Author Talks: Africa is not a country

News, entertainment, and even charity campaigns tend to promote a stereotypical image of Africa that ignores its nuance and history. Dipo Faloyin is correcting this narrative.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Dipo Faloyin, a senior editor at VICE, about his new book, Africa Is Not a Country: Notes on a Bright Continent (W. W. Norton & Company, September 2022). Faloyin reconstructs centuries of context from Africa’s history and disrupts popularized misperceptions about the continent, illuminating it for what it really is: a complex region bustling with culture and potential. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What is the meaning of the book’s title?

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The book’s title, Africa Is Not a Country, is a phrase a lot of people across the continent have grown up thinking and having to express to people. Most people see Africa as this singular monolith of pain and devastation and poverty, and with that comes pictures of darkness.

When we think about darkness we think of suffering, and when we think about light we think of joy. Traditionally in literature and in popular culture, Africa is considered to be the dark continent. It was specifically called the “dark continent” around the 1890s, when colonialists decided it was their right to go to Africa to take control.

The aim of this book is to shed light on the context of this region that has been missing, and to give people a better understanding so that they can build a better relationship with Africa as it actually is—not as most people grew up understanding it. That’s why I call it Africa Is Not a Country with the subheading, Notes on a Bright Continent. It’s about trying to shift people’s understanding of Africa from this vision of darkness toward one that is brighter.

Why did you write this book now?

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It’s the perfect time for a number of reasons. During the pandemic, we saw one of the biggest expressions of a movement toward equality in a really, really long time, through the George Floyd protests that started in the US and spread around the world. I felt like this was the time people would be most receptive to this idea of trying to better understand Africa.

For many of us who are from the continent—my family is from Nigeria—we’ve always had this understanding within us. It’s something that I’ve certainly carried within myself for most of my adult life. I go out into the world, and I try to explain to people the specificities of my particular culture and background.

Many people have not been receptive to discussions about racial equality or understanding of identities and cultures, but the Black Lives Matter movement shifted that. It made me realize that it was the perfect time to write this book.

What do you mean by ‘engage with the continent as it actually exists ... not with an idea’?

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I ask people to engage with the continent as it is because most people’s picture of Africa doesn’t exist in the way they think it exists. If you ask most people to close their eyes and picture Africa, they’ll think only of two things: one is poverty, and the second is safari—poverty and safari with nothing in between.

This is a region of 1.4 billion people and over 2,000 languages. African countries can represent everything and anything, from stories of great triumph and success to stories of great pain, just like anywhere else in the world.

The aim of this book is to express to readers and to the world that Africa should be seen as every other region of the world is seen—as complicated and complex, with variety, diversity of thought, achievement, and future outcomes—and not as a monolith of predetermined destinies.

Unfortunately, most people have a fictionalized version of Africa in their heads, which they got from films and books, and from charity companies that have depicted Africa as a place where people sit around waiting for aid packages to get delivered from the Western world.

Unfortunately, most people have a fictionalized version of Africa in their heads, which they got from films and books, and from charity companies that have depicted Africa as a place where people sit around waiting for aid packages to get delivered from the Western world.

When you start to better understand the region, the history, and the context, you start to build a far more realistic reality of what it means to be Nigerian or Rwandan, or to be from Zimbabwe, South Africa, or Algeria.

That’s the connection I want to make for people through this book. I want people to understand the region for what it actually is and not for what it has been built up to be in people’s minds. From around the 1890s [when Africa started being referred to as the dark continent] to now, there has been a singular vision of Africa as a place where people don’t hold their destinies in their own hands—somewhere that is backward. That isn’t the case, so I hope this book changes people’s minds and makes them more curious about the region.

What should people understand about African identity?

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In the book, it was important for me to get across the concept of identity. People don’t necessarily take the time to appreciate specific identities across the region. We talk about Africa in a way that we don’t talk about Europe, Asia, or North America.

In articles about Africa, the media tends to focus on pain and suffering and how Africa is going to deal with COVID-19, for example. What I want people to do is to see things on an individual level, not hover a hundred miles in the air staring down on this region. I want people to understand my own family and the community that I was raised in. There are so many people, cultures, identities, and languages in Africa. Not everyone’s destinies align in the exact same way, and not everyone’s moral compasses align in the same way.

It was important for people’s individual identities to be at the core of this book. Throughout the book, I try to pin the discussion around individual people and small groups because it’s much easier to relate to a different culture when you can see yourself in it, when you can imagine raising your family in that culture. I try to explain broader concepts on an individual level, on a person-by-person basis, in order to build connections that are often missing from people’s understanding of Africa.

It’s much easier to relate to a different culture when you can see yourself in it, when you can imagine raising your family in that culture. I try to explain broader concepts on an individual level, on a person-by-person basis, in order to build connections that are often missing from people’s understanding of Africa.

With those connections, people can start to realize that the future of this region is in the hands of people who are as determined as those living anywhere else in the world—determined to develop their nations, to build new cultures and identities, and to celebrate and represent those identities in other parts of the world.

Identity is an incredibly important thing for me because it’s a great way for people to build realistic relationships with the region. The other concept that’s important for me to get across is context: adding context behind the formation of individual African countries. These are 54 countries with very short histories.

Why is restitution of artifacts a major open issue across Africa?

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The fight to have the region’s cultural artifacts returned is an incredibly frustrating, ongoing battle. About 90 percent of Africa’s material cultural legacy is being kept outside of the region. These artifacts were stolen. There’s no other way of phrasing it: they were stolen and looted from the region during the colonial era. The colonialists of the day knew that the artifacts were of great value, so during their raids of the region they stole them and brought them to museums across the Western world. It is in these museums that these artifacts remain.

From time to time an institution will say, “We’re returning two or three.” Recently, a museum in London promised to return about 70 artifacts. The vast majority of them, though—thousands and thousands—are in the British Museum and other museums in New York and in Paris. The British Museum holds around 900 Benin Bronzes from Nigeria alone, but they only display around 100 of them. Nigeria has been asking for these artifacts to be returned ever since they were taken.

One argument for not returning these artifacts is that Africans don’t know how to look after them. Obviously, that is blatantly wrong and offensive. African countries have had museums and have displayed great works for as long as every other country in the world. Morally, it’s very simple: these items were stolen and should be returned.

At this stage, no one is doubting that the items were stolen and acquired by force. What a lot of African countries are asking for is to have ownership returned to them. The frustrating thing is that if ownership of the artifacts is returned to the African countries, the status quo wouldn’t change, because African countries would be happy to lend these artifacts to museums across the world. The wider issue is how Africa has been treated ever since colonialists arrived.

There is this idea that Africa is a place where you come and you take artifacts, because the people are too weakened and impoverished to be cultured enough to care about them. One argument for not returning these artifacts is that Africans don’t know how to look after them. Obviously, that is blatantly wrong and offensive. African countries have had museums and have displayed great works for as long as every other country in the world. Morally, it’s very simple: these items were stolen and should be returned.

Why is climate change a Pan-African challenge?

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Climate change is a huge challenge and a huge concern for the region. African countries contribute very, very little to global warming, and yet, many African countries are facing some of its most dire consequences, like flooding and other natural disasters. This is despite the fact that many African countries are implementing renewable-energy sources and are trying to do their part.

Climate change is largely out of the hands of many African countries. It’s one of the challenges facing the continent despite the fact that it isn’t contributing to the warming of our planet anywhere near as much as large parts of the Western world. A lot of African countries are trying to work together. It’s a huge concern for the future of the region. There is room for countries to share information, to work together to try and build solutions, and to put pressure on Europe, North America, and Asia to do their part in helping fight the warming of our planet.

When we have discussions about a modern version of Pan-Africanism, it always has to come down to what individual African countries believe would be best for their individual states. Many African countries have been through very similar experiences with colonialism and with the birth of their nations, so there are many great opportunities for these countries to work together and try to find solutions. At the end of the day, a modern version of Pan-Africanism has to be anchored in finding a way for individual states to build greater cohesion with other countries.

How is colonialism central to the story of contemporary Africa?

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When you assess colonialism, it’s important to fully understand the context of what happened. It’s important to remember that African countries were not built to be stable nations—they were essentially built to fail. Their main purpose was to enrich the colonial powers of the day, and for the Western world to extract resources from each individual country.

[The colonizing countries] made the African countries incredibly big. They split up about 10 percent of ethnic groups. About 30 percent of borders are just straight lines. They did this to make countries where people struggle to communicate because they didn’t speak the same languages, they didn’t worship the same gods, and their moral compasses didn’t align in the same way. We have to recognize that the instability of these countries was by design.

We also have to understand that they have had very little time to try and get it right since gaining independence. Nigeria as a country is younger than my parents. Understanding and appreciating that will help people better understand the context in which these countries were born.

African countries were not built to be stable nations—they were essentially built to fail. Their main purpose was to enrich the colonial powers of the day, and for the Western world to extract resources from each individual country.

As for any positive elements of colonialism, they’re only positive because African countries took what they were given and turned it into a positive, like stronger ties with the Western world. African countries said, “Here are the borders that we’ve been given. Let’s see how we can make the most of it.” Any positives that have come from that have been because people across the region have worked incredibly hard to turn what were very difficult origins into positives.

Hopefully these countries will continue to get stronger and stronger, as will this sense of national unity. I feel fairly confident about that. I think understanding the context of the births of so many African countries will certainly help people see and appreciate that instead of being a region of pain, suffering, and strife, Africa is actually a place where there have been many incredible success stories in a very short period of time.

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Dipo Faloyin on how Africa is a complex region bustling with culture and potential

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