The changing portrayal of Africa in Western media

1960s Africa. Usually, we are presented with images of conflict, violence, segregation and poverty. But an archive recently re-discovered from the vibrant city of Dakar, Senegal, reveals an entirely different side of Africa that is never shown to us in the west. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently posed the question: why does the media only show us one single ‘catastrophic’ narrative of Africa – one of poverty, conflict and suffering? Whose benefit does this serve?

The continent contains some of the fastest growing economies in today’s world, yet its art, music, fashion and innovation are largely ignored by the western media. However, today, social media is starting to show an Afro-positive image to the world.

Senegal has long been considered a jewel of West Africa, with a booming arts scene, diverse ethnic makeup and stable and unique Senegalese democracy. Following its independence from French rule, it became a centre of intellectual debate and culture, and was one of the pioneering countries of African socialism in the 60s.

Roger DaSilva, a British- born photographer captured this vibrant country in its young years. The archives recently recovered show a diverse chic style, from politicians and celebrities to Dakar street fashion. The patterns, hairstyles, makeup, and the growing intellectual class of Senegal are depicted with sophistication, at a time when the country was rapidly changing.
Why don’t we see images of Africa like this more often? The only images the west are exposed to of African life are conflict, disease, famine and violence, child soldiers and refugees. An entire continent is portrayed as backward, in need of western ‘help’ and civilisation; an entire continent is presented as ‘other’.

To answer this question we must understand why these damaging images prevail. During the colonial period, any expressions of culture and ideas were stifled to protect the imperial order and justify its motives. Today, as western culture and media continues to dominate, we continue to see impressions of Africa as pessimistic and far removed from the ‘norm’.

However, with increasing accessibility of information through social media, these countries are fighting back against Afro-pessimism. The trending 2015 hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou started trending last year which showed a completely contrasting story; one in which African countries were leading the way in innovation and culture. From green energy in Ethiopia, to skyscrapers in Nairobi, Ugandan action movies, the booming Rwandan technology industry and Dar es Salaam’s underground electronic music scene. Not only this, but the tag was flooded with images of the natural beauty of African landscapes.

Senegal’s population has an average age of around 19, like many other African countries, and young people realise that the power is in their hands to change the narrative. The reason why Roger DaSilva’s photographs caught the attention of the world was the effortless style which is so rarely depicted, and lives on today. Senegal fashion week in Dakar attracts designers from across the world, who blend unique Senegalese styles and fabrics with modern trends. This is one of the most innovative and inspiring events of the fashion calendar.

But it is not only the fashion industry and social media platforms that are capturing the Afro- positive turn. Musicians such as Sampa the Great have been capturing this movement: the Zambian artist’s new music video for her song ‘Final Form’ shows the energy and diversity of the country’s fashion. Tanzanian musicians have brought the electronic underground Singeli music to the world in festivals in Uganda, Germany and Poland. In Morocco the trap collective NAAR are showing the authentic Morocco that goes uncovered by the media.

This Afro-positive turn in media represents a unique post- colonial struggle and is still not yet fully understood by scholars. Young people are reclaiming ideas of what it means to be African. In countries like Senegal, the young population are even challenging politicians through the power of music, art and social media. However, the continent has always been a place of growth, change and beauty. The Afro-positive voices are rising; ones which recognise the problems with their countries but also see a hopeful way forward.


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