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'Black History is our responsibility'

CONGO TOUR: UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos on a recent tour of a makeshift camp in Kibati, north of Goma, eastern Congo

“HISTORY WILL have it one day - not the history they teach in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations, but the history taught in the countries set free from colonialism and its puppet rulers. Africa will write her own history both north and south of the Sahara.  And it will be a history of glory and dignity.” – Patrice Lumumba (assassinated President of Congo), 1961, in his final letter before his murder.

“Thank you Ben. Thank you for writing our story without taking away our dignity” - Agnes Gitau (Kenyan founder of the London Africa Media Network), September 2012, in a public review of author Ben Rawlence’s book Radio Congo.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Black History Month.

CONSEQUENCE

Perhaps as a consequence of being based in the West (and the West’s hegemony on media and popular culture) I find Black History Month to be very western-centric and as a result the majority of our history – i.e what happened in Africa – is forgone.

Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X are rightfully studied and praised to high heaven, yet the majority of the world could not explain the significance of Kwame Nkrumah, MKO Abiola, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or Ahmed Ben Bella. I’ve even visited schools where Dizzee Rascal is held up as a Black History figure (you could call this the Newsnightisation of black history).

Any credible discussion of black history should significantly include African history. And if journalism is indeed the first draft of history then we should be very concerned about how Africa is reported. In fact, we should be picking up our pens.

I recently noticed a flurry of comment pieces in western newspapers on this topic. The general consensus was that journalism had not kept up with the swiftly changing realities of Africa on the ground. Significant and radical progress was being made yet the media were still stuck in flies on face mode. The agreement was that this needs to change.

Reading these articles was like overhearing a loving couple discuss their child’s improved behaviour and wondering how best to reward “Little Johnny” for no longer acting like a bloody idiot.

In 2012, the reporting by Western media on Africa should be absolutely irrelevant. It is the epitome of disgrace that the image of Africa and Africans is still principally shaped and dictated by the media outlets of Africa’s former colonial masters.

Africa and Africans must step to the plate and tell our own stories, shape our own history. Almost every region now has its own major international media organisation. Some have multiple. Where is the African version of Al Jazeera?

Where are the robust African voices when the West wanders onto the continent for yet another war? Who else would hold the west to account about destabilising Mali as a result of its action in Libya?

I recently attended an event at the School of African and Oriental Studies called Changing the Headlines: Reporting Africa Differently? In practice it was more of a launch for author Ben Rawlence’s book Radio Congo. The event was hosted by the Royal Africa Society and chaired by the BBC’s Egon Cossou.

Ben started by speaking about the experiences which led to his book: riding a bike, unaccompanied, across Congo. Then panellist Agnes Gitau delivered what has to be a masterclass in relationship building (a less charitable person would say ‘bottom licking’). She wrapped up her lengthy live hagiography by uttering the following: “Thank you Ben. Thank you for writing our story without taking away our dignity.”

APPEALING

Anyone who has met me will tell you my looks are about as appealing as Kwasi Kwarteng’s politics. But even I have never felt the need to fluff someone’s ego that much to gain favour. Bizarrely, the slogan on Agnes’ organisation’s website is ‘Let Africans Tell The African Story The African Way’.

I look forward to the day a Congolese writer is paid to ride a bike around the slums of Glasgow, write a book about it, become an ‘expert on Europe’ and then be publicly thanked by an Italian for not “taking away our dignity.”

Ben Rawlence cannot be faulted. He had an idea and found a market for it. Like many westerners who profess to do good in Africa he will probably end up doing very well.

The ‘Ben Rawlence phenomena’ exists in 2012 because Africans with the tools and talents let it. Ben is telling our stories and essentially writing our history because we don’t.

If Africans want to change how Africa is reported in the world’s media, then it is impaortant that Africans everywhere must change who is doing the reporting.

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