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Hashtags and Hegemony: How Afropositivism is rewriting Africa’s story online

The rise of social media pages and campaigns with Afropositivist undertones have allowed Africans to redefine what it means to be African

When Donald Trump referred to Haiti and African countries as ‘shithole countries’, his Freudian slip revealed the dominating representation of Africa in the mind of the West. Africa has long been portrayed as characterised by primitivity, backwardness and poverty. This idea is deeply ingrained, despite its inaccuracy. This is because of the dominance of a colonially rooted epistemology on Africa and Africans, that is, the body of knowledge or episteme that exists about Africa within dominating cultures was created to achieve a successful imperialist project. However, the rise and subsequent popularity of social media pages and campaigns with Afropositivist undertones have allowed Africans to redefine what it means to be African, reclaim traditional knowledge and practices, and disseminate new representational models by using virality as a driver.

In his book ‘The Invention of Africa’, Congolese philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudimbe explores how Africa was invented through a process of the West creating ‘africanism’ as a scientific and philosophical discipline that begot and circulated anti-African biases. Mudimbe notes that since the arrival of the very first pieces of African goods to hits the shores in the West they came to be interpreted as primitive and even childish artefacts. Mary H. Kingsley would write in the mid-twentieth century: “the African has never made an even fourteenth-rate piece of cloth or pottery”. In so doing she captured this pervasive interpretation and eventually extended it to even the peoples, cultures and territories that these objects came from. As the continent changed from terra incognita to a mapped region, European explorers’ reports about “barbaric splendours”, “beastly savages” became useful for opening the African continent up for European interests. Finally, it also sought to commit what was African to a label of primitivity and credited others for any ‘progressive’ features of Africanness: accounting for Africa’s many marvels as a result of Arabic or Gallic influence.  Rhodesian scholars similarly sought to credit Arab technicians for the architectural marvels of Great Zimbabwe. These discourses became professionalised through academia and institutionalised through entities and frameworks like the League of Nations and the church and their epistemologies internalised.

However, if what Mudimbe alludes to is a weariness about the ways in which African people are represented, understood and studied in the mainstream episteme, what opportunities do African people have to subvert these domineering yet false epistemes? The truth is that representations are inescapable. Therefore, representational systems that are participatory, collaborative and non-coercive are the alternative because representations that serve the needs of imperial projects depend on the silence of the ‘other’. Social media have emerged as a platform that reduces authority and increases participation in representation, enabling Africans to contest hegemonic narratives and reclaim their agency in representing themselves.

Who says famine is everywhere in Africa?

#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou campaign started in 2015 as a call to celebrate the diversity of the African continent and its people. It challenged the dominant modes of seeing and knowing Africa. By removing the mediator, be it a media house or an academic institution from the primary role of representation, the hashtag gives the represented a chance to represent themselves. It represented Africa in two interconnected ways. Firstly, it contested the negative and stereotypical representation of Africa(ns) that prioritises impoverishment, victimhood, social upheaval and economic woes. Africans posted critical Tweets like “Who says famine is everywhere in Africa. We got food Ivory Coast/Côte d’Ivoire #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou”. In doing this, the campaign showed that there was no singular totalising picture of the continent, especially one that is characterised by inadequacy. Also, it showed off what can be considered as the accomplishments of Africans under the framework of modernity, including the haute couture industry, sky-rise hotels, fine dining establishments and mechanised agriculture. Secondly, the campaign also focused on everyday African ordinariness which subverted the mythical representations that accompany epistemologies rooted in othering – which make the other, its peoples and cultures as exotic and irreconcilably different. African digital citizens shared content depicting and discussing African peoples’ daily experiences, including their commutes to work, trips to the shopping mall, life on university campuses and in homes.

Further, the increasing popularity of overtly Afropositivist pages like @OgbeniDemola, @AfricanArchives on X and @panafricanlifestyle on Instagram has created a counter-public. These accounts function as counter-publics in form and function. Firstly, they serve as a discursive arena where continental and diasporic Africans who have been othered in dominant discourses, can invent and circulate counter representations that more adequately capture their reality and being. Secondly, the narratives explored on these pages, including support for African spiritual traditions and lessons on African history, emerge in response to the exclusionary nature of dominant representations of Africa in the mainstream media and education. As long as they remain active, these accounts’ ongoing dialogue contributes to the resilience and longevity of the counter-public and provides a platform for an evolving representation of Africa and Africans.

Today, many of Africa’s engagements with the rest of the world unfortunately still seek to undo the epistemic violence that the colonial project waged – seeking ways to account for, document and discuss African humanity, intellectual capabilities and social developments. The discourses and representational claims being made by Afropositivists are disseminated to the dominant structure. When engagements cross the virality threshold they are picked up and discussed by media houses like The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Huffington Post, BBC News and Al Jazeera which can be associated with the dominant public. Sometimes, as with #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, these representational claims are captured in academic journals like the International Journal of Modern Anthropology and the Journal of Pan African Studies. This allows critical representations to break the echo chamber of algorithms and they are subsumed into the logics of dominant culture, promoting a more democratically assembled representation of the continent.

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