INSIDE AFRICA: When the Stereotype is so One-Sided

Posted: October 2, 2014 in Articles, INSIDE NIGERIA
Tags: , , , , , ,

by Okoye Chukwudi Charles Ezeamalukwuo

He is a white man; with white beard on his white face. He is a poet, whose lines made us dream the celestial dream of the gods. He is British; of Scottish origin. He spoke of the Scottish nation and Scottish nationalism. He told us of the Scottish people, of Scottish politics and Scottish pride. His eyes lighted up with fire, glowed with love and passion when he spoke of his dear country. He made us fall in love with Scotland; a place far removed from ours. A land across many mountains and seas…a land across many tribes and tongues…a land across the Sahara, the Mediterranean and the European continent…a land that none of us had ever been to, yet was ever real, ever beautiful, ever intriguing because of the way he described it.
But when he spoke of Africa, of Nigeria and Lagos, his words shed their august leaves, and wore the garment of mourning. His imagery were dark and doom, filled with strife and struggle. There were no fireworks, no glow, not even a flicker, His eyes bore no light for a people whom his imagination could only paint as being plagued and poor. His lines held little respite for a land he saw in his mind’s eyes, but of which he hardly knew anything about.

On Sunday, the 28th of September, 2014, I attended a poetry reading event at the British Council Building Ikoyi, Lagos, that was organised by the “Committee for Relevant Art” (CORA) which had in attendance: Nigerian poet; Dami Ajayi, British poet; Tom Pow and many other writers and book lovers. The event had so many colourful moments, great performance and poetry. A mixture of politics here and there, a bit of humour, intelligence, jokes and seriousness all entwined to make the event a success.
Tom Pow read some poems from his poetry collections. Great poems I must say, but the poem that touched me most, was the one he wrote about the city; Lagos, titled: “This is Lagos.”
Mr Tom had never actually been to Lagos when he wrote the poem, and so should be forgiven if the poem told not the actual tale of Lagos. The poem was good, the theme and imagery on the other hand were bleak. It was a one-sided (a little bit negative-ish) account of the land that is Lagos. It held almost the same image of Africa that we have got use to seeing and hearing of on CNN, BBC, Ajazeerah et al. It told the same story of struggle, poverty, plague, disease, crisis, chaos, etc. Mr Tom did confess that his knowledge of Lagos was from what he had read. . .from what was readily available to be read. . .from what was mostly written about Lagos and indeed all of Sub-Sahara Africa in the west.

“The single story” a termed coined by the Nigerian Novelist; Chimamanda Ngozi Adiiche, remains one of the greatest injustice ever done to the people of Africa. The part of the world known as Sub-Sahara Africa is still viewed today in the West and in every other part of the World (including a times inside Sub-Sahara Africa itself) as being inhabited by species with low-intelligence, who are incapable of organising themselves, whose skins are dark and whose hearts are even darker. A land of corrupt and barbaric people, ridden by drought and diseases, by plagues and poverty, by chaos and crisis, and every other thing negative.
I must confess that some of the negative stories about Africa are not far from the truth, but the fact remains that Africa have much more than negative occurrences. Africa is not just bad news, Africa has both negatives and positives. For example a survey of Lagos from its eastern entrance, journeying through Ojota, Ikorodu road, Surulele, CMS. . .passing through Victoria Island, Ikoyi, Lekki to the far boundaries of Ajah-Ibeju-Lekki, one would express a great degree of awe, astonishment and surprise at the amount of diversity; ugliness and beauty, poverty and wealth, conflict and comfort, hunger and excesses that is Lagos. There is no one story to describe a people. There is no one way of telling about a people’s experiences. . .In fact, I don’t think that the Chinua Achebes, the Charles Dickens, the Mark Twains et al of this world can actually be able to fully tell the experiences of being a Human, an African, a Nigerian or a Lagosian. . .the only way to fully appreciate it, is to experience it for yourself.

I do not really blame Mr Tom, I hold nothing against him. From our little interaction, he seemed to me like a very good person, down to earth, and genuinely honest in his poems. I believe he was unconsciously caught up in the dominant stereotype of Africa as a land of strife and struggle.

Stories of Africa have mostly been told and written by folks who know little to nothing about Africa. And unfortunately, those stories have so become common that they now seem to have a mind of their own, and like butterflies have now pollinated and polluted the flowers of so many minds, that they now appear to be the only fact anyone knows about Africa.
Africa writers and scholars also have a share of the blame. A quick survey of African writers’ blogs about Africa will show mostly the negatives. A look at our media houses here in Nigeria, like Sahara Reporters, Nigeria News Desk, Premium Times et al will mostly show the conflicts, the great divide and the tribal differences among us as a nation. Is it on facebook, twitter, yahoo and co, we are mostly always bashing each other and our dear nation.
In 2010, when I went for the Total Summer School in Chantilly, France, I was asked by some foreign students (those who were also part of the programme) to tell them about Nigeria. I must say in my own defense that I was young, naïve and overwhelmed by the french experience so to speak, that all I could say was; ‘It is in the news, you should check the news.’ I have not forgiven myself for that, and I pray everyday for another chance to make amends.
I know of a Nigerian poet, whose poetry of Nigeria and Africa is usually depressing. He has a fairly good life, and his experiences in the Nigeria nation have not really been that bleak, but yet his writings say otherwise, because he has been indoctrinated into thinking of Africa like that. A lot of us are guilty of this, we lend our voices in condemning Africa, in maintaining the status quo. . .we don’t usually do this consciously, we are just caught up in the moment, and we lose the opportunity to tell the world our own side of the story.

In conclusion, I must say that it is about time Africans started telling their own stories the way that they actually are. I am yet to see or read a European tell an American story, or an American tell a European story. I believe that the stereotyping of Africa as a land of plagues and poverty will persist until African writers start seeing beyond the negatives, until they start showing the world the other side of Africa, and start writing more about the total experiences of the African people. I believe that until the day that true African voices are heard (like in the days of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Senghor Leopold, David Diop, Lenrie Peters et al), until the positive side of living in the African Sub-Sahara continent are told with the same vigour that our negatives are being exploited, until we as a people start loving our countries, our continent, our black skins, our kinky black hair, and start constructively criticising the negative aspects of our societies, our governments and our race, until the scales of inferiority are removed from the African eyes, until our governments, our writers, our philosophers stop trying to win the approval of the west, stop writing for the western markets, and start focusing on Africa itself, until that day, the stories of Africa will continue to remain one sided; the negative stereotyping of a people whose past, present and future serve only to remind humanity of it’s imperfect nature.

Okoye Chukwudi Charles writes from Lagos, Nigeria. You may reach him on twitter: @mr_charlze

The statements, views and opinions written in this post is solely those of the writer and does not necessary represent those of Lyriversity.

Lyriversity — Liberty of Creativity

  1. In general, people tend to focus on the negatives of Nigeria whilst positive attributes of our country seem forgotten. Most countries in Africa are not up to par with what its citizens know it could be, therefore some people give up hope for any improvement and carry that anger into western civilization.

    I do agree with the general consensus that more Africans need to be the ones writing the stories about Africa. For that to improve, education and literacy would also have to improve in Africa too. Insightful article.

    • Ezeamalukwuo says:

      Thanks my good man. I could not have said it better than you did. It is a pity that we all have been caught up in our frustration that we forget to realise that the rest of the world is judging us by the things we show them we are. Education, proper education is first and foremost the bedrock of a great nation…and many African Nations lack this…but I believe that the workings of fate will one day mistakenly work in our favour…it surely will…and great men, patroitic men and women shall rise and set this continent free.
      Thanks once again for reading and commenting…I really do appreciate it.

  2. This is beautiful and well crafted. But, i must say that the inspiration for that poem was his wife’s ailment as of the time, hence the melancholia u seemed to have noticed. The poet himself did say that he loved it here in Lagos and had received so much warmth. The truth is our negativity seem to over shadow the positives, hence the more story tends to carry the day. I loved that poem from the angle of uncertainty where the poet approached it.

    This is beautiful again i repeat. Ndewo!

    • Ezeamalukwuo says:

      I love the poem too. . .I seriously do. I wish I can hear it again. But the truth remains that for a foreigner who have never been to Nigeria, and the only thing he can say about this Nation is the strife and struggle. . . Something is really wrong with that image.
      And we Nigerians ought to know that. When Mutalab attempted to blow up a plane, the whole of Nigeria was put on a watchlist, how many times have France, Britian or USA being put on a watchlist for the crimes of their citizens especially those in ISIS.
      We have a problem, yes we do, but for a foreigner who have never been here, to write a little bit negatively of us, should never go well with any True Nigerian. If Britian was so good, why is Scotland trying to pull out of the union? Why is it that with all the threats and gun violence and racial crimes and co in Britian, british writers are not hopeless pesimistic about it.
      I never say we should not write of our problems or listen when others do…but when all that people see of us is negative, especially when we have so much more. . .then something is either wrong with the person’s eye or with the way we go about our businesses…(This last part does not just concern Mr Tom, whom I happen to like)

  3. LegendaryCJN says:

    In other words, the writer is saying that until stories of hunting are told by animals, the hunter would always prove victorious.
    Well, much as I concur to the idea of creating an utopiac Nigeria, I find it unnecessary. The American Revolution for example did not just happen. It was the book writers and the press that made it happen by writing about those negative aspects of their environment and daily living. Today, it yielded fruits for them. Marthin Luther King Jnr. championed the cause of the Negros, by speaking out against marginalizations and racial discriminations. Today, he is a world hero. Even Marcus Garvey, etc.
    In Nigeria today, most of the developments we hail today is as a result of yesterday’s talkings and writings about the nagative aspects of life and government. How can we have development if underdevelopment is not brought to bare?
    Thus, I can say that such writings that portrays the positive aspects of life in Africa, Nigeria especially, abounds, but whoever takes them seriously!
    In my opinion, it’s good to call a spade by its name. If the land is good, we hail it, if it’s bad, we condenm it. Stereotypes are not always creations, like fiction. They are not always inaccurate, simplistic or overtly generalizations. In most cases, they were once real.
    Nice writeup though. And you must keep it up.

    • Ezeamalukwuo says:

      He smiles. . .I’ve never advocated for a lie. I love honesty in Literature…and you my good man, know so well that I am the number one critic of Nigeria. But it becomes depressing to hear foreigners giving you un-necessary pity, and expressing surprise to see that you are not so pitiful.
      We should never stop criticising where criticism is required, we should never pause from condemning where needs to be condemned. . .but to see ourselves as condemned people, that is the greatest treason, the greatest coup de-tat, and there is no redemption from that.

  4. Anene Francis says:

    Nice write up. All protocols observed. Soup almost done. Make I add small pepper…
    * Extend the one sided stereotyping to include how we have come to view certain tribes, races, political parties, even some individuals based on over generalized notions and hearsay. Exaggerated up or down, it is still one sided either way. We can and should listen to other people’s opinions but we should verify them ourselves enough to speak about the subject. And when we fail to present/express our true attributes, we have no right to complain… Africa is beautiful as while as repulsive but so is all other places only with different degrees of commitment to improve.

    (Small digression: Oga Solar, on issue of poetry and stage performance, you’re contrdicting youself or had change of stance? Lol) no mind me.

    • Ezeamalukwuo says:

      Mr Francis always the great analyser. Yes the stereotyping is also present in many facets of our society. And this is kinda frustrating when you are the one being negatively stereotyped when you have not done anything wrong, to say the lest. A lot of things are wrong with the world, and this is one of them.

      Thanks for reading, and as par Poetry and Stage Performance, my definition of both are still unchanged. Though I don’t really know what you think I know. What do you think I know?

  5. goldenwura says:

    Mr Charles, I am deeply moved and challenged. I will write, but I will write about beauty from ashes. Even though we may not have silver linings, the grey flecks will do just fine.
    Thank you.

  6. Kukogho Iruesiri Samson says:

    When our own people would rather believe he lies in foreign movies and news media that what their very eyes see, how can people like Pow be expected to be any wiser?
    I tell people, read, write and share the ideas of your tribe, religion or lack of it, country….every line you write is a blow in the face of the lies.

    Well done brother.

  7. Bubu Bricks says:

    Indeed it’s about time Africa began telling her own story. These whites are not blacks and can never be and so they know nothing about being black. We have slept so long that the rest of the world thinks we are dead. If we do not sing our praises and advertise ourselves then we shouldn’t expect any better from the outside world. I believe we’re not dead and so have many stories to tell; we have to change our mindset, being black is not a curse its a blessing. We can start by accepting our identity and embracing it in order to awake the sleeping giant. We must be the change we wish to see.

  8. dzukogi says:

    This is refreshing, an eye opener sort of thing!

  9. Nansyie says:

    A friend of mine currently studying for his masters at Nottingham University lamented on how a Taiwanese was filled with awe just because she was in the same classroom with a Nigerian. it surprised her to even know that he is aware of a country called Taiwan, because she thinks all Africans are poor and uninformed. But really, I cast no blame on her ignorance because we ourselves hardly make positive remarks about our dear nation. Most of the comments I read, during our independence celebration where all asking “which way Naija”? as if to say they are not part of degradation of our image. Sure, we cant do it in a day, we can jointly pull efforts to portray the good side of this nation. Thanks solar, your well articulated write-up keeps reminding me of why we should never hold on to ‘single stories’ because they are incomplete.

  10. humble peters says:

    This is quiet a wondaful display of a poetic artistry…it has a tense of explanatory style..easy to undastand.

    Mr charles i really appreciate ur work on dis…its really explanatory and composit .

  11. Anene Francis says:

    It seems the small match I was playing with started a wildfire elsewhere. Maybe I should look for ‘trouble’ more often lol
    * Abeg pardon the digression. Was mainly based on some of your fb conversations I observed from a distance. Something about *they not being poets but performance artistes* and *they spoiling poetry for lovers of written poems*. Maybe I gotten it wrong sha. If not, I see a contradiction where you said here that *you loved the poem performance and wish to hear it again* (not read it 😉 … Not important, back to the matter
    * One-sided stereotyping is painful when one is at the receiving end but I’m more bothered about those we ourselves stereotype without giving it a thought. What is good for the goose is also good for the ganders, they say. Dooh

  12. Mc Kingdavid says:

    A friend of man yesterday looked me in the eyes and say: I am proudly Eurocentric scholar. He will tell you the negative of Africa. What of the positive? No No! Well, you have written well. But I still maintain, any evil in a particular place you’re not comfortable with…Mirror in style.

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