What does a round of ‘African nations in high school’ say about our identity crisis?

Saturday January 18 2014

Something delightful happened in the African Twitter sphere this past week. A bitingly funny conversation emerged courtesy of a question posed by a lady blogger from Botswana who goes by the handle of Siyanda Panda on that most abbreviated of social media platforms.

She kicked off a continental discussion simply by asking people to write in what characteristics an African nation might have if it were a teenager in high school, or as former captives of the British Empire might call it, secondary school. Beautiful sarcasm ensued.

In the process of answering that question online, Africans across the continent told each other exactly what we thought about each other’s countries and our own.

Lubricated by copious amounts of humour, some difficult opinions were outed. Smaller nations that never seem to make it into the mainstream media complained about being overlooked.

South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan and Rwanda got the lion’s share of the attention, of course. Encouragingly, North African countries were also included in the mix, if only to be teased about the fact that international sporting events seem to be the only time that they embrace their continental identity.

What made this moment of communion on social media great is that it occurred not too long after an article by Nanjala Nyabola, a political scientist based at Harvard, stirred up an old controversy.


Titled “Why do Western Media get Africa Wrong?” it was the latest offering in the long tradition of expressing doubts about the validity of the representations of this continent. I guess that pot needed stirring again, because every generation must throw its pinches of insight into it for depth and nuance and relevance.

The article certainly caught the imagination of Kenyan blogger Patrick Gathara who offered a critical piece titled “Why Does African Media get Africa Wrong?”

This is in keeping with the New Canon of material on the subject which got kicked off in style by Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” article printed by Granta magazine back in 2005 and followed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk warning about the dangers of a single story when it comes to matters of identity and authenticity.

To be honest, I suspect that between the two of them they have said everything that needs saying about it for the early part of the 20th Century and almost everything written after that is supplementary reading.

Middle Africa

While we’re on the subject of wrestling “identity” into submission for academic fun, just the other day I heard of a new term that has been creeping around looking to attach itself somewhere: Middle Africa.

Debate ensued as to whether this was a legitimate geographical designation or an attempt to step away from the term Sub-Saharan Africa and offer a politically-correct term for those fiddly bits between the Sahel and South Africa where you can no longer say “dark continent” without attracting an angry mob.

The third suggestion was that Middle Africa might be an economic designation, the label for magnates who are currently rich for mostly legitimate capitalist reasons as opposed to the usual despots who raped their countries’ treasuries. If the term catches on, it’ll be interesting to see which way it swings.

I have never been convinced about this idea of getting Africa right, per se. And especially not about getting Africa right in the media. I mean, we are talking about formal media, right? Those great bastions of authority and knowledge that reflect the world back unto us as it is? Heh. If it is any comfort, this is why “new” or social media is such a godsend. The likelihood of stumbling upon something that has the ring of unadulterated truth-telling is relatively high.

The online world is not always grammatically correct or even sane, but it is wonderfully human. And Siyanda Panda’s #Africannationsinhighschool was salutary because it did the one thing that I wish all Africans purporting to care about Africa’s image should do: Navel gaze.

As folks entertained each other online while creating a fictional High School out of this continent, there was a breezy and refreshing air of unconcern about whoever might be reading and whatever the heck they thought about it.

Is there a greater defence against unwarranted and unwanted misunderstanding than the confidence that comes from a loving kind of self-absorption? That’s what I am hoping that this is really about, in the end: Seeking a way to put Africans so much at the centre of the African world that external definitions become a source of amusement, at best.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report,
E-mail: [email protected]