Narratives on Africa- A Single Story?

By Katharina Teiser, (MA Peace and Conflict Studies)


The following essay aims to reflect on the knowledge of Africa that is present in western discourse. To do so, I will analyse the image of Africa or, more precisely, today’s Democratic Republic of Congo[1] that is pictured in the movie “Lumumba”, directed by Raoul Peck and released in 2002. I will argue that the picture that is constructed of the DRC in the movie is slightly different from the broader medial discourse on Africa we are facing on a daily basis. Therefore, I will present some background information on the movie and its context, followed by a broad overview of the construction of Africa in western media and end with the contrasting picture the movie “Lumumba” is developing. Additionally I will reflect the gender roles the movie is promoting and end with a conclusion.

 Political and historical background

“Lumumba” is set in the DRC in the early 60s of the last century. The political background of the movie is therefore the wave of declarations of independence in Africa that started with Libya in 1951. The majority of African states became independent from imperial power in the 1960s, inter alia the DRC (see Thomson 2016: 32; 33). The main force behind these independent movements was a strong nationalism, (see Thomson 2016: 32, 34). Obviously, not every movement had the exact same ideology, but some main factors can be found in all the attempts of liberation: it was anti-imperialist and therefore had the main goal of decolonisation. Additionally, autonomy, economic as well as political, from the West was desired. Accompanied by the desire for unity and a sovereign nation state on the inherited colonial borders was the wish to deconstruct the economic development to serve African needs and no longer the imperialist’s. This process of nation-building was meant to be state-led and formed by a strong executive-controlling activity within society and constructed against tribalism. This meant that sub-national identities were discouraged (see Thomson 2016: 44). The implication of this ideology brought many problems with it: it did not recognize the complex ethnic relationships within the states and framed tribes as an antithesis of the nation and therefore unwelcome (see Thomson 2016: 37). The state system that was established by the imperial rulers was used by the new African leaders. One of the legacies of colonial rule to be inherited was the arbitrary borders of African states, which led to conflicts about territory. This was also the case in the DRC. The richest region of the DRC, Katanga, wanted to be autonomous after the Belgian imperial authorities withdrew in 1960, but they did not succeed. This situation led to a crisis that ended with the first UN intervention ever (see Thomson 2016: 46).

The DRC has been a Belgian colony since 1885. King Leopold quickly established a system of exploitation, violence and forced labour (see Matthiesen 2005: 24). Millions of Congolese died under Leopold’s regime within the territory. The whole situation, as in many other African countries, became so tense, that uprisings started to occur. After serious nationalist riots in Leopoldville (today’s Kinshasa) Belgium started to lose control over the events in the DRC (see BBC 2018). The consequence was the independence of the DRC from Belgium in 1960 with Joseph Kasavubu as President and Lumumba, main character of the analysed movie and the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais[2], as the DRC’s first democratically elected prime minister (see Gerard; Kucklick 2015: xi); Böhm 2011).

Africa in western discourse

To frame this analysis, I will outline a few impressions and opinions on the picture of Africa that is produced through literature, pop culture and media in the Western discourse.

In her impressive and inspiring Ted Talk from 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about the danger of a single story: The steady reproduction of only one image in context with a person, a country or, as in this case, a whole continent makes us see only one perspective out of thousands (see Adichie 2009). The case of Africa is an extreme example: we are confronted with a range of stereotypes and prejudices daily.

The satiric article “How to write about Africa“ by Binyavanga Wainaina points them out in a way that is painfully on point: He claims that, if you want to write a book that is successful on the western market, you should treat Africa as one country, never display the possibility of a normal everyday life and highlight chaos, catastrophe and crisis surrounded by beautiful nature. The necessarily Eurocentric story should focus on poor, voiceless African people rescued by a white (preferably) man who loves Africa because he cares. This whole aspect of caring from a western perspective is very crucial to the story, as it underlines the devoted, sacrificing character of the hero who gave up his calm, European life to completely dedicate himself for the country that needs him so much: Africa (see Wainaina 2006). This sarcastic analysis bares an inconvenient truth: Stories about Africa are rarely stories that reflect on usual everyday lives but rather focus on problematic, exaggerated situations. This leads to a single story about Africa, that, as soon as you mention the continent, “makes people grimace, shake their heads sadly […] Oh, all those wars! Those diseases! Those dictators!“ (see Kristof 2009). In the western discourse, there is no awareness for another image of Africa than that of „a genocide inside a failed state inside a dictatorship“ (see Kristof 2009). This is problematic, as it narrows “the African” down to a victimized position, that he or she will not be able to exit without a western person’s help. The single story of Africa, that we are told, accordingly reproduces dependencies and (neo)-colonial structures.

Nevertheless, reports from or about Africa have not always been so negative: Going back to Antiquity, Homer and Herodotus describe Africa as a region of wealth and beautiful, tall people (see Purr 2015: 287 f.) Arabic authors take up on the positive discourse about Africa. From the 8th century onwards, travelling salesmen were going to today’s North Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia but also to West and East Africa. They came back with stories about impressive political systems, wealth and security beyond their imagination.

When slave trade and land grabbing started in the 13th century, the discourse changed drastically: Africans are described as sly, mischievous, fraudulent and rarely trustworthy. They would not miss a chance of betraying a European or one of their own (see Purr 2015: 289). We see a very drastic change in use of language here. Slurs like the N-word are used, and people are generalized. The evolutionist and intrinsically racist image of Africa, assuming that white people are better than non-white, is strengthened and consolidated in the era of enlightenment. This finds its climax in the high peak phase of colonialism, marked by the Africa conference in Berlin 1884/85, where the African continent was divided arbitrarily between the European colonial hegemonies.

Through an entanglement with Darwinian philosophy and ethologic-racist theories emerges an ideology that is not only the ideal basis for the morally very questionable actions of colonialism but also allows the press, to create an image of Africa that is not very different from the single story we are facing today. Industrialisation sparked a desire for the natural, noble wild and therefore added a pinch of exoticism to the image of Africa (see Purr 2015: 289). Up until today, even though it underwent some changes and some small steps of reflection, the discourse about Africa in western media is not much different from the era of brutal colonialism. If anything about Africa is reported (being the continent the less represented on the news (see Purr 2015: 296)), it is mostly negative and supports the image of the “poor continent”. In western media as well as in pop culture, the African population does not have a voice, a character or an opinion. Therefore, they are always constructed as the helpless other[3] that is caught in its destiny.

In the sense of Spivak, Africans are silenced and therefore constructed as subalterns in the western discourse. And as we learnt from Spivak: The subaltern is not able to speak, meaning is not able to take action and stand up for her/his own rights, opinions and ideas due to oppressive structures (see Spivak 1999). This undermines what we are told about Africa: It is a continent populated by weak, poor, starving, naked and hopeless black masses with neither past nor future (see Wainaina 2006 ).

Counterargument: The movie “Lumumba”

The movie, ”Lumumba” paints another picture: Contextualising the colonial background by mentioning the Berlin conference shows a modern country with factories, airlines, bars and educated, clothed people. The storyline is based on the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba in the context of Congolese independence from Belgium. Lumumba, a nationalist and charismatic leader, fights for independence from Belgian monarchy and ends up shot as the victim of a political conspiracy. The movie presents Lumumba’s perspective on the events, so therefore it lets an African, black person talk. The movie lacks completely of the described images in Wainaina’s article: There are no starving children presented, no wild, wise animals, no white saviour. The movie shows (arbitrary) violence, but only in its political and historical context, e.g. the violence against Lumumba when he is in prison. The movie also reflects on the colonial heritage of the DRC, as well as the institutionalised racism and oppression, pointed out by the protagonist itself during his famous speech at the ceremony of the proclamation DRC’s independence.

The self-understanding of the Belgians as “civilising” actors without reflection on the regime of violence and oppression they established is pointed out several times in the movie. It starts and ends with a scene that can be interpreted as a very deep critic on the colonial system and the effects it has on today’s DRC: Two white men are brutally chopping the dead body of Lumumba into pieces and burn them in a barrel afterwards, like it is often done with decrease. This can be seen as a symbol for the exploitation of the Congolese people through the Belgian colonial power. Lumumba is presented as a charismatic, intelligent person with a clear centralist political agenda. His understanding of democracy might have been questionable, the movie shows a scene where he is convinced of being the new man in power before the elections were even hold, but it becomes quite clear that he wanted to improve the status quo for the Congolese people.

Looking at the movie from perspective based on gender theory and feminism, there is a lot to be criticised: ”Lumumba” is failing the Bechdel-Test, initially implemented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. This test analyses the role of women within movies by looking at three criteria: 1. Are there at least two named women or more screened in the movie? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do they talk about anything other than men? (see Hickey 2014). The answer to these questions is a clear no. It is reproducing a patriarchal idea of society and is silencing women as many other movies do as well. Women in the movie are anonymous background figures. There is one scene when women enter a military base to protest, but still they are pictured as one characterless mass without individuality (see minute 48:00). It is beyond the scope of this essay to go further into this, but nevertheless an aspect (of pop culture in general) that should be reflected and kept in mind as colonialism is, as well as other systems of oppression, highly patriarchal. If we are talking about decolonialisation we also have to talk about the empowerment of women and the fall of hegemonic, patriarchal power structures.

Nevertheless, the movie can be seen as an attempt of rewriting a small part of African history and describing the main actors that formed the core of resistance to the imperial powers as Biko demands it as a way of achieving black consciousness and criticising white racism (see Biko 1984: 9) and counter argue the common narrative of history made by colonists (see Fanon 1961/63: 15). This is also what Patrice Lumumba had in mind, when he wrote his last letter to his wife in 1960: L’histoire dira un jour son mot, mais ce ne sera pas l’histoire qu’on enseignera à Bruxelles, Washington, Paris ou aux Nations Unies, mais celle qu’on enseignera dans les pays affranchis du colonialisme et de ses fantoches. L’Afrique écrira sa propre histoire […] une histoire de gloire et de dignité.[4] (see Lumumba 1960).

Coming back to the fundamental question of this essay: What do we[5] know about Africa? I would argue that our knowledge is quite limited. We buy into the single story we are told, because it is so easy to work with. It comforts us, takes away any feeling of guilt because it does not talk about the colonial legacies we are responsible for. Even though scholars like Aimé Césaire talk about solving the “colonial problem” (see Césaire 1972: 9) this only reproduces the construction of Africans as subaltern, needing external saviours and ideologies to change the current situation whereas we should finally let go of these Eurocentric views. Movies like “Lumumba” are important to become aware of the many untold stories that are still silenced by the oppressive structures which racism is based on and are therefore highly needed to wake up the white, uneducated masses.



[1] The name of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo changed through time: It was Belgian-Congo under colonial rule, became Republic of Congo with the independence, later was named Congo-Kinshasa and Zaire until it got the name Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997 (see Thomson 2016: 46). In the following text I will refer to it as DRC to facilitate the reading process.

[2] (MNC, the main nationalist party at the time of independence and founded in 1958 by Lumumba (see Prunier 2010: xiii))

[3] I herby refer to Spivak’s terminology of othering, that she introduces to postcolonial studies with her essay “The rani of Sirmur” in 1985. Othering describes the differentiation from groups with the simultaneous assumption, that the own reality is the only right reality (see Spivak 1985: 254, 257).

[4] Translated by the author: “History will have its say on day but it won’t be the history taught by Brussels, Washington, Paris or the United Nations but the history taught by the African countries that freed themselves of colonialism and its marionettes. Africa will write its own history […] a history of glory and dignity. “ (Lumumba 1960)

[5] We meaning white Europeans


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