January 13, 2011
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (father of the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court with the same name) once stated, “A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.”
I think the sooner African leaders come to understand this, the better off the continent will be. Everytime I meet with African leaders, they always complain about how Africa is portrayed in the U.S. media. But yet, they never seem to understand the need to have a media strategy in place to be proactive in the promotion of how they want Africa to be portrayed.
Tourism provides the best example of this. African leaders want more investment from U.S. companies and individuals, but before that can happen, there must be an educational campaign. Tourism is the best way to educate Americans about Africa. Simply put, there is no replacement for actually going to the continent and living the experience. To put it another way, Africa must BRAND the continent in a positive manner.
Before you can convince more Americans about the virtues of investing in Africa, Americans must be stripped of the images they have of Africa—one of poverty, instability, famine, war, etc. While each of these pathologies is present in Africa, so is the reverse. You have a country like Botswana, where all the proceeds from their diamond mines are used to give their citizens free education all the way through university. Not even America does this for its citizens. You have Ghana as one of the most stable economies on the continent. You have South Africa with its own stock market that is booming.
You have a lot of success throughout the continent, but Africa must not wait for anyone to tell their story. They must tell their own story!
How many Americans understand that from the east coast of the U.S. you can be in Dakar, Senegal in about the same time it would take to get to Los Angeles or San Francisco? Why has Senegal, Delta Airlines, or the Le Meridian Hotel (a fiver star hotel in Senegal) not educated Americans to this fact?
How many Americans know that Delta Airlines flies nonstop from Atlanta to Senegal, Accra, Ghana, and Lagos, Nigeria?
How many Americans know that the most profitable route, world-wide, of Delta Airlines is Atlanta to Lagos?
I consider tourism a national security issue for Africa. The best way to fight terrorism is by exposure. The more tourists that visit Africa, the more difficult it is to paint the west as anti-African or anti-Muslim. When Africans get the chance to interact and engage with American tourists, the more difficult it will be to make people hate—because they have had the opportunity to meet a foreigner at the hotel, at the market, at the shop!
The faster Africa understands the value of educating Americans about the continent and gives us reason to visit their countries, the sooner Americans will drop the stereotypes we have about Africa. Americans will realize there is no Tarzan or Jane in Africa, that Africans do wear clothes, or that Africa does have hotels with air conditioning.
An increase in tourism to Africa, will lead to a better understanding of Africa by Americans. Once Americans see the potential and possibilities of Africa, then, and only then, will an increase in investment happen.
So, to my African friends, the next time you complain about how the continent is portrayed in the U.S. media; ask yourself, what has your country done to educate America about your country? Ask yourself, why your president never meets with Black and other minority journalists when they are in the U.S.? Ask yourself why your minister of tourism never meets with Black tour operators and other minority travel professionals in the U.S.?
Stretching is very uncomfortable. But, by stretching before you workout at the gym, you minimize the possibility of injuring yourself during your workout. No one likes stretching, but everyone likes the result of stretching—an in shape, healthy body.
So, how much more with Africa? If Africa is willing to stretch itself into a more constructive engagement with Americans, then Americans will never return to its original stereotypes about Africa. Sometimes it might be a little uncomfortable to both sides. But, the result will be more business investment in Africa, more trade, and less conflict.
If African leaders follow my prescription, Africa will benefit immensely and we will realize that the distance between the continent and the U.S. is very small.
So, in my view, visiting Africa is not a stretch.
Raynard Jackson is president & CEO of Raynard Jackson & Associates, LLC., a D.C.-public relations/government affairs firm. He is also a contributing editor for ExcellStyle Magazine (www.excellstyle.com) & U.S. Africa Magazine (www.usafricaonline.com).