Women are being left out of Africa’s stories. I want to change that
Sitting in an airport lounge last week, I was flicking through Forbes Africa, scanning page after page of stories of business success and private sector leadership. I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t a single article about a woman – I counted three articles written by women but the editors of “Africa’s most influential business magazine” didn’t think a single woman on a continent of 54 countries and over a billion people was worth a mention.
This isn’t a problem with one publication. This is about an all-pervasive lack of women’s voices in the media and, more specifically, the near absence in our dominant western culture of African women’s voices and stories. The problem is with an industry and a society built out of patriarchy and racism.
Roll your eyes if you must, but the evidence is compelling. When it comes to media jobs, a survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2011 found that Africa as a whole didn’t perform badly: Kenyan women felt able to advance to senior roles; South African women in media faced no glass ceiling; female journalists in Nigeria and Namibia are paid better than their male counterparts. And yet, thanks to the power of patriarchy, the vast majority of what we read, see or listen to continues to be about men. Women are the window dressing. Globally, only one in four people heard or read about in print, broadcast or radio news are women – and the same holds true for digital media.
Other industries are no better. As a lover of comic books, I largely consume a diet served up by DC and Marvel. Much of it is brilliant, most of it is constructed in a male mind. So it was a revelation to discover Marguerite Abouet, whose series Aya of Yop City had a black female protagonist and is set in Ivory Coast.
In the movie industry, only 30% of speaking roles in a list of top 500 films went to women. And as intersectionality works, the darker your skin, the more invisible you are. Speaking about the inspiration for her new play, the actor and playwright Danai Gurira asked: “The stories about Africans always miraculously have a western protagonist … do we not merit our ability to tell our own stories?”
As a journalist I am all too aware of the power of storytelling. How deeply the stories we are constantly exposed to shape our view of the world and our place in it. If, as Caitlin Moran found, western culture considers women who talk 25% of the time or less in a mixed-gender group as “equally balanced”, and those who talk 25-50% of the time as “dominating the conversation”, where does that leave women from Africa or of African descent whose cultures might not expect them to talk at all? If you aren’t accustomed to hearing women speak, you are unlikely to take seriously what they have to say.
It was these questions that spurred me to leave my job at the Guardian and start the Nzinga Effect, a digital platform and annual gathering to celebrate African women’s stories. Named after Nzinga Mbandi, a 17th-century queen in what is now Angola, who managed to escape the “warrior queen” box that African women leaders in history are traditionally put in. Here was a woman who was fierce, yes, but she was also multilingual, a strategist and a diplomat. Reading Nzinga’s story inspired me and I began to wonder: how would the narrative about Africa and its place in the world change if we knew more Nzingas? How would knowing our stories change us as women? We’ll soon find out – the site goes live in June.
There is an African proverb I think of all the time since embarking on this journey. “Until the lion can tell her own story, every tale will glorify the hunter.” With the Nzinga Effect, I’m hoping for a little redress.