a butterfly on the world

Podcasters Are Reclaiming Storytelling in Africa

The creators of a new batch of African podcasts are becoming celebrities—and they’re not interested in the Western gaze.
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

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When the coronavirus pandemic hit Mozambique, three friends in Maputo missed human connection and meaningful conversations almost immediately. Realizing others nearby must be feeling the same, Benjamim Ngomane, Cleide Caetano, and Leocádia Valoi launched a podcast called Pontes (Portuguese for “bridges”).

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Their podcast was unusual from the start: Exploring lighthearted topics alongside more serious ones, they paint a fuller story of Mozambique than audiences usually get to hear. Their first episode delved into conversations around distance, affection, and human connection, said Ngomane, and it came “after some planning, doubts, uncertainties, but the deep desire to share our opinions and feelings with other people.” The podcast has since looked at a myriad of topics, including consent and the intersection of religion and feminism. Their knowledge of Mozambique’s cultural context and history has made their work that much more accessible and necessary for their local audience.

The trio hopes that amid whitewashed coverage of the continent, their podcast can amplify African voices and tell their story as three young people living in Mozambique. “The stories told about us and our experiences have always considered the lens of those who dominated the media—mostly Western, mostly white, mostly rich,” said Caetano. “We are a new perspective, not confined to rewriting stories to the West but, more importantly, being an African voice heard by Africans and others.”

They aren’t alone. Over the past few years, there has been a rise in the number of podcasts coming out of the African continent and the diaspora. Africans of all ages have launched podcasts on everything from relationships to constitutional law to current affairs, as a means to own their narrative and tell their own stories. While this move toward audio-based storytelling is not necessarily new, the recognition of the burgeoning space has been delayed.

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“Podcasts are exciting in Africa,” said Melissa Mbugua, the co-director of Africa Podfest, a space that brings together and celebrates podcasting talent from across the continent. The proliferation of podcasts has, she said, provided “a way to make our authentic, unfiltered voices heard at home and around the world,” and made a space “for new people to gain fame based on the authentic, community-centric culture of podcasting, without Western influence.” Going forward, Mbugua believes there will be an increase in African podcaster celebrities.

“We are a new perspective, not confined to rewriting stories to the West but, more importantly, being an African voice heard by Africans and others.”

Mbugua began paying attention to the growing podcast scene in 2017, and witnessed an influx of new shows. In 2019, with Africa Podfest, she created an African podcast database that has continued to track the growth of podcasts across the continent and in the diaspora. In particular, Mbugua said, they surged last year: “Podcasting around the world saw a wave of growth in 2020, and Africa is no different in this regard.”

Now a lot of these African podcasters are becoming well-known in their own right. Some you may have heard of, others maybe not, but that’s OK—these podcasts aren’t made for the Western gaze. Instead, they serve as a reminder that while Western media coverage of Africa frequently oscillates between the sometimes patronizing “Africa Rising” stories and missives about war, poverty, and corruption, amid all this are normal people, dealing with normal life.

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The internet has democratized fame, said Valoi, one of the Mozambican podcasters. “The Western gatekeeping of fame, in which anyone who hasn’t made it in Hollywood or America isn’t truly famous, no longer holds as much power.”

Adelle Onyango is the voice behind one of Kenya’s most popular podcasts, Legally Clueless, which began in March 2019, and prominently features Kenyans sharing their experiences of everything from youth unemployment to dating and relationships.

“When I first started the podcast, it was me just thinking ‘Am I the only one who is wondering what this life thing is all about?’” said Onyango. “I was super emotional.” Traveling abroad, she saw the “expectations people have of what an African woman should be like, and I knew we needed more African voices to challenge that stereotypical narrative.” She quickly started to invite guests, realizing the need for more voices to unpack these stereotypes, so people could both tell and hear stories of lived experiences similar to their own.

In one episode, Onyango featured a young woman from Thika, Kenya, talking about her own experience with unemployment. “So many people were like, I’ve gone through the exact same thing,” she said. “Even things like, ‘Oh, my dad said he’s going to call an uncle and try to get me an interview.’ That’s such a Kenyan thing, we joke about it so much on Twitter. There’s always an uncle.”

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After all the feedback, Onyango thinks her podcast fills an important void that affirms to people they are not alone. Famous in her own right during her radio presenting days, people now approach Onyango in a different way, sharing their secrets and fostering deeper connections. In her podcast, she explores every element of the human experience, unpacking subjects like sex, mental health, and grief, topics that not only challenge societal taboos, but would also not be possible on traditional Kenyan radio because of censorship. Still, her podcasts are immensely successful: With 102 episodes and counting, these segments have been streamed more than a million times.

In countries less than supportive of local journalism, podcasts have also started to fill these gaps. Zimbabwean podcasters King Kandoro and Nick Titan host Sadza in the Morning, a show that discusses everything happening in the country. (“If it happened in Zimbabwe then we talk about it,” said Kandoro.)

The existence of a podcast like this is particularly important in the context of the nation it comes out of; the country was ranked 126th out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Kandoro jokes that the only reason he and Titan are able to express their views is because government officials are too lazy to listen to the podcasts.

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“The ruling party has controlled information since the 1980s and that has led to an uninformed youth,” added Kandoro. Still, the podcast is nonpartisan, and they spend time debating, discussing, and sometimes calling out the government. “We are nuanced,” he added. The number of listeners has continued to grow as the duo offers sharp, sarcastic, and often comical commentary on politics, social issues, and events of the week.

Like Legally Clueless, a number of other African podcasts frequently have guests, and delve into personal experiences often unique to the places where they are made. In Tanzania, Michael Baruti covers social stigmas regarding mental health. After he went through a personally difficult time, Baruti discovered that many men around him had similar experiences but weren’t speaking about it. In collaboration with the clinical psychologist Nadia Ahmed, Baruti created the Men.Men.Men podcast in November 2019 to provide a space for conversations about men’s mental health.

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“Cultural beliefs around how men are providers and should not be vulnerable or struggle mean that very rarely do they seek support for their mental health, and it felt important to change this,” said Ahmed. The real magic of this podcast, however, stems from the creators’ cognizance of the need to incorporate aspects of Tanzanian culture in order to make it locally accessible; this show, like so many others in the region, is made specifically with a Tanzanian and East African audience in mind. “Therapy is considered to be a Western concept, but sitting together and sharing experiences, folklore, and stories is part of our culture,” said Ahmed.

The Ugandan storyteller Nyamishana Prudence started the Nyamishana podcast in June 2020 to similarly give space to Ugandan voices and “document the minds of brilliant Ugandans,” she said. “No matter how big a media house is, as long as it is in London, it cannot tell the story better than someone’s lived experience.” Episodes have touched on a variety of issues, from masculinity to hair.

But it doesn’t always have to be African-focused. Podcast creators around the continent believe that there is a perception that in African podcasts, all top- ics should be inherently heavy, difficult, and entirely African. Which is to say that, while people in the West are allowed to be experts on any given topic, this same luxury is not afforded to Africans. Creators are trying to change that too.

“Therapy is considered to be a Western concept, but sitting together and sharing experiences, folklore, and stories is part of our culture.”

The Zimbabwean podcasters Melissa Mbazo-Ekpenyong, Nolizwe Mhlaba, and Nomsa Mlambo are the brains behind African Seoulmates, a podcast about Korean dramas. On it, they discuss the shows they are watching, analyze episodes, and marvel at some of their favorite stars. While the show was born out of their passion for K-dramas, they were also keen to disabuse people of the notion, they said, that “West is best.”

“We should always challenge gatekeeping and hegemonic practices where we see them,” added Mhlaba. “We are throwing our hat in the ring to say we, too, as African women, have valid opinions about art that is being created around the world.”

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While podcasts like Legally Clueless and Men.Men.Men have provided a space for sharing experiences, there are also shows that have allowed individuals and communities to take ownership of their stories and national histories.

In On Things We Left Behind, creators Surer Mohamed and Saredo Mohamed have tried to move beyond Western tropes about Somalia. Growing up, the Somali-Canadian sisters had to contend with faulty portrayals of home. “It’s often as if Somalia is on a different planet, one not inhabited by human beings,” said Saredo.

It was important to them to create an archive of memories and a platform for people to tell their own stories with dignity, and validate the experiences of those affected by the war. The first episode features their father, Qassim Mohamed Abdi, who was a pilot for Somali Airlines. When the war broke out, he fled with his family to Canada.

While the podcast touches on war, the sisters are adamant that this is not a war stories podcast. “It’s about giving everybody in the Somali community a chance to step back and reflect upon what happened. It’s about young people having the chance to get some perspective about why certain silences were present in the home, and a space to start asking questions,” said Surer.

AfroQueer, an LGBTQ-centric podcast created in 2018 by the African podcast company AQ Studios, has similarly tried to report African stories in an African way. “Often local media vilified LGBT stories while international press showed us as passive victims of homophobic violence,” said the show’s executive producer, Selly Thiam. “But we knew as a producing team that our stories were extremely complex and rich and transcended this dichotomy. When we report and write any episode of AfroQueer we just make space for that richness and complexity to rise to the surface.”

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According to Thiam, the show has received a lot of positive feedback from listeners telling the creators how much it means to them. “We know how it is important to see yourself and your stories reflected back to you. It was the kind of show that as queer Africans we wanted to listen to,” she added. “So we made it.”

Discussions about language are also becoming more commonplace. These new podcasts are recorded in a variety of languages, and some of them are even a mix, including combinations of languages like English and Kiswahili or Shona or Zulu, utilizing slang and phrases Western outsiders might not understand. Recently, the Kenyan community organizer Stoneface Bombaa and the journalist April Zhu created a podcast titled Until Everyone Is Free about Pio Gama Pinto, a socialist Goan-Kenyan freedom fighter who was assassinated by the Kenyan government in 1965, two years after the country became independent.

Besides its deep-dive into history, their podcast is also unique in that it is recorded in Sheng, a language that is a mix of English, Kiswahili, and other Kenyan languages like Kikuyu, Luyha, Dholuo, and Kikamba. “It is a language of resistance in informal settlements,” said Bombaa about Sheng, a language that Zhu describes as “the patois of Nairobi’s ghettos.”

While recording the podcast, Zhu and Bombaa knew they were trading a “broad, global audience” for the audience that mattered to them most: people who spoke Sheng and lived in areas where the language was spoken.

This is not dissimilar from Thiam’s hopes for AfroQueer. “The important thing about AfroQueer,” she said, “is that these stories are African stories, African queer perspectives. People enter these stories from that perspective.”

As more and more African podcasts flourish, creators are not only using them as an avenue to tell stories, provoke discussions, and complicate narratives, but they are also choosing their audience; more often than not, listeners from the West are intentionally not at the forefront.

“Podcasters set out to tell their story authentically because they feel that their perspective should be expressed and that their communities need to hear it,” said Mbugua, the Africa Podfest co-director. “In a region where so many communities have felt unrecognized, misrepresented, and spoken for by others, it is exciting to have alternative sources of entertainment and information that come from Africans speaking for themselves and about themselves.”

Follow Samira Sawlani on Twitter.