The 2015 World Happiness Report stated that Togo was the world’s least happy country. It was just another example of how the world misunderstands Africa. Africa is a special continent, rich in traditions and taboos. Only someone steeped in those traditions and taboos can hope to understand the challenges and opportunities that lie before African citizens.
And yet the West seems incapable of trusting Africans to analyse their own lives. Take, for instance, the American economist Jeffrey Sachs. An advocate for more aid to African nations, Mr Sachs is one of three editors of The World Happiness Report 2015.
Happiness and prosperity are often (if not always) correlated. The first paragraph of the first chapter of this year’s report mentions that ‘happiness is increasingly considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy’. The 2015 rankings show my home country Togo as being, yet again, dead last, rock bottom in this odd geography of happiness.
By these measures of ‘life satisfaction’, Switzerland is pure happiness and true paradise. Togo, on the other hand, is hell on earth.
Sachs and his team have drawn conclusions from a set of data from the Gallup World Poll measuring positive and negative experiences. Here, ‘positivity’ is sometimes characterised by smiling and laughter, whereas ‘negativity’ is, in some of the questions used by Gallup, defined by experiences related to stress and depression.
How does the polling actually work? Based in part on the oft-used Cantril ladder, participants are asked to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. ‘Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time, assuming that the higher the step the better you feel about your life, and the lower the step the worse you feel about it? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?’
By these measures of ‘life satisfaction’, Switzerland is pure happiness and true paradise. Togo, on the other hand, is hell on earth. But when I actually started reading up on the backgrounds of those who wrote the report, I realised that it’s the same old story. The majority of those experts – statisticians and psychologists and anthropologists and economists – have never lived in Africa. Subsequently, when they do travel to the continent from their academic observatory, it’s usually in and out. They probably rarely venture far from the airport-to-hotel route.
There are many such reports, policy recommendations and multidimensional indexes published every year, but the reality is that some are better than others. The Legatum Africa Prosperity Report uses some of the same Gallup data as the World Happiness Report, but its conclusions are slightly different – and Togo’s ranking is slightly better – partly because the Legatum Prosperity Index gives income an extra 50 per cent. And I personally find the Ibrahim Governance Index to be more useful than the rankings in the World Happiness Report. It is more useful than, say, highly respected global rankings like the UNDP’s Human Development Index because it is focused on actionable solutions rather than abstract concepts – as well as the critical importance of leadership and governance in Africa.
Foreign portrayals of African realities continue to pollute even the minds of native sons and daughters.
Still, the question remains: how can these experts continue to publish rankings and indexes, year after year, when they have not made the effort to understand the specifics of local African cultures, taboos and social norms? Many people in Togo are very happy, thank you very much. They are just not very good at expressing it in a way an American economist might get.
Because of those rankings, Togo seems to be one of those countries that are perceived as perpetually pessimistic and, as a self-confessed eternal optimist, I may be an outlier in my own country. Two weeks after the World Happiness Report came out, I was trolled. Disgruntled members of the Togolese opposition parties accused me of collaborating with the current president of Togo, and promoting a ‘positive’ image of the country.
I am used to online criticism, but this time it felt different. One comment stood out. A Togolese man, living in exile in Germany, left an angry voicemail on my phone asking me why I continued to defend Togo in the foreign media. He ended his long message with ‘Have you ever seen anything extraordinary, or even beautiful happen in Togo?’
Foreign portrayals of African realities continue to pollute even the minds of native sons and daughters. Yes, Togo might be one of the poorest countries in Africa, in the world. And yes, Togo might rank pretty (all right, very) low in GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support or perceived generosity, but the negative emotions expressed by the most dissatisfied citizens end up manifesting themselves as self-fulfilling prophecies that, in turn, contribute to drowning out positive memories and happy occurrences in daily situations.
There is plenty of ‘smiling’ and ‘laughter’ that no data or econometric graph could ever capture.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Emmanuel Adebayor set up the SEA Foundation, a Togolese non-profit, for which my team at TRUE handles most of the media messaging. Its work will result in a series of new schools and sports academies in his home country. Last month, SEA invited well-known musicians, such as Wizkid, to Lomé for a weekend festival and outdoor concert aimed at celebrating youth initiatives, and the values related to determination, empowerment, discipline, peace, unity and prosperity.
Thousands of young Togolese showed up for the festivities, and when my team interviewed them before the revelries, most of the words that came out of their mouths had to do with love, friendship, working hard, making things happen and crafting better futures. Many of the Togolese you see in these photographs have difficult lives, but in no way should their aspiration to happiness be compromised by data and what I consider to be subjective life evaluations based on arbitrary well-being measurements. There is plenty of ‘smiling’ and ‘laughter’ in these faces that no data or econometric graph could ever capture.
Which brings me to the main point of this article, the one about storytelling, and the need for more true African stories and images.
I am sick and tired of those old typologies, where Africans themselves don’t have a true voice in the global discourse on Africa.
In May of this year, at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in the Q&A that followed her lecture, ‘You know, I’ve actually found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself. I used to spend a lot of emotional energy being angry, but now I’m actually much more interested in Kenya covering Nigeria than I am in the US covering Nigeria.’
I feel exactly the same way. And that is why I have decided to do something about it. Nineteen years after I launched Trace, I have decided that my new venture will be an Africa-focused digital media platform called TRUE Africa.
Made in Africa and the diaspora, by and for Africans and people who love Africa, I chose to imagine TRUE Africa as a conspiracy of progress. I am sick and tired of those old typologies, where Africans themselves don’t have a true voice in the global discourse on Africa… where many of those who write about Africa – or African happiness – have never been to Africa.
In the many ideation sessions I have been leading in Lomé, Conakry, Dakar, Nairobi, Johannesburg and even Paris, London, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts over the past three years, my co-conspirators and I have been coming up with dozens of effective uses of the African imagination and how it can best be applied to digital media.
Whether in photography, videography, infographics or just plain writing, TRUE Africa will only be relevant if it succeeds in contributing intelligently to the dialogue about the future of Africa. The desired aim is to facilitate pan-African and trans-continental conversations about African happiness, and African frustrations, while providing new keys for inspiration and future prosperity. TRUE Africa will work if we are able to identify and train the most talented young writers, photographers and creative troublemakers all over the continent.
We hope to prove those happiness experts wrong.
We would love your thoughts, comments and criticisms on this new project; please tell all your friends about TRUE Africa, because our number one priority, at this launch stage, is to keep on going and making this dream a reality. As an optimist – but a realist, too – I believe TRUE Africa will soon be full of good developments and surprises.
In my wildest dreams I see TRUE Africa as a model for profitable, self-sustaining social investment in Africa’s future. We are still figuring out a way to create, one day, innovative education programmes to expand digital literacy and bridge the digital divide. We believe this can be achieved by using value created at the top of the business pyramid to fund innovative journalistic programmes on the continent. This outcome will help train the next generation of African journalists.
It is important to us that one day these journalists are able to make a living and support their families as properly compensated employees or freelancers. Down the line, by creating real jobs in Africa’s nascent media industry, we hope to prove those happiness experts wrong. We aim to contribute, through African stories, to future African prosperity – and true happiness, whatever that might be.