Who can speak for the African experience?

Fungai Machirori wrote a good article about this question at the Mail & Guardian’s Voices of Africa portal recently.  Outstanding quote:

In a TEDx talk last year, the late BBC newscaster Komla Dumor talked through the construction of authoritative knowledge – with his example focused on Africa – stating that while the idea of a haggis expert based at the University of Makerere might be laughable, the same is never true of an expert on Africa based in Washington, London or any space ‘other’ to Africa.

This point resonated with me for obvious reasons, as one of those US-based people with an interest (although definitely not an expertise!) in Africa.  But the whole article is worth reading for its broader engagement with questions of authenticity and appropriation across cultural lines, touching on cases as varied as hip-hop in the US and the romantic pursuits of diapora returnees from Côte d’Ivoire.

The last few paragraphs deserve to be quoted in full:

The solution to these quandaries [about who speaks for Africa] seems easy; that those spoken of should “begin to tell their own stories in their own ways”. But given that accepted opinion leaders often speak from powerful platforms and places with wide reach and validation, it remains difficult for alternative views – especially when expressed in spaces of low prominence – to gain traction.

Moreover, speaking against popular and dominant narratives often relegates the speaker to the margins where they are constructed as either being antagonistic for antagonism’s sake, or expressing counterproductive sentiments.  It therefore remains quite easy for the well-developed media machinery to silence – by omission – dissenting opinions and voices, or the alternative voices that it does not want to hear.

The answers to addressing this situation are complex and don’t lie in disengaging from inaccurate representations. Neither do they lie in engaging in angry undirected pushback. That is after all, the easiest way to invalidate an opinion.

In acknowledging and deconstructing privilege – who gets to speak, on behalf of who and why – we have to be realistic in our understanding of how hierarchies develop, gain credence and perpetuate.

With social media now facilitating conversations with institutions that might previously have seemed impenetrable, this at least provides some channels through which to register one’s opinion.  But of course, substantive change entails much more; the sharing of influential space and a greater willingness to welcome, and listen to, multiple alternatives and realities.

The question is: Is the world ready for this?

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