OSF President Patrick Gaspard visited South Africa in February 2020 to launch the #AfricaNoFilter 2020 Summit. OSF is a partner in this multi-funded collaborative, which aims to change prevailing narratives about Africa.

‘I need us to love ourselves

A whole lot louder,

Even when the “First World” can’t see us’

These words, from her poem ‘To Do List for Africa’ formed part of Lebohang Masango’s battle cry when she opened the summit in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 26 February.

#AfricaNoFilter was initiated by the Ford Foundation and a few key partners to advance more nuanced narratives on Africa that go against the stereotyped and largely negative tropes. This it did by funding a small cohort of fellows – artists, storytellers, journalists and thought leaders – who were already working to create new and different narratives about the continent. Fellows include Senegalese-American journalist Selly Thiam, Kenyan photographer Mutua Matheka, Kenyan-British artist Phoebe Boswell and Tunisian dancers and choreographers Selma and Sofiane among others.

The #AfricaNoFilter 2020 Summit featured many of the fellows, and provided an opportunity to showcase their work as well as to meet, network and learn from each other, and to share their stories with a broader audience. The summit was also an opportunity to introduce the expanded collaborative funding #AfricaNoFilter, as well as new Executive Director, Moky Makura.

The expanded collaborative seeks ‘to amplify African voices and re-imagine deep-rooted narratives about the African continent.’ By supporting emerging African voices, with an emphasis on women and the young, the partners hope to enhance the development and reach of more vibrant, diverse narratives about the continent.

Speakers ranging from 22-year-old emoji artist O’Plérou Grebet to Graça Machel spoke about escaping the western gaze, finding their own voices, toppling gatekeepers and other issues affecting African creatives – on the continent and in the diaspora.

Defining the African Narrative

‘Narrative and culture change is the most difficult endeavour of the mind,’ OSF President, Patrick Gaspard, noted in his opening remarks. In her welcome address, Graça Machel insisted that participants were not only there to change the narrative. ‘We’re going to define the narrative,’ she said.

Machel spoke about how Africans are overwhelmed by distracting noises: ‘That talk about us and the way we have allowed ourselves not to be talking on our own behalf, telling our own stories.’

‘Our dignity will be defined by ourselves,’ Machel said.

Cost of a Narrative

Gaspard facilitated a conversation between Dr Sithembile Mbete, a lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria and Ford Foundation trustee, law firm chairperson and philanthropist, Gbenga Oyebode, in which they discussed “The true cost of a detrimental narrative.”

Oyebode used the example of Nigeria and how the narrative of 419 is so closely tied to perceptions of that country. Such operators form but a tiny percentage of the population, he clarified. Meanwhile, many Nigerians are industrious, educated and hardworking and excel at professions around the world. ‘We need to do a better job of making sure that there’s a meeting point between those two extremes,’ Oyebode said.

Asked about her experiences in various spaces, such as the academic, non-profit, and government sectors, Mbete offered: ‘The story that is told about Africa is profoundly uncurious, it’s very boring,’ and while boring, this story ‘has profoundly dangerous consequences on how policy is made and how the continent is engaged with,” she said.

How western powers interact with and sell arms to African governments ‘that are illegitimate and that act against their own people, is determined by the stories you have in your head about how kleptocratic these Africans are, how unintelligent they are, how fragile they are, how useless they are, how poor they are, how sickly they are,’ Mbete said, adding: ‘These narratives aren’t benign, they’re not harmless and have profound existential impacts on hundreds of millions of Africans on the continent.’

‘That is why it is important for us to find ourselves and to be curious about each other and to speak to each other, to tell stories to and of each other in order to incrementally shape what the stories are that will be told of us in the future,’ Mbete cautioned.