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Africa in Our Century: A Reflection

By Janaya Thompson

The continent of Africa is filled with resources that have been sought after by the most powerful countries around the world for decades. It is a hunt that marked the colonization of Africa by European countries, which is critical to understanding the present condition of the African continent and its people.

This year I have taken two courses on Africa, 19th century African history and Human Rights and Development in Africa and attended UD’s Global Voices Symposium, “Africa in our Century” from 1-2 March 2022. Personally, I have a deep infatuation with the continent of Africa. While I’ve grown up in Northeastern Ohio and lived in Dayton Ohio for the past 10 years, Africa is where most of my ancestors came from. Yet, I have no connection to it at all which propels me to try to find my own connection to the place and people. The experiences of reading and taking courses on the subject have given me new insights which I share here.

In the U.S., we often consider African countries as underdeveloped. I believe the true culprit of Africa’s underdevelopment is the ghost of colonialism that lingers throughout the African continent. Because of this, I don’t view Africa as underdeveloped but rather as just slightly behind through no fault of the people. It's time that our view of Africa changed.

Africa is changing!

Since 2017, the Global Voices Symposium has aimed to  create global awareness and promote global engagement. This year’s symposium focused on “Africa in Our Century” with five thought-provoking sessions, including a student session on their perspectives on global education and impact. The event was hosted and planned by UD faculty with expertise in African history and contemporary culture. The symposium examined the growing importance of the African continent for our present and future.

One of the first speakers of the Global Voices symposium was our Alumni Chair in Humanities and professor Dr. Julius Amin who focused his presentation on China's Involvement in Africa. I was struck by the map Dr. Amin showed which displays the difference between the GDPs of Africa and China in 1980 and  2016. In 1980, the GDP of almost every African country was higher than China’s GDP, but the map of 2016 was completely flipped, wherein China’s GDP was higher than nearly every African country. What made this shift over the last 40 years?

In the keynote address, “Unlocking Africa’s potential in a time of competition between rising and global powers”, Professor Landry Signé clearly articulated a new narrative that showcases the changing dynamics of Africa. He noted the significant shift in global opinion about Africa in the last 20 years. As an example, Dr. Signé used an article published by The Economist back in 2000 which read “The Hopeless Continent”, referring to Africa. By 2011, however, the Economist had changed its tune characterizing the continent with the title “Africa Rising.'' So, what has changed? Dr. Signé detailed why people may be beginning to change the way they see Africa. For example, the amount of consumer spending in Africa has significantly increased, with no signs of stopping. A rise in urbanization has also been seen in recent years as countries in Africa have seen an extremely fast, growing trend of increasing population in cities. Industrialization has also happened very quickly despite the need for more advanced technology and infrastructure. These are essential development steps that help bring African countries up to speed with the rest of the world. Africa is beginning to compete with global powers through urbanization, industrialization, technological advancements, and the overall increase of GDP in African countries.

My perception of Africa

What I take away from learning about African history and today is the challenge to our way of thinking and the negative perceptions of Africa in the U.S. These are not just attitudes or views. In what Chimamanda Adichie calls the “single story,” this perspective has slowed down Africa’s development. While some people blame the underdevelopment of African countries on its peoples’ own doing, I believe that this stems from the legacy of colonialism. While not pretending that conflicts and problems did not happen in Africa prior to colonialism, the effects of colonialism have exacerbated the continent’s challenges to date. The post-colonial perspective of Africa is one-dimensional and continues to view the continent only through the lenses of war, poverty, deprivation, disease, and corruption. Instead of helping Africa move forward, colonialism has led to exploitation where most of the continent’s resources are exported, while essential goods are foreign imported. We should question why coastal countries in Africa need imports of seafood from across the world or why a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo has almost no access to the precious mineral, coltan, which is found on its own territory?

And these dynamics extend not only to past colonialism. I also think that much of the rapid development of China is largely due to the growth of China’s economic presence in Africa, which is associated with securing the continent’s natural resources. I struggle to understand how countries today outside of Africa can take whatever resources they need to advance their societies, while African countries are left with little. This is despite the fact that while the majority of countries in Africa are considered to be developing countries, they have an abundance of resources that make countries outside of the continent some of the richest countries in the world. How is that fair? It was pointed out that China’s involvement might not be mutually beneficial to Africa though there continue to be polarizing debates about the benefits of China’s involvement and its role in the underdevelopment in Africa.

Personally, I came to the conclusion that  global competition around Africa is due to the fact that African countries are beginning to catch up to the foreign countries that once exploited them. The reckoning is coming, and any prospect of lack of access to Africa’s resources scares most, if not all, of the global superpowers.

In sum, I have realized the need to critically engage with the perceptions of Africa in my society that have been largely driven by Western media and reinforce negative stereotypes of the continent.  While serious problems need to be tackled in Africa, we also must recognize the tremendous advances being made. In my opinion, Africa’s potential has already been unlocked. From outside the continent, I ask of my community, how do we actively support the creation of positive narratives about Africa? 

Janaya is a senior human rights major from Dayton, Ohio. She has a passion for helping ensure the rights of people specifically from marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Black community. At the Human Rights Center, Janaya is a new intern with the Marketing and Communications team and through this internship she hopes to gain more experience that will help in her future endeavors.

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