A Message to the Diaspora: Africa is More than Its Struggles

by by Khanya Mtshali

As a woman hailing from a continent that is so often looked down upon, it is rare that I find an article or anything masquerading as literature that speaks of the good in Africa. More often than not, people choose to highlight the negative: the Ebola epidemic, HIV/AIDS rates, corrupt governments, poverty, lack of infrastructure, civil wars, and the like. When some poor soul attempts to write something vaguely positive about Africa, it reads like an excerpt from Christopher Columbus’s diary entries about the Americans whose land he “discovered.” The messages about the continent are condescending and misguided, and paint it as a place that should be avoided at all costs. My Facebook Timeline is often inundated with photos of wide-grinning, dark-skinned African children accompanied by some caption praising the kids’ ability to “smile through adversity.” Something that—as the authors behind these foolish attempts at social awareness point out—people in the Western world with all of its advancement and civilization could learn from.

Such suggestions are so commonplace that they’ve become easy to dismiss. The fact that these folks are implicitly amazed and smug about the fact that the West can learn something from “poor, dirty African kids” is never lost on me. I find myself in fits of laughter over such ignorance. I routinely enjoy reading the blogs of wildly privileged white kids who have just completed their trust fund-sponsored gap years in African countries. I cannot help but laugh out loud at their patronizing, almost neo-colonial accounts of life on the Dark Continent. In all honesty, I have grown accustomed to the disdainful way in which Africa is accounted for in mainstream white media. Seeing myself presented as some helpless, faceless, disease- and poverty-stricken shadow of a woman draped in some colorful piece of cloth, rejoicing at the prospect of contemporary white saviors Madonna and Bono coming to my rescue, is nothing out of the ordinary. White ignorance over the multifaceted-ness of African identity, especially African womanhood, is something I have sadly become used to.

However, I cannot help but be disappointed at some of the representations of Africa and African women coming from people within the Diaspora. Our greatness is often spoken about retrospectively. The beauty of African women is always praised in relation to historical figures like Nefertiti. Our relevance to conversations on Blackness only exists by virtue of the kingdoms we once ruled and how powerful we were prior to colonialism. In many respects, this assessment is true: there were inspiring African men and women who made their mark throughout the continent. From the great Queen Nandi of the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, to Queen Idia of Benin—who was a renowned fighter and warrior during the time of her son’s reign from 1504 to 1550—I can see why this assessment is being made. I have encountered many African-Americans who seek to assert their African identity by taking pride in pre-colonial African achievements. I have no problem with that. I agree that influential Black African figures and pre-colonial African civilization should be celebrated and hailed as great. But that does not mean that we are not still great. If anything, Africa and African women have made more strides than they are given credit for.

Our continent currently boasts three women heads of state. In South Africa, women hold 40% of parliamentary seats and the current United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, is a woman of colour also hailing from South Africa. Sixteen African countries have passed parity laws; and countries such as Senegal have doubled the women in their legislature as a result of recent pushes for equal representation in government and parliament. Nonetheless, it is widely acknowledged that despite these achievements, life for women remains bleak throughout the continent. For example, South Africa holds some of the highest rape and domestic violence statistics in the world and female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in many parts of the continent. I do not deny that there are many issues to tackle regarding women’s rights in Africa. However, these obstacles should not prevent those on the other side of the planet from writing and speaking about us in a way which suggests that our greatness as a continent with women from diverse cultures and lived experiences has long passed.

That being said, I want to acknowledge how difficult it is for me to critique the Diaspora when I have been deeply influenced by people—and in particular—women hailing from across the Black Diaspora: from Florynce Kennedy, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis to Malcolm X and James Baldwin; to the Black American bloggers, activists, and feminists on Twitter such as Mikki Kendall, New Black Woman, and Gradient Lair. The Diaspora has done so much in helping me develop a sense of pride in my Blackness that was otherwise thwarted by my upbringing in a still very white and very racist South Africa. The Diaspora has produced language that eloquently articulates some of the struggles I face as a Black South African woman navigating predominantly white male spaces. I will be forever grateful for the tools that it has equipped me with.

However, if we’re going to create solidarity that goes beyond the occasional sporting of dashikis and Kente-print headscarves, we have to initiate difficult dialogue on our perceptions of each other. We cannot allow white Western media to drive a wedge between the bond of Africa and its global Diaspora; we ought to form solidarity in the face of aggressive white supremacy. The disregard for Black lives in Ferguson, the lack of attention afforded to the 2,000 victims of the terrorist attacks in Nigeria, and the ongoing Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone has shown us the inevitability with which Black death is perceived and accepted. It is up to us to assert our value and worth by destroying the mechanisms of white patriarchal supremacy, which continue to divide and conquer us from the mother continent to the Diaspora.

We must remember that we are all connected, and the only way we can fight these systems of oppression is by doing so together. We must also remember that Africa’s greatness does not lie in the past; it lives in those of us who are willing to do the work to continue to improve our beloved continent and its many people and cultures.

Khanya Mtshali is a Black South African writer and actor who lives for her continent, vegan chilli, postcolonial feminist discourse and Roxane Gay.

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