Africa must tell her own story

Former Ghanaian President, John Dramani Mahama


WHAT’s in a name? Shakespeare once asked. If we lived in a world of iambic pentameter, star-crossed lovers and sweet-smelling roses, then one might easily answer, “Nothing. There is nothing in a name. ‘Thou art thyself!’” But that’s not the world we live in.

We live in a world of heritage and inheritance, a world in which reputations precede institutions, as well as individuals. We live in a world where names, and what they carry within them, matter. A name is a biography.

It is a history of who! what! when! where! how! and sometimes even why. But history is subjective; it is the narrative of the historian. The NigerianAmerican author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken extensively about the “danger of a single story.”

What is the story that comes to mind when people hear the name “Africa”? The presentation, or representation, of one? That has always been the danger when it comes to how we discuss Africa.

There has always been the assumption of a monolith: Africa as one country, not 54; One culture, not an immeasurable number; One climate, hot! hot! hot! Africa as one intractable reality.

When you hear the name Africa spoken on television or radio or in an unfamiliar public space; When you read the name Africa in a newspaper or magazine, do you, for even the briefest of moments, wonder about the story that will follow? Which Africa will it show?

Will the story simply be about malaria, Ebola, high infant mortality and poverty; or will it also mention the innovative ways in which these critical issues are now being addressed? Take, for instance, MedAfrica, the free mobile phone app that was created and launched in Kenya.

We’re talking about a country with a population of roughly 44 and a half million—and only 7,250 doctors to serve it. MedAfrica provides people with basic information about health and medicine, it provides its users with possible diagnoses for symptoms, and it also connects them, through a directory, to doctors and hospitals.

Another is WinSenga, a lowcost mobile app that was launched in Uganda. WinSenga monitors the heart rate of an unborn baby and provides a diagnosis that is then sent to the mother via text message, along with suggestions for possible actions that can be taken.

Then there’s M-Pesa, a micro financing and money transfer service that relies on mobile networks, not the Internet. It allows users to pay bills and school fees, buy groceries, or make cash transfers.

In 2014 alone, M-Pesa, which was created and launched in Kenya, facilitated over 40 billion US dollars worth of transactions. The app is now being used in numerous other African countries, as well as in Afghanistan, India and Eastern Europe.

If you think these three apps are impressive, there are dozens more that I could list. There are Africanmade and Africa-centered apps for almost everything; for cow farming and horticultural irrigation; for locating lost members of refugee families; for scheduling, tracking and paying for motorbike delivery services; for tutoring students who are studying and preparing for exams.

And for those who fear that technology is turning our world into one that is devoid of real human contact and concern, a world in which we are no longer our brother’s keeper, there’s an app called Olalashe that might restore your faith in both technology and humanity.

Olalashe means “brother” in the Maasai language, and if ever you find yourself in a dan gerous place or situation in Africa, with one touch this app will send an SOS message to all of your specified emergency contacts along with a link to your exact location.

Most of the world is well aware of the very real problems that exist on the African continent. I just wish that most of the world were also as aware of the very original and modern attempts being made by Africans to solve some of these problems.

It should be common knowledge that South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are fast becoming the international leaders of mobile app innovation. So much so that people have started referring to Kenya as the Silicon Savannah.

It should be common knowledge that in terms of mobile phone usage, over the next seven years, sub-Saharan Africa will be the fastest growing region globally. As early as 2016, mobile broadband connections will reach 160 million; quadruple what it was in 2012.

My own country, Ghana, is a leader in providing broadband access. When it comes to Africa, when it comes to the information and the images that are associated with that name, it feels as though there is a constant battle between the rural and the urban, the traditional and the contemporary.

There is a tug-of-war between the decades during which we were supposedly lost and the ones during which we are supposedly rising. It is always one or the other. Rarely is the spectacular multiplicity of our continent acknowledged, let alone promulgated.

Imagine this: A story about the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Africa. Who might be the focus of such an article? Hunter-gatherers, such as the San and the Hadzabe? Pastoralists like the Maasai and the Fulani?

What if the article included all of those peoples and perhaps also focused on another type of itinerant lifestyle, that of—and I’ll borrow a name made popular by the multihyphenated author Taiye Selasi—an Afropolitan? What is an Afropolitan, you ask?

Taiye Selasi offers a definition in her essay, “Bye Bye Babar”: “[T]he newest generation of African emigrants [.] You’ll know us by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic successes.

Some of us are ethnic mixes, e.g. Ghanaian and Canadian, Nigerian and Swiss; others are merely cultural mutts: American accent, European affect, African ethos. Most of us are multilingual: […] We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.”

With all due respect to this new generation of African emigrants, by this definition one could argue that Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was an Afropolitan; as was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and numerous others of their generation, including the African Oxonians I mentioned earlier.

But even before them, there were others, like Anton Wilhelm Amo, who is said to be the first African to attend a European university. Amo, a member of the Nzema tribe, was born in the area that is now Ghana.

He was taken to Europe at an early age and became a chambre slave to Duke Anthony Ulrich of Brunswich- Wolfenbüttel who supported his studies. Amo earned numerous diplomas and degrees, including a Doctorate of Philosophy in 1734.

He was fluent in English, French, Dutch, Latin, Greek, German and, one would assume, an indigenous language or two… or three. Throughout the centuries there have been people like Anton Wilhelm Amo, Africans of the world whose stories have not been told widely, Africans of the world whose names and contributions have been all but forgotten by history.

“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves,” the Nigerian-British author Ben Okri has written. “Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings [.]” We are taught at an early age about borders and boundaries, the physical structures that separate “us” from “them.”

Sometimes I wonder at the dialogue that must have taken place at the Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa. “I have signed a treaty with the King of Dahomey and my troops just discovered the source of the river Volta” the French must have said.

“You can keep the Ivory Coast, we will take the Gold Coast, we are in possession of the Fort at Elmina” The English must have replied. All this while our great grandfathers and mothers went about their daily chores, oblivious that their destinies were being changed forever in an European city 5000 km away.

The borders on the maps of Africa that I studied in school, and the names that were affixed to the land within those borders, gave me a very clear indication of how certain people could be defined and where those people belonged.

We, for instance, were from Ghana. Those other people across the border from us, depending on which direction you travelled, were from Togo, Cote d’Ivoire or—I’m showing my age here—Upper Volta, which, as you know, is now called Burkina Faso.

Different places, different people; at least that’s what I thought—until someone told me a story that broadened my perspective. That someone was Salifu. During my youth, he worked for my family as a watchman.

He’d been a serviceman with the British Brigade. He even served in the Second West African Infantry brigade during World War II. Those experiences and the alleged nonpayment of his pension by the British had left him bitter.

All of Salifu’s stories, no matter how wonderfully they started out, seemed to end with him saying, “One day, those British will get theirs. They will find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

There’s one story Salifu told me that I keep coming back to. I’ve told it over and over again in speeches; I even wrote about it in my book. It was about the proverbial Gali family, whose house sat right on top of the border between Ghana and Togo.

The house had been handed down from generation to generation of the Gali family. The house was there long before the border. In those days, the Galis called themselves Ewe. That was the name of their tribe, and their language.

But the border had brought confusion into their lives. You see, technically, their front door, sitting room, eating area and kitchen were on Ghanaian soil. But the bedrooms, bathrooms and back door were all in Togo.

So suddenly the Galis found themselves straddling two places and two additional identities. By day, when they walked out of the front door to go to work and school, they were to be Ghanaian. They spoke English, the country’s official language.

By night, when they exited the back door to join their neighbors in the common courtyard, they were Togolese, and were required to speak French, that country’s official language. “You see the problem those British and French made and then left for us to solve?” Salifu would ask after he told that story.

“What happens when your house is divided?” The borders in Africa that are the most challenging, yet at the same time the most crucial to cross are the ones that have been imposed on us by others. On 25th May 1963, a group of leaders from all corners of the continent gathered in Addis Ababa to form an organization whose primary goal was the unity of African people.

They were fed up with those artificial borders, as well as the division and confusion they caused. It was a courageous act, driven by a lofty goal, one that the Organization of African Unity, which now goes by the name “the Africa Union”, has been pressing forward to achieve—sometimes steadily, sometimes clumsily—since the day of its inception.


  • The author is a Ghanaian politician who served as President of Ghana from 24 July 2012 to 7 January 2017.
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