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A story of ‘great triumph’: Dipo Faloyin breaks down the myths and stereotypes of modern Africa

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Dipo Faloyin, a writer and senior editor at VICE and the author of the exciting new book, Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking Stereotypes of Modern Africa.

They discuss how colonialism has shaped Africa, the struggles of African countries to move beyond the stereotypes that have defined them, and the incredible growth driving Africans toward an exciting and prosperous future.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Dipo Faloyin a writer and senior editor at VICE, who’s also the author of the new book, Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking Stereotypes of Modern Africa.

The book, which aims to push back against stereotypes of the African continent, was released in North America in September 2022 and has already received tremendous praise for its research, analysis, and personal insights. I’m grateful to speak with Dipo about the book, what he learned in writing it, and what he wants readers to take away from it. Dipo, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

DIPO FALOYIN: Thank you so much for having me, Sean, it’s great to be here.

SEAN SPEER: A key thesis of the book is that Africa is a complex and diverse continent, and shouldn’t be interpreted, as it too often is, as a homogeneous monolith. You write that Africa has been treated more as an idea than a place. What do you mean?

DIPO FALOYIN: Yes, I mean if you ask most people to close their eyes and picture Africa, unfortunately, only two images come to mind, and that’s poverty or safari, and very little else in between. People see Africa and they see what they’ve been taught and conditioned to see which is a place of pain and suffering where the only joy that comes is animals wandering around in our backyards, and that is a myth that’s been pushed now for decades and decades.

It’s been passed down largely since colonialism and it’s one that has been maintained right up until today. It’s so frustrating for so many people across the region because when I think about Africa, I think about diversity. We’re talking about a region of 54 countries, 1.4 billion people in over 2000 languages.

That’s as rich as you get. When I think about my family’s hometown of Lagos, that is a city of over 15 million people. Again, Nigeria as a whole, you’re talking about over 200 languages. Lagos itself is in one thing, it’s a multitude of things. Let alone this entire continent. For me and for so many people across the region who have grown up frustrated with these stereotypes and this myth being pushed, it feels like now is the perfect time to bring an end to it.

SEAN SPEER: Your story starts in 1884. Why? What’s its significance?

DIPO FALOYIN: Yes, it starts with the Berlin Conference in 1884, which is arguably the most important singular event that’s happened to what I refer to in the book as Modern Africa. I’ll get onto that in a second but in 1884, the colonial powers of the day, 14 of them, including Great Britain, France, Belgium the Netherlands, and the U.S. met in Berlin to decide how they were going to conquer Africa and how they were going to carve it up.

They’d sent explorers into the region who’d come back and told them about all the wonderful natural resources and the people there. They all decided that they wanted a piece of that for themselves by force. They weren’t so concerned by the livelihood of the people who were actually there. What they feared, in fact, was that if they all simply just rushed into the region, that they would fight amongst themselves for pieces of someone else’s land and that might lead to wars between the colonial powers.

Instead, they said, “Look, let’s meet, and let’s hash it all out.” One of the challenges that they faced, as many people can imagine, is that it’s very much illegal to conquer someone else’s land by force. It’s illegal today, it was illegal then, and so they decided that they would come up with a justification for it, and they would create a myth. That myth was that Africans were uncivilized and that they were unable to look after themselves, and they needed what the colonial powers could bring them, which was what they called the 3Cs, which was Christianity, commerce, and civilization.

Now, of course, this was a complete myth, none of this was true, the continent was full of communities and societies that were as technologically and culturally advanced as anywhere else in the world. We know this because there’s, obviously, great documentation about the communities that existed back then. The colonial powers knew that what they wanted to do was illegal, so they came up with this myth, and it’s a myth that’s been passed down ever since.

After that conference, they all set out into the region and they started carving out pieces of land for themselves. As they started carving out these pieces of land, they created countries out of nowhere. Those countries are the countries that we now know make up modern Africa. The phrase “modern Africa” that I use references 1884 until now, the creation of these nations against the will of the people on the ground.

SEAN SPEER: You write that as part of this history that the countries were “built to fail.” What do you mean and what have been the consequences of what the book calls “artificial borders?”

DIPO FALOYIN: These nations were not built for the purpose of the people on the ground. They were built to make it as easy as possible for the colonialists to extract as much natural resources as possible. One of the ways that they did that, and especially the British did that, was they created these comically large nations. Within them, you had hundreds and hundreds of different ethnic groups, different languages, people who didn’t worship the same gods. The aim was to make it hard for the inhabitants of these invented nations to come together to fight off the colonial power. It created and sewn in this chaos and division.

This dividing rule, often you’d get the colonial powers bribing, particularly unscrupulous locals, and turning them against other ethnic groups to create these ethnic tensions that made it hard for these nations to find a common bond and common understanding so that the colonialists can spend as much time as possible extracting the natural resources from the land. That division was just devastating for the region. It created this swirling instability, misunderstandings, and challenges that many of these countries face until today.

As part of that process, in creating these artificial countries, you had the creation of these artificial borders. Many of the colonial powers and the explorers that they sent in did not put in much work in actually trying to understand the terrain that they were actually stealing. What they did was they put down a few markers and say, “Well, let’s just say the border runs from here longer to north in another 50 miles. We’ll end there and we’ll call the French and say, ‘Is it okay if we stop around there?'”

What that eventually created were straight-line borders across the region. If you look at a map of Africa, you’ll notice that so many borders, in fact 30 percent of all borders, are just straight lines. A straight-line border, what that does is that it tears communities in half. About 10 percent of all ethnic groups were split up in between countries. It makes it hard for people to fully engage with the nation that they had been forced to inherit. It created this sort of instability between countries.

Some borders don’t literally exist with lines. Some were created using river bends and natural resources that changed direction and which literally changed the shape of countries from time to time. No one really considered such things as which ethnic groups had a history of going to war with other ethnic groups. They didn’t consider, as I said earlier, who spoke the same languages. All they cared about was trying to extract as much from these lands as possible, and that created this swirling tension that many African countries have been struggling with up until today.

SEAN SPEER: Although the post-colonial era was at times violent and unstable, you observe that today 90 percent of African countries have adopted forms of democracy. Dipo, do you want to reflect a bit on that process? How has democracy come to take shape on the continent and what, if any, lessons are there for other parts of the world?

DIPO FALOYIN: Yes, it’s a really, really good question. Eventually, independence did come, and so in those early days after independence in the early 1960s, these countries had to reckon with what they had inherited by force and this was the chaos that we spoke about earlier and the tensions between ethnic groups and these were countries that had been recently invented.

There was no sense of nationalism and patriotism. There were no real national traditions. You had all these smaller ethnic groups with their own histories and traditions and a reminder that this is incredibly recent history. My parents are older than Nigeria itself. You have a situation in which these new leaders had to find some way of molding all these different traditions into one political system, maybe multiple political systems. Initially, it was tough work. It was hard to do though. There had been this forced tension between ethnic groups for decades and decades before.

In those early days, you had these civil wars that had ethnic groups fighting and tussling for power over these large nations with incredible natural resources. You had one dynamic that was tricky and sensitive in those early days, which was also that a lot of the independence heroes of the day, these were often military men who fought for independence were given the first opportunities, as you can understand, to run these nations and many of these men were certainly better suited to the battlefield than they were to politics. You had to go through these sort of early growing pains.

With time, as you pointed out, the vast majority of countries have gotten through those early days, have found some sense of common understanding, have looked at their traditions, and have said, we need to look towards the future now, in an incredibly short period of time. Let’s look towards the future and let’s try and establish some sense of common understanding amongst ourselves.

Let’s create new traditions. Let’s lean into a common language. Let’s lean into these common identities. It’s worked in a very short period of time. I think, for me, when people understand that history and they understand the context of what these countries inherited against their will and the work that they’ve had to do to turn what was an incredibly painful birth into a far more stable situation.

Now you start to see these countries not as failures—it’s the myth of uncivilized countries. Because one irony was that after the colonial powers were eventually kicked out during independence, while a lot of that early chaos was happening, many of those colonial powers were like, “Oh, well, you see, they needed us all along,” without acknowledging that they had created the chaos in the first place.

That the work that’s been done, I think so many other countries who, let’s say, have had a lot longer to come to better understandings around democracy and accepting the will of the people can certainly learn from the intense work that African countries have done in just 60 years to get to the point where many African countries can certainly offer advice towards many Western countries on how to respect the rule of law.

SEAN SPEER: You criticize what you call the “white saviour complex.” In your view, Dipo, have the various efforts from celebrity songs to more conventional humanitarian aid efforts helped or hindered Africa’s development?

DIPO FALOYIN: Yes. Earlier we talked about the myth that was created in 1884 by the Berlin Conference and obviously, that myth was created in order to colonize the entire region. What you eventually got in the ’70s and ’80s was the continuation of that myth, but for very different reasons. People by then had really started to believe that Africa was a place where people couldn’t look after themselves. That this was a region where only pain and suffering existed.

This idea that Africa needed to be saved and we needed to go in there and look after them and teach them essentially how to survive, started to really gain traction. It did more than ever in the ’80s when these celebrity-backed campaigns really took off and they realized that they could make a ton of money in a really short period of time.

They could send a lot of money into a specific region, but without understanding the nuance in the context of what was actually happening. They often would do more harm because of the images that they were pushing. Everyone, if they close their eyes, they know these images of children and babies with flies roaming around their heads with malnourished families of people of children running around and empty.

These were the devastating images that really, really spread around the world and made everyone think that these are the things that represent Africa at a time when many African countries had gone through those early challenges of trying to establish themselves and had gotten through it and they were trying to present themselves as they were to the rest of the world to say, “Now that we’ve put that work in, come and visit us, come and experience what it’s like for yourself.”

Many countries found it hard to get tourism in because things like “do they know it’s Christmas” were telling the world that Africa was a place of fear and dread and that there was no running water there and the only water that existed came from people’s tears and outreach.

SEAN SPEER: Which is a line in the song. That’s not a clever phrase on your own part.

DIPO FALOYIN: No, that’s a literal line, and also “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time. The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life.” It’s those lyrics that made it incredibly difficult. In the book, I talk about Kony 2012 and I go into detail about Kony 2012 and the way in which it pushed this vision of Uganda as a place where a warlord was roaming the streets, stealing children, and forcing them into his army at a time when local activists in the Uganda government had done an incredible amount of work to push Joseph Kony out of the country.

That wasn’t the vision that Kony 2012 had shown the world. Uganda couldn’t compete with the viral video that became the most-watched clip on YouTube, I think, within a week of the film coming out. Ironically, months before Kony 2012 came out, Lonely Planet had selected Uganda as one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Then this film comes out and tourism to Uganda, as you can imagine, completely plummets. Interestingly, in researching this book, I hadn’t realized at the time that Uganda, after the film came out, had done a lot of work trying to push back against the film.

They’d released their own videos and they basically created this entire campaign to try and fix the narrative that was being spread around the world. Unfortunately, it was no match for a slickly-produced film and tourism kept plummeting for years after that video. These are some of the dangers of single stories and of this imagery and stereotyping that only ever tells one story.

SEAN SPEER: One of the more shocking facts in the book is that something like 90 percent of Africa’s material cultural legacy is now held off the continent. Where is it and what, if any, efforts are underway to return these historical possessions?

DIPO FALOYIN: These artifacts are in museums, they’re in universities, they’re in private collections all around the world. During the colonial era, part of colonizing a region was stealing artifacts. These artifacts were pillaged from communities all across the continent and they were taken to museums. Often they were taken straight to places where they still reside today. One of the incredible things that I learned in researching was just how there is this idea today that museums push that, “Oh, this was a completely different time and a different period, we can’t judge today’s standards by then.”

The standards then and today are the exact same. When some of what are known as the Benin Bronzes were taken from West Africa and brought to the United Kingdom, the then Prime Minister in 1892, I think, gave a speech in Parliament saying how it was a great national shame that these items had been stolen and that they should be returned. The explorer who took them said, “Oh, yes, absolutely, we’ll send them back as soon as possible.” Those items are still in London today.

You have this playing out, across museums, here in London but also in Brussels, in France, and in the United States. There are currently efforts to have as many of these artifacts returned as possible but we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of items. Occasionally, you hear of 10 are being returned, 15 are being returned, and so on. It’s just not enough and it’s incredibly slow. Again, it goes back to what I was saying that countries are trying to tell their own stories and they want to encourage things like tourism to their countries, they want to be able to really present the best of themselves to the rest of the world. That’s hard to do when you don’t have these items in your possession to do that.

The particularly frustrating thing is that this doesn’t have to be considered some huge conflict between the two countries or the two regions, many of these African countries will be more than happy to loan these items back to museums across the world. They just want to have possession of these items in the first place, they want to have some at least to showcase themselves. When you have 90 percent of the material cultural legacy of the continent being held outside of the region, there’s almost nothing that you can showcase yourself. Across the world, what you really have is just holding of other people’s items.

The British Museum has about 900 Benin Bronzes, 800 of them are in permanent storage and only 100 of them are ever on display. Nigeria, where these items originated, are saying “We’d be more than happy for the British Museum to keep 100 of them. If you don’t mind returning 800 that you don’t seem to ever want to do anything with, that would be great.”

This goes back to the challenges of these, of both colonialism and the myth that was allowed to carry on. This idea that too many people have accepted that Africa is a place where there are no individual destinies, there’s just one singular monolith of predetermined destinies. Countries find it hard to push back against that when they can’t showcase the best that they have, it’s this ongoing challenge. Again, that’s one area that really needs to see some change fast.

SEAN SPEER: You have family in Nigeria, which, according to many estimates, will have more people than China by the end of this century. Dipo, do you want to reflect a bit on the significance of becoming the world’s second most populous country and what that may mean for Africa’s economic and geopolitical standing in the world?

DIPO FALOYIN: It’s incredible to see the growth across the region. Especially considering that the average age of the continent is below 40, I think even potentially below 30, and you have this continually developing region where things are changing at such an incredible speed in such specific, unique ways. I think it’s such a shame that people don’t fully explore what that means for the rest of the world and how so much of the future, through cultural movements around the world, communities around the world, will likely come from Africa.

Yet there is this gross misunderstanding that continues to survive up until today when people think about Africa and what, as a continent, it has to offer. Then, of course, the challenges of things like climate change and all that, that’s continuing to impact the region.

I think when you see the growth in the region and you see just how much each individual African country, in such a short period of time, has had on the rest of the world and the influence through music, fashion, food, film, and all many things, it’s such a shame that that’s underappreciated and that people don’t have that curiosity for this gigantic region. There is so much there to learn and explore, and I think there are so many great opportunities, as we see, in that population growth into the future.

SEAN SPEER: You talk quite a lot in the book about pan-Africanism. You write, for instance, that it offers “constructive collectivism building a shared future that also respects and accommodates nuance.” In light of the diversity you describe, including something like 1.4 billion people speaking more than two thousand languages, how will a pan-African vision take shape? How, Dipo, in other words, does it fit into your broader thesis?

DIPO FALOYIN: In the book, the final few pages talk about a modern version of Pan-Africanism. The initial idea around Pan-Africanism was essentially or the more radical idea post-colonialism that was pushed by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was more of a reunited continent based on that shared history of colonialism. Obviously, this is simply just too big of a region to make such a thing work.

The modern version of Pan-Africanism is more like what you see with the European Union in Europe, which is you have these individual states who have spent the last 60 years having to look inward into establish their countries and to establish national identities and traditions and then coming out of that period of time to then build better links with other countries to harness many of the shared histories that they’ve had to help their own individual populations. So it’s more of a way of African countries now that they’ve done that hard work in those initial stages of building their modern states to then say let’s look outward to see where we can join forces to harness much of the talent among young people, especially across the continent.

That work expands into the diaspora as well, the ability to be able to tell your story as a nation helps many African Americans, especially, who have been looking to build better connections with a region that they’ve not known enough about because they have been blocked by the stereotyping of the entire continent. To start building better links with the region and specific countries as well. The modern take on Pan-Africanism is more just trying to get these individual countries to build better relationships with each other as well as with the diaspora, and harnessing the power of that to really have an impact on the cultural, political, and scientific world.

SEAN SPEER: You anticipated my final question about the role of diaspora so maybe rather than ask that, I’ll just ask a more general question. What, Dipo, would you like to leave our listeners with in terms of understanding the past, present, and future of this complex and diverse continent?

DIPO FALOYIN: When it comes to the past of the continent, I think what I want readers to understand is that context matters so much and the history of how these countries were formed is so vital and so important, and the pain and chaos and violence that was deliberately sown into these countries is so important to understand.

One quick example: the first country that was essentially created after the Berlin Conference was known as the Congo Free State. It was given to the king of Belgium, King Leopold II. King Leopold quickly realized that running a country was very expensive and so he put the previously free people of central Africa to work as slaves in this brutal slavery regime that ended up killing half the population, about 10 million people.

That’s the origin story of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation that today has found stability and is trying to move forward. You see these stories across the region and understanding that gives the context that is needed to switch the narrative from all these are just a bunch of failed African countries with little to offer the world to one that actually says well if that was their inheritance back in the 1960s, and in such a short period of time in just 60 years they’ve managed to turn that story around, then actually, the story of Africa is one of success rather than one that we should see with pity and one that we should simply just paint with this broad brush of suffering and poverty and nothing else.

I want people to take away that what they’ve understood about the region is essentially a myth that was deliberately created and to switch that into one around curiosity to go out there and say, “Oh, so what if you have this incredibly diverse place of 1.4 billion people and over two thousand languages, this place certainly must offer so much.” When you do that, I think that the region will show itself to be one that is incredibly exciting.

It’s one that it’s filled with everything and anything from stories of great triumph, of course, to stories of great suffering and everything that exists in between that, like anywhere else in the world. I want people to build that personal connection with it and not just see it as far off place of just arid red soil, but a place that is like them as well and is like their communities and they see their own family and their own community’s tradition. Wherever you are in the world, you see that Africa can offer the same things. I think when that personal connection is built, then you’ll start to see a real shift in the world’s relationship with Africa.

Sean Spear: Well, the first step for listeners is to buy the book, Africa Is Not A Country: Breaking Stereotypes of Modern Africa. Dipo Faloyin, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

DIPO FALOYIN: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a really great conversation.