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The Unsung Heroes of Africa

By Yuniya Khan, August 2017                   

By this point in time and history, we all are well-versed in Africa’s problems. We can all, in every corner of the globe, recite a litany of challenges and wrongs plaguing the continent. But do we have any idea of what’s working? Can we stand up and point out all the thousands of examples of ordinary, everyday Black Africans working to make things right? The story of Africa is far more rich and nuanced than history and current events would have us believe. It’s time to rewrite the following old and overplayed, one-dimensional narrative of the poor African.

Africa has problems.

Economic problems, corruption problems, health problems, crime problems, poverty problems. “Civilisational’ problems, according to a certain European leader, and maternity problems—too many children born to women in Africa. Problems everywhere.

This European leader’s words were subsequently echoed and seconded by a Polish-Nigerian journalist who, in an article for Foreign Policy, wondered why Africans were reacting so vehemently against what, in his opinion, is the obvious truth: Africa has problems. And they’re getting worse instead of better.

Clearly Africa is a continent in need of deliverance.

And so benevolent western countries come to the rescue, sending in troops of aid workers and consultants, volunteers and trainers, to teach Africans how to fish. We won’t give them a fish, so goes the analogy in this line of reasoning, because that’s disempowering and takes away from human agency. We’ll instead teach them to fish so that they can help themselves. We’ll dispatch and reward smart, tech-savvy, idealistic social entrepreneurs who can design the most innovative and disruptive fishing techniques and scale them across the whole continent. We’ll send in competent and experienced consultants and managers to implement training initiatives, capacity-building programs, assessment activities, all in support of establishing and building up the fishing capabilities of African people. Because from our knowledgeable, unerring western point of view, the possibility that Africans might already know how to fish simply does not exist in reality.

Thus, we will save the African people because they cannot save themselves.

And while we work on saving them, we will keep reminding them, bless their hearts, that they shouldn’t set their sights too high, shouldn’t reach for more than their current lot because, really, their current lot is what they deserve. They simply don’t have the knowledge, intelligence, sophistication, civilizational constructs, to do much for themselves, to raise themselves up, to be our equals. So we will create programs to “empower” them and make them feel like they’re growing, but we will be the ones who direct and drive these programs, who call the shots. Because it’s important to remind them, subtly and gently, who’s really in charge, who’s on top of the food chain. Who knows what’s best for them.

They should, in fact, be grateful that our benevolence has led us here, to help the poor African soul, especially when everyone else regards them as irrelevant at best, disposable at worst.

And yet.


The African spirit still rises.

Far above the reach of those who would try to suppress and bury it.

It’s this spirit that utters a quiet and emphatic NO to old, outdated, false messages. NO to the limiting beliefs and assumptions imposed on them for so long.

It’s this spirit—not the aid and aid workers and bright-eyed social entrepreneurs from the west—that is transforming Africa. Not with the sudden force of a tsunami, but with the steady and insistent drip-drip of water wearing away a stone.

If you look carefully and intentionally, you will find this spirit everywhere on the continent and around the diaspora. Even—especially—among those who dwell at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid.” You’ll find it in the young Black man who mobilizes his friends and creates a sturdy platform to support and motivate other Black entrepreneurs and startups; the high school dropout who uses part of his meager earnings as a taxi driver to help buy shoes and school uniforms for schoolboys in his village, so that they don’t themselves become future dropouts; the young Black single mother who is building a support center for other single mothers, to help them hold on to their dreams and educational goals while caring for their children; the young student who commutes two hours each way for university classes, seven days a week, driven by a determination to create a different future for herself than her parents had; the former corporate career man who now is creating an agricultural training school so that hundreds of Black youth develop the skills and capacity to care for their land and earn a decent living.

I could go on and on and on.

These are the individuals—the leaders and drivers and creators—who embody that African spirit. The “little people” that the big media machines and aid organizations don’t see. The ones transforming the continent, and the world, drip by drip.

At The Emerge Project, we hold these individuals up as real-life examples of a spirit that is alive and well on the African continent. We tell their stories and celebrate their accomplishments through the videos we produce, and in so doing, create a counter-narrative to the Africa-is-full-of-problems story. We intentionally focus on Black founders, creators, drivers at the grassroots level because that’s where the vast majority of people live, and that’s where the seeds of real transformation most often take root.

Through our videos and stories we intend to create a mirror that reflects their essence, their spirit, back to them. We develop and project a dynamic image that highlights the talent, creativity, compassion, resourcefulness, and commitment of ordinary Black Africans. Because, at the end of the day, what we see and believe about ourselves is what we will become.

So, in the face of daunting challenges and a global narrative that continuously and insistently focuses on what’s wrong, it is important to recognize, affirm and encourage the efforts of those striving to make things right. This is not the only answer, of course–there IS a lot to be done. But it helps cultivate a nurturing, enabling environment in which change can take root and grow.

We urge you to join us in this effort. Recognize the spirit at work when you see it, and celebrate and cultivate it. Find ways not only to cheer these individuals on, but to come alongside them in collaboration, partnership, and support.

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