African stories should be African by nature – Adenekan
Moruff Adenekan writes that to tell a good story in and about Africa, African stories, we must know Africa and Africans. Last month I had the opportunity of attending the TBWA African Conference in Zimbali, Durban, South Africa with My colleague, Femi Falodun to represent BHM Nigeria. It was an amazing three days of learning from some of the top communications experts in the Omnicom Group Network, including TBWA, Ketchum, Magna Carta PR, as well as other agencies from across Africa and the Middle-East.
Aptly themed “Telling African Stories,” the conference provided a timely opportunity to discuss the art and science of storytelling especially from local perspectives. The theme focused on digging deeper for insights and applying a unique tone of voice that connects at a local and intimate level. It focused on our ability as Africans to shape our own story how we want the world to see it, and how to make them relevant in a 21st Century world.
Speakers at the conference, including John Hunt, Chike Maduegbuna, Moliehi Molekoa and Kelechi Nwosu, all confirmed that ‘stories help us make sense of cultural complexities, assist us with solving problems and when they connect deeply enough, can change the way we think and how we behave.’ In unison, and without any iota of doubt, all speakers believe that storytelling wields immense power over human behaviour.
As a PR/Communications practitioner keen on storytelling, it was amazing to learn SO MUCH MORE during the conference. I have pages and pages of notes to study but I wanted to first share a few key takeaways from the conference before sinking my teeth into my notes.
Storytelling is an ancient art, and science too, which is exploited in so many domains, from the study of ancient cultures to film making, fiction writing and branding. Yet, it has never been ‘hotter’ or even more relevant than it is today. Little wonder it has become a cliché of sorts on everybody’s lips.
Interestingly, the principles and success factors of storytelling are closely related with word-of-mouth marketing, social sharing and brand perception all of which are the key essence of content marketing.
In the words of Maduegbuna, “When non Africans make African stories in Hollywood, native Africans usually struggle to see themselves in those characters. There are local nuances that go missing when Africans aren’t telling their stories.” This is apt, because authenticity rules the world. In essence, it is important for brand storytellers to create content with the realities of Africa and Africans in mind. A big example is the usual content we get from toilet soap brands. How many Africans really bathe the way the models in those ads do?
The early colonial writers championed telling African stories to the world. Whether it was by design or default, these writers told African stories from their ignorant perspective, one that saw our stories heavily distorted and lacking in credibility. Africa and Africans paid the price of this ignorance. As more and more Africans acquired western education and got knowledge of how we had been depicted by the colonial writers, the need to correct the erroneous impression, which had gained much ground at the time due to repetition and reinforcement, became imperative.
Growing patriotism of early political activists, who felt the need to also remediate disparity that the colonialists had entrenched in the political sphere, bolstered this need. So together, the educationists and the politicians championed the consciousness of indigenizing African stories as a way of fighting the colonialists in their push for independence.
This enlightenment and the growing patriotic disposition of the early educationists and politicians threw up the need and desire to tell African stories, the African way. One of the biggest steps in this effort was the establishment of the African Writers Series, edited by the Nigerian literary icon, Chinua Achebe. The Series also included works of legends such as Oginga Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenneth Kaunda, Ngugiwa Thiongo’o, Steve Biko, Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta to mention a few. It was these writers who, not only pioneered the telling of African stories the African way, but also took the biggest steps at correcting the erroneous impression created by early western writers.
It was from these African writers that contemporary writers, filmmakers, creatives and communications practitioners have learnt the way of telling African stories in authentic and credible ways, devoid of cultural context, distortions and misrepresentations.
As communications practitioners, especially Africans, we cannot afford to continue to miss the opportunity of leveraging storytelling to establish our (personal, cultural and collective) credibility. And the only way to establish credibility is to tell brand stories in line with the local nuances.
For instance, creating a story around student hacks of Africans is different from those of Asians; and it will be different when it concerns Americans, as we will need local insights and understanding to appreciate these hacks. Google can only do so much, and like someone said, “if you can Google it, then it is not an insight.” African Communicators especially PR practitioners can no longer ignore the place of local insights in storytelling just because we want to tell stories like Europeans.
Just like storytelling, Big Data is another cliché in recent times. What insightful data is to amazing storytelling is what cement is to building houses. They are both elements that hold up the central pillars of communication. Hence, to tell a good story in and about Africa, we must know Africa and Africans. Only stories that connect with this reality will do well to capture our attention.
Moruff Adenekan works with Black House Media -a Strategic PR and Communications firm operating from Lagos, Nigeria.