As ebola continues to ravage news headlines – catalysing a misguided, misplaced and misinformed hysteria throughout the West – it would seem that the popular perception of Africa remains bleak and bigoted as mainstream media continues to facilitate stereotypical ideas of the continent. Disease, famine, and civil war may be a reality of the African experience, but they are by no means the sole reality. In fact, disease, famine, and civil war are merely a spotlighted reality representative of the dominant narrative that has underpinned – and continues to underpin – stories coming out of Africa.
Africa is comprised of fifty-three nations, all with their own unique traditions, customs, ethnicities, and histories. Out of these fifty-three unique nation states, only four continue to engage in civil war since 2011; South Sudan, Nigeria, Mali and Libya. News coverage of the aforementioned combined with the current focus on the ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone demonstrates that the majority of coverage is focused on just eight individual countries. Focussing correspondence on such a small percentage of African nations further perpetuates the perception of Africa as the beggar of the global community, the rogue continent unable to help itself.
Contrary to the popularly digested and often unquestioned misconceptions, Africa encapsulates a variety of stories that are unable to navigate their way through the density of over-simplified narratives of helplessness and despair. The affects of this limited representation appeals to sympathy, pity and charity, all of which continue to foster a one dimensional view of the continent. Africa may have its problems, yes, but Africa also harbours solutions to global issues. Social visionaries, like Kenya’s Erick Matsanza, personifies those solutions.
Erick Matsanza is from West Kenya and a product of a single parent household. Erick’s father left for the United States in search of better opportunities the year Erick was born. Ten years later, Erick’s father returned to Kenya empty handed and would eventually pass away just a year after his return. This left Erick’s mother - “a strong woman who took care of me and my six siblings” - struggling to ensure that Erick and his older brothers and sisters were educated.
Erick recalls the difficulty he found completing his education, and how on one Friday afternoon, due to the cost of his tuition, his education nearly came to an abrupt end. On this particular Friday afternoon, Erick overheard his mother and his brothers locked in a heated debate about how they would move forward with financing young Erick’s education. Unable to come to any sort of conclusive agreement, Erick’s older sister, a librarian at a nearby school, would provide the solution by taking Erick under her wing to continue his education with her.
“Today I stand tall because I am inspired by the actions of my mother and my sister.” – Erick Matsanza
Erick is a kanthari graduate, an institution located in Kerala, southern India. Kanthari was established to offer an intensive seven-month leadership program for social visionaries from the margins of society “who have overcome adversity and are keen to drive ethical social change”. The seven-month programme has produced ninety-eight graduates over the past six years. All of whom have used the personalised leadership skills they learned over the course of the program to go back to their communities and implement their plans for social change. Erick’s plan for change sought to address human rights violations in Kenya, particularly issues concerning women’s rights.
According to FSD International, Kenya’s formal sector, which includes taxed, registered and regulated businesses, only accommodates 29% of the country’s female population. While agriculture and the informal sector are the major sources of employment for 80% of the nation’s population, generating almost 60% of the country’s revenue. Currently, women in Kenya do the vast majority of agricultural work, producing and marketing the majority of food whilst only earning a fraction of the income generated from their labor. Women own little to no assets and receive barely any federal support. In Erick’s words, “women have been subjugated to consistent rights abuses while shouldering an overwhelming amount of responsibilities”.
40% of households in Kenya are run solely by women. The result of inequitable economic structures that provide little to no support for working class women means that a great number of Kenyan homes suffer from poverty despite arduous efforts by women to support themselves and their families.
In Faiza Jama Mohamed’s article for The Guardian entitled: ‘Does Kenya Have The Courage To Lead Women’s Rights In Africa’, she highlights an aspect of the structural oppression that is currently taking place in Kenya - “Early this year, MPs voted in favour of a new Matrimonial Property Act, which strips women of their rights to family property, including the homes where they and their children live, if they are unable to prove they make a financial contribution.”
By outlining the current socio-economic climate for working class women in Kenya, solutions begin to permeate. Not only does Erick understand the importance of gender equity with regards to his country’s development, he has made it his mission to help empower Kenya’s working class women.
“My aim is to subvert the top-down approach to social change through which academic or professional knowledge is of a higher value than lived experience. Valuing status over experience leads to decision-makers making decisions that simply do not work for the majority of Kenya’s citizens, especially women who remain discriminated and marginalised as these decision makers tend to represent the minority of privileged men. This top-down approach often creates systemic human rights violations in which the government is complicit.” – Erick Matsanza
Erick plays a leading role within a number of civil rights organisations in Kenya, he is an activist in every sense of the word. He is a key figure for Kenya Ni Kwetu, a movement that protests against corruption amongst legislators and decision makers are seen to look out for their own self-interests. He also works closely with DoSomething Kenya, a youth initiative organisation constructed to create and implement campaigns to tackle environmental issues, poverty, violence and a whole range of other issues that are of importance to Kenya’s youth. Erick is also involved in PAWA254, Nairobi’s unique social enterprise that aims to create a space for creativity and collaborative artistic efforts.
As if Erick hasn’t been busy enough, he has also taken steps towards starting his own organisation called, Spice Chungu. Spice Chungu is about developing creative spaces for women. An online platform that enables women in Kenya to engage with political, economical, and social issues through critical journalism. The idea is to give women – who have been directly impacted by inequitable political and economic policies – an opportunity to produce and share content that tells their stories, expresses their experiences, and amplifies their demands and expectations of their government. Erick wants Kenya’s women to represent themselves and assert their right to take a leading role in the country’s development.
“My mission is to empower women through journalism, critical thinking and creativity. Kenya’s women need to right the wrongs they are all too familiar with in their society.” - Erick Matsanza
George Ayittey is a Ghanaian economist and president of the Free Africa Foundation. Ayittey has high hopes for the next generation of African change makers and visionaries that he has named, the cheetah generation: “The cheetah generation are a new breed of African. They challenge corruption and understand what accountability and democracy is, they are not going to wait for their governments to do things for them! That is the Cheetah generation”.
Erick Matsanza is a representative of The Cheetah Generation that Ayittey so proudly describes. However, make no mistake, Africa is full of these intuitive, innovative and intelligent young women and men who are ready to challenge the status quo in their communities, in their societies, in their countries and on their continent. These young women and men are prepared to reframe the West’s tainted image of Africa as they take commanding steps towards its prosperity.
There are many outside of Africa who want to ‘help’ Africa but do not to take the time to understand Africa’s complexities. They want to help by buying into popular misconceptions of the continent. This inevitably leads to the endorsement of actions that stem from feelings of sympathy, pity and charity.
I urge those who’s understanding of Africa fails to delve deeper into the information relayed by popular news networks and charitable ad agencies, to take just a half a step back. You will see that Africa is engaged in a process of development that is attempting to reclaim its own agency, helping itself in more ways than aid and inaccurate charitable donations ever could. Africa is on the rise and social visionaries like Erick Matsanza are leading the charge – Here’s to The Cheetah Generation.
“For if not me then who? And if not now then when? I echo the words of Mahatma Gandhi when I say that I have to be the change I want to see in the world.” – Erick Matsanza