow the same criticism that I am proposing to be levelled at my argument).

African nations have acted as a blank canvas to be painted on by the West, whether that be directly in colonial times or indirectly through the construction of a fictional narrative that seeks to coalesce the culture across the whole of the continent. Africa as we know it in the West is not an accurate depiction of the true cultural complexity of identities in Africa.

If we turn the pages back to Rwanda in the 1990s, the construction of identities by the West played a major part in framing the violence. The infamous action of Western media was to describe the sectarian violence that was occurring in the nation as a manifestation of “tribal hatreds”, rather than acknowledging that these hatreds were further fuelled by European influences who historically had asserted that the Tutsi were natural born leaders due to their lighter skin.  As social anthropologist Richard Robbins noted, after World War I when Belgium took over control in Rwanda they further institutionalised racist doctrines; they “replaced all Hutu chiefs with Tutsis and issued identity cards that noted ethnic identity, making the division between Hutu and Tutsi far more rigid than it had been before colonial control.” The narrative that was stressed by the Western media mentioned this nowhere. Thus, Rwanda was another example of the West imparting an overarching narrative on the situation of countries in Africa. In that instance, the carefully constructed narrative acted as justification for a lack of intervention in a conflict that ended up being a case of mass genocide. The fictioning of Africa has been ubiquitously present across time and has continually served a particular political purpose.

Only when we take the time to study the intricacies of a continent with countries that have an expansive and unexplored cultural history will we truly respect Africa for what it is. As Soyinka points out “Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity”. The continued fictioning of Africa is a travesty, because if nothing changes Africa will be a continent not only poached of its rich and diverse history, but also simultaneously robbed of its present. We can’t change the past, but it is owed to the African nations that people take time to educate themselves on the true cultures of African countries, not the narratives that have been proposed by the interest driven Western media. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, therefore living in ignorance condemns us to being powerless receivers at the mercy of any constructed narrative that the media deems appropriate for our consumption.