Would the Ghetto kids have made it to the finals of Britain’s Got Talent (BGT) if the team of talented youth dancers had a more positive name and background story? It might be presumptuous to give a hurried response. Here, we set out to examine the Ghetto Kids phenomenon as a continued narrative that Africans promote – wittingly or not– in their attempts to extract favour from the Global North. We look at the negative consequences of this sort of narrative on the individual psyche, as well as on the collective social psychology of Africans who embrace this poverty mindset. We also highlight the effect of the “Ghetto kids” narrative on the Global North, which is the enduring perception of Africans as sub-par, as people who are nothing but poor – poor in character, poor in intelligence, poor in finances and poor in any indices that capacitates the human person.
When in 2019, the Ndlovu Youth Choir from South Africa became the very “first choir act in the history of America’s Got Talent to make the finals,” it was a well-deserved, widely celebrated event. Yet tagging on the mental sidelines of that celebration, at least for Africa’s progressive thinkers, is the effect of the poverty-centred narrative that each individual choir member sought to portray as they introduced themselves. Before a global audience, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, rather than showcase the beauties of community life, the appealing landscape and the joys of African culture and music they grew up in, chose to reduce their entire existence to the lack of capitalist luxuries.
Four years later, the global audience would entertain another team of super-talented and great African dancers with a more grotesque name – Ghetto Kids. Ghetto is such a negative word that it should not be used to address any human being, let alone a child. A quick desktop search of the term Ghetto Kids pulled this up: “Ghetto kids is an American expression that refers to less-advantaged, generally poor-behaved children who are difficult to manage in a classroom.” This word was liberally used about four decades ago but is no longer in use in more recent times owing to its rather unfortunate and demeaning denotation.
The bestower of the name “Ghetto Kids” to Uganda’s superlative youth dancing team must be oblivious to the effects of such a negative name on the psychology of young children. By labelling the kids poor and badly behaved, life is translated in black and white, rich or poor to the children. This is not what Africa holds as integral in their cultural understanding of life.
At the core of African culture is a non-simplistic understanding of life. The essence of life for Africans does not revolve around material belongings. Authentic Africa views life from the lens of an abundance of community. A human being is a human being who is complete in and of themselves as they interact within the community. When that human person is imbued with good character and lives a life that is geared towards community advancement, then the person is exemplary and serves as a role model.
Back in pre-contact Africa, the Igbo people bestowed one of the most respected titles, the Ozo title, to men who never lied, men who were regarded by all as epitomes of virtue. You could take the words of an Ozo title holder to the bank. Becoming an Ozo title holder was based on character, which includes hard work and a commitment to community advancement. Similarly, among the Banyarwanda people, the Inyangamugayo is known as a person of impeccable character who is trusted by the community and is often assigned the task of adjudication between contending parties. An Inyangamugayo is by no means the wealthiest man in a community, as wealth does not build a community. Character does. Many early explorers and missionaries who wrote records of their interaction with Africans note this emphasis on character among the chiefs and elderly.
In the recent age, however, Africa is running the risk of abandoning this emphasis on character, personality and community commitment. Across Africa’s geographical and internet streets, there is a growing propensity for young people to gravitate towards so-called “influencers” who are defined by their ostentatious lifestyles. The more display of wealth, the more respected a person is.
Quite a handful of Africa’s present corp of teenagers and young people, especially those who live in cities, have been raised in business establishments labelled day-care centres. In homes where parents rush out in the morning, dropping kids off with paid hands, only to return later in the evening to pick them up, tired and worn out. Virtue and character take time, patience, and close and sustained contact to pass along – these young people simply have not had the opportunity to imbibe these noble virtues. These parents have been deceived into thinking that all their children need is an education – preferably expensive and private – and subsequently a good job or business to become “something in life.” These children grow up often without strong extended family roots; some do not visit their ancestral homes, and, when they do, do not really mingle with “village children.”
We find in Africa today a society gradually tilting towards an individualistic, money-centred system. This is what every African progressive must resist. In many African countries, the media have taken a cue from their Western counterparts and have permanently stationed their cameras and antennas on the negative stories of material lack among the people. People are filled with fear and anger as a result of what they get to listen to and imbibe regularly through the media.
The labelling of beautiful, talented, hardworking, pleasant children with such a bright future as “Ghetto kids” lies at the heart of the lies that Africa has been fed and now believes about itself. Africans are not poor. Africa is not a poor continent. That someone is lacking in material resources does not make the definitive label of poverty to be placed on that person. There is so much wealth of wisdom and resources in every individual and in communities across Africa, too evident for any person or community to accept the poverty label.
African philosophers, writers, media maestros, influencers, parents, and anyone with any kind of influence over others must become a gatekeeper. We must push back the single story of money as the determinant of a good life, which has been sold to the region by the Global North. In the countries in the Global North, we find a very high rate of mental health issues as a result of the isolation of individuals from the community. The moral fabric of many of these nations is broken and some of their money-motivated actions towards Africa have brought much grief to the continent. These are not the kind of nations African countries want to be like in their entirety.
Africans must focus on positivity, building character, and community. Through these, Africans will be able to manage the wealth of natural resources and other human and non-human wealth that the continent has in abundance.