On Saturday 28th of February, the St Andrews Africa Summit (SAASUM) opened it's doors to 120 students and 6 prestigious speakers for a day of discussion and debate on the role of modern media in Africa. The event took place at Lower College Hall, in St Salvator's quad - arguably St Andrews' landmark locale - featuring an exhibition and waiting area on the ground floor. The far end of the hall exhibited beautiful photography hailing from all parts of Africa, from Ghana to Sudan, which had been previously displayed in the SAASUM Creative Night back in November.
As the clock struck 9.30, guests were ushered up the stairs to Upper College Hall where each seat was reserved with a SAASUM canvas gift bag. A popular advertising staple for many St Andrews events; the bag had a pen, a flip pad, a Nature Valley oat bar and my favourite freebie of the day, an orange beaded key chain shaped like the African continent. As I watched other attendees' rifle through their bags, I gathered that each guest had a different coloured key chain - a subtle touch that struck me as an ode to the many shades of Africa.
The start of the conference saw co-founders, organisers and fellow students Bradley Poku Amankwah and Hibak Latifa take to the stage to introduce their brainchild with the line, '600 years and the Africans are finally here'. Bradley's declaration made the room roar with laughter but was also a sad reminder that the long history of the University of St Andrews has been fairly detached from Africa. The pair reassured the audience that this era would be coming to a close, with Hibak describing the conference as the start of 'a long-term vision to inspire African Studies at the university'.
The engagement that the founders envisioned undoubtedly unfolded throughout the day. The 6 speakers complimented one another, not simply in the common thread of their talks but also in the way their viewpoints diverged. The Master of Ceremonies Prue Clark, an award-winning journalist featured on CNN, the New York Times and Newsweek, set the stage for a riveting dialogue in her introductory talk. Through her experience as the co-founder and director of New Narratives, she discussed the importance of local African journalists for a nuanced and intelligent coverage. Much like the quirky key-chains, she described the role of media in Africa as 'a colourful and diverse topic, with a colourful and diverse list of speakers to discuss it.' This rang very true as the day went on and the audience became witness to disagreement amongst the speakers that culminated in a jovial yet heated panel discussion.
The day was split into two segments in my opinion. The slow yet steady morning saw Edward Boateng, the former head of CNN Africa and CEO of Global Media Alliance, describe a New Africa - one brimming with hope and potential for growth. He was followed and supported by Dr. Viyaya Ramachandran who highlighted this growth and opportunity for business development through data and analysis. Where her graphs failed to grasp the audience, her enthusiasm and spirit shone through - she echoed that Africa was the place to be and it seemed that you would be a fool not to believe her.
The second portion of the conference was when things really kicked off. As a sleepy crowd trudged back into the hall after lunch, the brightly co-ordinated Ralph Simon, founder of Mobilium group and modern mobile entertainment, met the crowd with an infectious fervour. He snapped us out of our post-lunch lethargy by playing the viral Afrobeats hit Oliver Twist by D'Banji, even managing to get three members of the audience up on the stage to dance. To the beat of a clapping crowd, the three students flawlessly executed the famous Oliver Twist dance with Ralph Simon cheering them on and eventually joining in. His talk went on to describe the soul and heart of Africa and its ascent to greatness - in light of the mobile industry of course. While I cannot deny the innovative role of Africa in mobile communications nor Simon's incredible talent for public speaking, I could not help but feel the spirit of Africa lost in all the talk of apps and celebrity endorsement. 'Africa is rising!' he exclaimed, and ended his talk by pulling a long multicoloured scarf out of his sleeve to the sound of a gasping crowd. He thanked the audience and ran out of the cheering room to catch his flight. Despite what I felt was a lack of depth, his depiction of the revolutionary African entertainment industry filled the room with an undeniable optimism and gave the summit an exciting theatrical element.
As Ralph Simon ran out and Dr Stan Frankland, a lecturer in Social Anthropology at the university, took his place on the stage, there was a complete change in tone. Dr Frankland began his talk - Pygmy Zombies in Hyperspace - by stating his complete disagreement with Simon's points on Africa. 'Mobile penetration is the language of colonialism' he said, and stated that Africa is constantly reanimated and told it is rising whenever it is deemed beneficial to the western world. 'The only life it is given is the one we impose on it.' he argued, and the audience shrunk in their seats by the sheer bleakness of it all. With the previous talk as the perfect antithesis, he showed a side to Africa that many optimists choose to ignore - an impoverished, traditional life that was barely touched by ground-breaking apps. Packed with witty quips, his talk showed the crowd the way that the media has transformed his pygmy friends into caricatures to suit their portrayals of Africa. Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey, acadamic, activist and author, followed with an appeal to debunk the romanticised notions and myths of 'Saving Africa'. By retelling her experience as speech-writer and advisor to the President of Liberia, she expressed that even as a Liberian she still needed to learn about the country from the source and move away from her American upbringing. Her talk was the perfect marriage of the various viewpoints and she called for 'Afro-realism' and a move away from the binaries of 'Afro-optimism' and 'Afro-pessimism' - stances that had been perfectly embodied by Ralph Simon and Dr Frankland respectively.
All in all, SASUUM initiated the eye-opening dialogue that will usher in a new dawn of engagement with African affairs. The panel discussion shed light on the viewpoints of the experts speakers, how they agreed and diverged, and acted as a testament to the multiplicity of the topic. In every aspect of the conference, the organisers were able to truly capture the complexity of the continent and remind us that, in the words of the late Maya Angelou, 'Africa is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth.'
Pictures courtesy of Lightbox Creative St Andrews.