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Why is writing important for African youth?

An opinion piece by Ompha Tshikhudo Malima – Pretoria, South Africa

Writing and the archive

The common question people ask is: why is writing important? It sounds obvious but it might not be the case. Writing has been used since time immemorial to communicate and to preserve knowledge - these are arguably the two functions of writing. Historically, writing was used as a system of exclusion for the African. I argued elsewhere that writing was used to regard the African human as "uncivilised" because its power to influence the narrative was recognised. Writing is not just a tool, it is political and an act of expression. While writing as communication and archiving (or storage) is important, we should not be mistaken to think that it is the best or the only way to communicate. Professor Pascah Mungwini refers to this as the “scriptocentric fallacy.” Writing is very important as one of the different ways to communicate and store knowledge but there is nothing superior about it. It does help in serving as an accessible record which can be used (or read) as many times as possible without any changes.

Changing the narrative for Africa to matter

When organisations such as Africa Matters were founded, the idea was to "change the narrative for Africa to matter" and that has not changed because narratives about Africa are still exclusionary. In mind, I have the power of the media even within Africa. Through careful observation can show that most media houses are biased and often side with the bourgeois establishment in post-colonial Africa. One of the issues is that we lack media literacy and the ability to differentiate between journalism and public relations stunts. It is not surprising why the spread of fake news always shapes societal behaviour. We then face two issues - neocolonial writing about Africa and fake news in general. By neocolonial writing, I am simply referring to the white gaze which is used to view Africa as hopeless, in a constant phase of brokenness and the favouring the interests of the bourgeois establishment. A BBC article by Andrew Harding tried to link low coronavirus death rates to poverty in Africa. I have no intention to rehearse the misguidance of the article and its hidden agenda. African youth should own up the narrative through writing to avoid such neocolonial misguidance. "Changing the narrative for Africa to matter" requires a radical review of the current conversations about Africa and how they serve our development agenda. We live in a continent cursed to the depths of hopelessness but we should equally sow the seeds of hope because we do have signs of progress in different aspects.

Writing, experience and activism

It has always been my position that writing is an extension of a society, it is one of the means in which we express ourselves. It is a tool and not the end goal. Our activism efforts can also be well articulated through the pen by doing what Dr. Ezekiel Mkhwanazi calls narrating "truth to power irrespective of the consequences." Writing as a form of activism is not just about clicking the keyboard but about inspiring change. To quote Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” We make the mistake of taking the written word for granted by thinking that it ends there - as the written word. Many writers of different kinds, effected change during colonial and post-colonial Africa by challenging common and dominant voices in order to enforce activism. Writing was a kind of escape from daily issues, and a portal to amplify voices from within. It is used in solidarity with other means of activism such as protests, media analysis and policy changes. Journalists and other intellectuals are often harassed for merely writing to expose societal ills and to offer alternative voices. They are harassed, exiled and killed because their writings are seen as provocative and capable of transformation. Jessenia N. Class and Robert Miranda are of the view that:

...there is something to be said about the momentum of the written word. It can be a powerful thing in the activist’s toolbox for promoting a limitless set of causes, even if the tools of writing itself are quite different from what one might expect to see at a rally: a couple of keystrokes, backspacing, or a play with a punctuation mark or two. But not always appreciated is the ability to have a universal audience at one’s fingertips, to have the ability to share one’s voice precisely and thoughtfully, or advocate for a particular reform. This is powerful.

Considering methods and relevance

Indeed, one has access to a particular audience through the pen and this helps to influence those we write for. The use of language and the platform are key things to consider when writing. There is no use to write for elite platforms while writing about bread and butter issues in rural areas. The impact of such activism should be measured against its intended purpose. Accessibility to material should never be sacrificed for the sake of it. The current danger we face is the heavy reliance on western standards of expression and terminology. There is a tendency of using the word “development” as a buzzword which translates to maintaining the status quo. It is up to us as African youth to question such unchallenged notions and to rely on our own concepts or methods. I stand to be corrected, but I barely see young people in Africa writing in pan African platforms, let alone about African (Union) policies and development aspects. It is often about the United Nations - and its Sustainable Development Goals -but not about the African Union and its Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. If we do not amplify our own policies in Africa, who else will? We should be practical just as Dimpho Lekgeu was when she wrote about storytelling and ending child marriages in South Africa. She recognises “the undeniable power of media and storytelling to challenge perspectives, expose hidden truths and amplify the voices of those who have been rendered voiceless." Writing about our own experiences from our surroundings encourages transformation at a local, practical and measurable level.

An accessible space for dialogue

The beauty about writing is that no matter where we are, we can express ourselves especially with the rise of social media and blogging. These platforms are also very accessible and allow a free movement of ideas, and dialogue. It is a free-for-all but it has the downside of encouraging hate speech and unnecessary squabbles. The free movement of ideas and the way they are stored allows a dialogue and serves as a reference point for discussion. People can write and reply to ideas in the spirit of learning and collaboration. Dialogue or polylogue of ideas is not merely for debating but for all sides to question themselves, learn and inspire. It is also an opportunity to be heard while you contribute to knowledge.

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