A conversation between Moky Makura, Executive Director of Africa No Filter, and Adama Sanneh, Moleskine Foundation CEO.

Moky Makura is the Executive Director of Africa No Filter, a donor collaborative focused on shifting the African narrative. As part of her passion to present a positive image of Africa and showcase its heroes and achievements, she created one of the first websites to serve as a repository of positive facts about the continent. Visit the website at: www.africaourafrica.com. Moky started and runs the first storytelling networking event for women called Herstory Joburg.

Adama Sanneh: Let me start with this. Can you tell us a little bit more about the thinking behind Africa No Filter?

Moky Makura: It’s a combination and it’s like a natural endpoint for all the things I’ve done in the last 20 years or more. Africa No Filter is essentially what you call a donor collaborative effort, seven US and UK funders are given us substantial funding to do this work, which is about trying to shift the way Africa thinks about itself and the way the world sees Africa. There’s an awful lot of talk about what we need to change the Africa narrative. It would be really difficult, hard-pressed to find a solution for it, but that’s exactly what Africa No Filter is set up to try and do.

How do you change narratives about a continent that have been there for a very long time? The history of how we got to the way the world sees Africa, is the history of this continent. And you don’t change things overnight. So, what I’ve been doing since I came on board, is to figure out what are the key things that we can do that are achievable, because this is a hugely ambitious goal.

There’s another side to the side of Africa that most people think. One of the things that we did quite early on is a literature review looking at all the academic writing reports, a sort of analysis of narratives about Africa. We analyzed about fifty-six different documents, and we found out is that when people write or read about the continent, they find frames that most stories about Africa written around.

The first one is poverty. Normally, when you read about Africa, there’s a poverty angle to it. The second one is poor leadership. If you think about the stories you read about our elections and leaders and all the stuff that goes on here, a lot of it is around that our leaders somehow are quite bad. Another big piece of it is the conflict. Often you read about the conflict going on in the continent, even when you read about elections, it’s election conflict. And there are historical reasons for that. We are a huge number of different tribes, all trying to get on. Another frame through which stories are told is corruption. There’s always some story that our ministers, and our leaders have done something wrong, or business dealings have failed. And then the final one I think has been growing and it’s one that is perpetuated a lot by people trying to help Africa. And this is the disease. Africa is a place where we need to reduce maternal mortality. We’ve got to help HIV. We’ve got to fix TB. We’ve got to get rid of malaria. The donors who are working in the space are perpetuating the myth that actually is contagious, and full of disease. You know you hear about Ebola in DRC, and you think that I’m sitting in South Africa and I have Ebola.

All these sorts of framings ladder up to one big problem with the way the narrative about Africa as one place, one country. And that’s a huge challenge.

Out of that, what we actually figured out was that there are three sorts of main narratives. But there’s a difference between stories and narratives. I think a lot of people confuse and conflict the two. Stories ladder up to narratives and narratives of what you think about when you read a series of stories. Stories of poverty, of conflict, of corruption ladder up to three key things, three key narratives.

The first is that Africans lack agency, that we have all these problems that we can’t seem to fix ourselves. Africans are dependent when we do want to fix things ourselves. We always put our hand up and wait for somebody to come and help us, you need donors funding. We need this. We need investment. We’re not doing this thing on our own. And the third narrative that I think is the most worrying one is that somehow Africa is broken. It needs fixing. Everybody comes here with solutions to the so-called problems we have.

One day I was having dinner with a bunch of young, really interesting Ugandans. And one of them sort of said to me that when he was younger, he grew up in poverty, but he said that he was happy when he was a child. He only realized he was poor when somebody told him. And again, that’s the power, the danger of narrative. You now start thinking, hold on a minute, I’m poor because enough people have told me. Everything I read says that I’m poor. When I look at my life, the fact that I’m smiling, but I don’t have a television, I don’t have access to Netflix and I don’t have an iPhone, therefore, I’m somehow disadvantaged. The world has sold the world one vision of success, and that’s the very middle-class, very Western concept. You can be happy without full-on electricity, without Netflix.

That’s not the definition of happiness. But that narrative, because Africa doesn’t have all these things, therefore tells us that somehow, we are less than people in the West. And that’s the danger of these narratives.

And that’s what Africa No Filter is trying to work on. How do we introduce different stories that can ladder up to different narratives? And the one thing I do want to be clear about Africa No Filter is not about good news on Africa. We’re not saying that Africa has no challenges. And I think that’s important because it’s about nuanced stories.

You look at Zimbabwean lives matter. There are horrific things going on in Zimbabwe right now with journalists being thrown in. You know, if you look at the hashtag #lekkimassacre, the end that’s happening in Nigeria right now, that’s horrific. Our police are killing young people. But you know what? I realize that I want these stories out there, because it is challenging the narrative that Africans don’t have agency and it is young Africans out there on the streets.

Adama Sanneh: There is a kind of vicious cycle, because, as you said before, even people on the continent will get affected by the narrative that is created about the continent and vice versa. So, I’m wondering, in your opinion, where do you start to break this cycle?

Moky Makura: One thing has become clear to me: there’s a multiplicity of different narratives. But right now, it is being perpetrated and spread by people who are not us. And to give you a quick example of that, yesterday I was trying to figure out exactly what was happening in Nigeria. I’m sitting in South Africa and the only thing I can do is go to CNN or the BBC to figure out these global news outlets that are reporting for an African audience, but primarily for a global audience. I realized that watching them, they are defining how that story is told to the world. That’s a lot of power. And Africans have to take that back.

We need to get to that stage on the continent where we are able to tell our stories. That’s the challenge.

One thing Africa No Filter is trying to do to stop this cycle is disrupting where you see examples of harmful stories or narratives that really just don’t reflect what’s going on. We started doing this on social media where we challenged and changed some stories. There’s a role that we as Africa No Filter want to play almost as a watchdog for narrative because we feel there’s a gap, there is an opportunity there. We want to put more funding in the hands of the storytellers because I think the challenge with us is that we don’t have the money to build a BBC or CNN. But I think one of the things is to strengthen media platforms, dissemination platforms, so that we actually have access to stories about our countries, about our people that show innovation and creativity and not wait for the BBC or CNN to do it.

Adama Sanneh: I was quite fascinated about your journey, your personal and professional journey. And I recently watched you’re the TED talk you did a few years ago. And at some point you said that “in order to find your true purpose, you’re going to take something that makes you incredibly angry. And combining with something that you are incredibly passionate about.”

And in the first 10 minutes of this conversation, I can see both of them very clearly. Where did this passion and anger come from?

Moky Makura: There was a moment in time that I remember really well. I was in a cinema watching “Hotel Rwanda” and there was a scene in the film when things had gotten really bad and they were trying to get all the foreigners out. So, helicopters, and chemokines came. People were fighting to get onto these planes to get out. These were Rwandans as well. The Europeans took the Europeans out and there was a scene where these Africans were left behind. I mean, they were that wealthy Rwandans who wanted to get out. And I remember being so angry at the time in the cinema that we as Africans had created. Well, you could argue about who created the problem, the Hutus and Tutsis. But we had created that it was black on black violence, black people killing black people. Yet we were still waiting for the international community to come and help us out.

And that happens a lot that we’re always waiting for somebody to come and save us. It’s almost as if we believe we cannot save ourselves. Why is it only the Europeans? Why can’t even Nigeria send something? We have to change the way we think about ourselves. We want to start thinking that we are actually capable of creating change.

So that moment I remember, I came out, I was really angry and then I have to do a coaching course, and I got to the stage where I realized I love writing and storytelling. And I realized that one thing I could do was start showing examples of people who were the antithesis of this narrative, change-makers on the continent.

Adama Sanneh: Even many positive stories might not necessarily change the narrative. And to a certain extent, you can also look at it that way around. Many or some negative stories might not change the narrative. So how can we interpret all of this? What else? What are the other forces that you see can help to change that?

Moky Makura: What we can do is influence the way we as Africans see ourselves because the challenge is the way Africans see themselves is the way the world sees themselves, because of the content we absorb, the things we see. We actually commissioned some research at the University of Southern California to look at how Africa was depicted in the media in the US. They looked at something like seven hundred thousand hours’ worth of television footage to see how Africa was depicted. It was typically negative. The place where we tended to get more coverage was in the news. And when it came to hard news, it tended to be about business or elections and things that were generally not positive. So, Americans don’t know a lot about Africa. And to be honest, it’s not that I don’t care what Americans think. I don’t think I can change what an American thinks about Africa.

I know that if we put these stories out if we paint a more holistic picture of the continent and its people, Africans themselves would be inspired. And slowly over time, an American, a British person, or an Italian, might change the way they see Africans.

I find it interesting that pop culture is not something we typically fund. If you look at filmmakers on the continent and you know about Nollywood, it’s probably one of the least funded movie sectors in the world. But it has the potential to change the way people see Nigerians. Other Africans respect Nigerians because they see us in a different light, they see that Nigeria is not that messed up place that they’ve been reading on in the international outlets that they follow, because pop culture has just put a different face on it. That’s how you change the narrative. Pop culture is a powerful tool.

Adama Sanneh: I’m sometimes mesmerized by how often people don’t necessarily understand why this is important in a sense that they almost take it off in like as almost as a matter of principle. But narratives of stories have a direct impact on the life of people. Can you tell us a little bit about this? In which way changing the narrative can really impact the lives of people and really change our potential collective future?

Moky Makura: Let me go back to examples I think are pertinent to the continent. One is “investment” into Africa and the other is “migration” out of Africa. I think these are two big issues that Africa grapples with, and we do need investment. We need organizations, companies, and countries to come and invest in Africa, trade with us. When people in the West, financiers, investors, and venture capitalists read the stories that ladder up to those narratives, they are scared at first. They think they’re going to lose their money. They think that the place is corrupt. They think that the problems are so massive that, this business can never work because they don’t understand the environment. I’m trying to figure out if we can see a correlation between narratives.

The other one I mentioned was about migration. The first thing is to dispel one myth that most migrants outside are going around the world are Africans. Actually, they’re not. When people start believing young people on our continent start believing in an American dream as opposed to an African dream. They don’t stay, they don’t invest, it doesn’t trigger creativity, and they don’t look at innovation. They sit on the street corner trying to figure out how they can make a quick buck to get out instead of thinking, how can I build a lasting business here? If that narrative tells you that there’s no reason for you to stay around, there’s no hope. You don’t build your own country. You don’t invest your own time, your effort. You don’t stimulate innovation.

I often find that when people look at creativity on the continent, it’s always about solving problems. You look at some of the biggest innovations we had, it didn’t necessarily solve a problem. They were just creating and innovating. The challenge with Africa is that we come in with this problem mindset: there’s something broken that needs to be fixed. We immediately put a timeframe around creativity, and you’ve got to come up with a solution to feed a billion people. You’ve got to create around, lifting people out of poverty. It destroys creativity. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that mindset also stars from creativity on the continent because you are allowing people to just create.

Adama Sanneh: We asked you to propose three words that are connected to your idea of Creativity for Social Change. And you choose African, Agency, and Stories. I think that we can see why you choose these words, but maybe can you give us a few words on each of them? And why you choose them?

Moky Makura: The first one was African because I think there’s so much around social change movements that are pertinent to this continent. If you’re working in the social change space, there’s so much in Africa that we need to move forward. The world is looking for voices and doers, change-makers from the global south. We’re sitting in this space. I think it’s a huge opportunity.

I don’t think there’s been a better time to be an African. The world is focused on us. We are the next opportunity. A population of eight hundred million by 2050 of young people. We’ve got this pool of people, of talents, of consumers, and we’ve got to figure out what to do with it.

The second word is really Agency. I talked about this lack of agency and why I’m excited to see these movements that are happening in Nigeria, in Zimbabwe, and in Namibia. A lot of movements came out of social media and it shows Africans have Agency. We’ve been empowered by the technology around us that you can create a movement online.

The last thing is Stories. Stories are important because you’ve told stories. I’ve told stories. That’s how we communicate. That’s how we form opinions about each other. Without stories, then we’re dealing with dry facts and we know facts, and data do not change behavior. We just have to get better about telling them. We have to get better about making sure that they are in the right places because right now there is a lot of storytelling going on, but we are not in those public spaces.