Compassion, inclusion and youth leadership featured prominently in discourse at the AEF’s Talking Africa-Europe Special on the theme Now Narratives. The dialogue, which took place on Sunday 30th April as part of the Ibrahim Governance Weekend’s (IGW) ‘Now Generation Network’ agenda, aimed to address the prevailing misperceptions and narratives which pose a challenge to relations between the neighbouring continents. The panel comprised of young leaders in media, culture, heritage and policy advocacy, and shared ideas for more equitable narratives.
These were the words of Mutanu Kyanya, Programs and Outreach Coordinator at African Digital Heritage, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of culture and technology.
Kyanya said for newer narratives to take shape, they would need to be reclaimed from the past.
“Thanks to innovations that we have in the 21st century, we are seeing more and more youth going out there to tell the stories of who they are and what they are about,” said Kyanya who views the digital space as an arena for sharing humanising narratives that paint a more nuanced picture of African realities. “Pick your phone. Go on social media, ask questions, tell your stories about your grandmother, ask questions about who you are, and this is how you reclaim your narrative. This is how you tell the now narrative because the now narrative can only be defined and be written by you. You don't have to wait for the media to do it for you.”
In the days leading up to the dialogue, High-Level discussions at the IGW centred heavily around the need to change narratives about Africa’s ability to respond, with agency and efficacy, to its own challenges.
“Yesterday we heard a lot about narratives […] and I think this positive image of Africa that was referred to in the panels yesterday, it's really really hard to find in Western European or European media in general,” said speaker Julius E. O. Fintelmann, co-Founder of The European Correspondent, a community-funded online medium that tells the stories of Europe.
Fintelmann says inclusive stories are often the result of compassion-driven grassroots journalism that platforms local voices. “I really strongly believe in something that someone has coined empathetic journalism once, which essentially means you have empathy towards the story, you have empathy towards the people that have experienced that story, and you also have empathy towards the people that tell the story.”
Reiterating similar views from an African perspective was Gertrude Kitongo, a producer and journalist with the Africa Features team for the CNN International office based out of Johannesburg, South Africa. “If you're a journalist and you're wanting to tell African stories, keep it local. Go to the people on the ground, because the stories are on the ground.
“As a journalist, The first thing I really believe is, let us tell us our own stories,” said Kitongo. “Let Africans tell their own African stories, and really that's the heart of it. When I'm doing my research, I want to see Africans. I want to see a reflection of who we are, and that's how we make it fair, and that's how we are able to push that narrative that is ours.”
Kitongo echoed Kyanya’s sentiments in encouraging young people to use social media to share their stories.
Illuminating the power of narratives to shape not just perspectives but issues and policy was Jonas Nitschke, a ONE Youth Ambassador, Y20 Delegate 2023, and EU Climate Pact Ambassador who called for better African representation in global decision-making.
“I was just at the Y20 negotiations, and the first point that came up was basically that we need stronger representation of African voices in the G20 and in the Y20.”
Inclusivity at a higher level, he said, meant taking youth seriously as change agents with unique insight into their region’s challenges. “What we suggested last year at this Europe-Africa task force, where we were mixed between young Africans and young Europeans, and where we were also talking together and consulting with each other, was a dialogue format, where, for example, a European commissioner meets with young Africans and listens to their concerns, and where you have an African commissioner listening to young Europeans to understand each other better.”
Kyanya encouraged policymakers to address the digital and energy divides to help young people participate in sharing narratives that reflect them, helping to forge a global village.
“It’s quite unfortunate that English is the language of the Internet, which is why, again, I want to call on every African out here to keep telling your stories in whatever language that you want to tell it because innovation will follow communities. For innovations to work, they have to follow communities. So you will have to populate the internet with your local dialect for there to exist data sets in your actual language.”
Joining the conversation virtually was Debating Europe citizen, Eleni Triantafyllidou, who felt that despite the challenges, there were opportunities for strengthened Africa-Europe relations founded on common ground. “We need to acknowledge that there is a disparity between Europe and Africa, the European Union and Africa more specifically, and that there are certain barriers that Europe has set. From my personal experience, it has been very Eurocentric, very patronizing even, the handling of the European Union towards Africa. But also from my experience at Debating Europe, because I'm from Southern Europe, from Greece, especially with Northern Africans, I can really see commonalities also in culture, but also in everyday grassrooting[…] the way we perceive the world is very similar. So, even though there's a lot of ground to be conquered, I can also see some light at the end of the tunnel in that regard.”
Perttu Pölönen, a Finnish futurist, inventor and author of the book Future Skills, who also joined the conversation online, said that to drive this new vision forward young people needed to cultivate compassion as a skill. “It's nothing new, but it will become more important in the future as we move into the more technological world. The challenge, of course, with this type of skill or any soft skills, for that matter, is that they are very difficult to measure or even evaluate. We should develop these types of skills; compassion, curiosity, storytelling, perseverance, grit… but they're very difficult to measure in traditional metrics at school, or even on a national level.”
So what can today's leaders do to set the ground for this effective international corporation that includes diverse and meaningful youth participation? Birgit Pickel, the Director-General for Africa at the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, said international partners have a role to play in shaping a narrative which reflects a “modern or contemporary picture of Africa.”
“Earlier this year we put out a new policy paper on Africa that tries to do at least exactly that. It clearly has a couple of messages which say this continent is important. The importance will grow. It has a major young population that is there for cooperation. It says we need to address our own history and address colonial structures and continuities while they're there. We don't have all the answers, but at least we write it on the paper. So I think that's a good start and let's look for win-win partnerships and cooperations together and I think all of that can only be done if we manage as an international partner to include young people.”
From the audience, Amel from Sudan said while it was important to invest in stories coming from the African continent, it was also essential to realize that Africa and Europe are not separate. “With migration, with our histories and so on, there is a huge diaspora of Africans in Europe and the marginalization works in many ways, but not least to marginalize Africans in Europe and the global North, who are part of the narrative […] we speak the languages, we know the culture, and so on, but for many reasons, many of them obvious as well, not least bias, these people, these narratives are completely marginalized, sidelined.”
Another audience-member, Lorette from Burundi, called attention to the restitution of African artefacts, asking if the process would form part of reimagined relations. “I've definitely seen stories of repatriation of artifacts that were taken from Africa that are coming back onto the continent,” replied Kitongo. “It's a demand. There are lots of countries that are requesting for these pieces to be sent back, and again it's you as well. It's us as well, saying, send them back.”
“I'm a strong believer that Africa-Europe relations cannot exist in how we imagine them to exist if you continue to push a few topics under the rug as we have over the past centuries,” said Kyanya in closing. “One of the topics is restitution and reparation […] Yes, there have been for very many years steps towards taking back African cultural artefacts back to Africa. But, as you will imagine, this topic is, it's tricky to go about.”
She brought attention to the Open Restitution Africa Project by African Digital Heritage and Andani.Africa, which seeks to open up access to information on the restitution of African material culture and human ancestors, encouraging attendees to learn more about the initiative.