The ties between Africa and the United Kingdom are well known. Today, the two maintain cooperation strategies that redefine different narratives in various spheres: art, culture, and education. Indeed, the relevance of international relations and the role each individual plays in these relations are unquestionable.
What may be questionable, however, is how the complex singularities and contexts of each people are interpreted in the course of intercultural dialogues. As the popular saying goes, truth is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, what is truth? Are the African stories known in the UK those with which Africans related to? Are the narratives representative of the UK known in African countries?
These questions are thought-provokingly reflected in the British Council's research, conducted through M&C Saatchi World Services for a five-year programme called New Narratives. The initiative aims to help update African and UK narratives, stimulating dialogue and promoting more beneficial collaborations between young people across both places.
In this opinion piece, I intend to assess to what extent the research from the British Council is effective for a “new narratives” programme. Particular focus goes to what has been designated as “Narrative Touchpoints”, which refer to the interaction of sources and the conditions that shape common narratives. Four have been identified: these are direct, bridging, mediated, and iconic touchpoints.
Direct touchpoints refer to experiences where young people come in contact with people from the other place. Bridging touchpoints, on the other hand, are platforms that involve people from both places. Examples include the English Football Premier League, with many leading players from African countries. Mediated narrative touchpoints, for its part, include actors, TV, advertising, and news media representations of one or the other. Some portrayals are positive in how they communicate another place, but other representations present a more trivial image.
While the role of government and institutions to steer the flywheel is essential in order to achieve desired outcomes, attention must be paid to people, as individuals, and their choices. Likewise, recognizing the multiple and complex realities of each country seems crucial. Understanding, for example, the good, bad, and, above all, the real features of each place - without falling into kneejerk pessimistic or unsupported optimistic theories - is fundamental to the effective implementation of a New Narratives programme.
Iconic narrative touchpoints are interesting in that they refer to individuals, places, and buildings that are identified with either the UK or countries of Africa. Examples include the British royal family and William Shakespeare (UK), as well as images of Nelson Mandela or Kilimanjaro (Africa).
British Council’s research indicates that the dominant narrative, from the perspective of young Africans, is that the UK embodies a diverse range of positive values, being seen as a world leader, academically or economically. At the same time, there is concern about racism and elitism. From the perspective of young people from the UK, however, the African continent, as a whole, is imagined according to two extremes: idealized for the romantic view on landscape and wildlife, or demonized for corruption and poverty. Nuance is heavier on the African side of the imaginative pool, and more lacking from the British end of the view. Surely, more nuance would be expected in engaging a continent of well over fifty countries spread across three time zones and eight distinct geographical regions, indicating a problem.
The research highlights not only the above-mentioned narrative touchpoints but also narratives that young people from African countries and the UK would like the other to have access to, as well as what aspects of the narratives should be amplified and/or avoided. Interestingly, on the one hand, it is concluded that latent colonial and neo-colonial tropes, cultural appropriation, and the expression of fragility are to be avoided. On the other, influential voices and African diversity are aspects to be magnified. If this were to happen, in my view, there would be a positive impact on the dialogues between people and the development of nations, especially in African countries.
Still on the subject of diversity, inclusion, and pluralism, I am of the opinion that new African voices need to be amplified and heard, particularly those we might consider the ‘minority’, for example, Lusophones. Despite the language barrier, Lusophone African countries play a major role…role in art, culture, and education, shaping these relations. These countries are often left behind in some interactions that enhance the ties between African countries and UK. As such, translation initiatives from both, so that English audiences from UK and Africa can have access to Lusophone African creations and vice-versa is crucial. In that regard, Mozambique is one of the countries that has been providing great contributions. One example is the work by publisher Trinta Zero Nove, recognized through the Award for Literary Translation Initiative at the London Book Fair of 2021. Initiatives for inclusion may also include fostering opportunities for cultural and learning exchange.
Another aspect that can be attained from the methodology employed by the M&C Saatchi-produced research regards fundamental tools for real change in the current narratives. First, interaction and listening to individual voices, especially those of young people. While the role of government and institutions to steer the flywheel is essential in order to achieve desired outcomes, attention must be paid to people, as individuals, and their choices. Likewise, recognizing the multiple and complex realities of each country seems crucial. Understanding, for example, the good, bad, and, above all, the real features of each place - without falling into kneejerk pessimistic or unsupported optimistic theories - is fundamental to the effective implementation of a New Narratives programme.
By highlighting the touchpoints that shape common narratives, the research makes the importance of dismantling stereotypes obvious. No birds of a feather. Stereotypical habits allow us to strike blows that jeopardize individual, as well as intrinsic inter-institutional relationships. Better opportunities can be achieved if people better understand the myriad cultural characteristics of theirs and other places. Young Africans and young people from the UK may feel that environments or places are against them when in reality, it is just a matter of clashing views. By stressing this particularity, this long overdue programme shades a new light and view on how this relationship can be successfully built.
Speaking of opportunities, it cannot be ignored that an understanding of the narratives that construct African countries and the UK will lead to greater social inclusion. Such a concept relies on the pro-activity of states in addressing inequalities, however, it is also a complex concept because it encompasses many different realities. The research is a first, foundational step to facilitating understanding of the said differences.
As an author from a Lusophony African country, I am happy to see this research and programme, with the potential to foster dialogue and cooperation between my diverse continent and the UK. In this context, the big lessons to be retained are: rather than the complex realities about individual peoples and places being feared, they should serve for better engagement between peoples; It is time to say goodbye to stereotypes and prejudices. Strictly speaking, it is time for us to rediscover the truth through the eyes of those who are in countries of Africa and the UK.
23 May 2022
To access the full report of the research please visit https://www.britishcouncil.org/society/new-narratives/insights/research.