Images of youth media
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Africa: media and youth

By Iolanda Pensa

The research on youth representations in African multi-media productions led to eight case studies.

  1. Big Brother Africa (reality show and media production), English-speaking southern Africa. Representations: youth between reality and fiction. Key themes: reality show, private and public life, multi-media communication, the influence of advertising.
  2. La Lumière (school booklet), Rwanda, youths' production. Representation: self-censorship. Key themes: the relation between media and their context, the school system, Internet access, war in Rwanda.
  3. Popoli (biweekly satirical review containing comic strips and cartoons), Cameroon. Representations: political engagement and caricature. Key themes: censorship, denied human rights and comics' language.
  4. Trendsetters (on line and papery review), Zambia, youths' production. Representations: young people and their relation with sex and health issues. Key themes: sexual and health education, illnesses in Africa, reliable and unreliable sources.
  5. Going Places (advertising, public art, online works), Egypt, youths' production. Representations: engaging environmental and creative issues. Key themes: art language and experimental communication.
  6. Banc Jaxxle (short films), Senegal, youths' production. Representations: young people's hopes and dreams. Key themes: migration in Africa, the means of youth's communication (music, fashion, slang).
  7. Planète Jeunes (review), French-speaking Western Africa. Representations: stereotypes, the relation between "us" and "the others". Key theme: the influence of development projects in Africa.
  8. Cosmopolitan & True Love (reviews), South Africa (case study discussed by Deidre Donnelly, Natal University). Representations: women's world, the audience and its relation to media production. Key themes: comparison between media productions, focus groups, South African context.

Research methodology and distinctiveness of African media

Internet and development projects

The analysis on African media production started with an online research. Internet offers a large amount of information on African media productions. The material - edited in French, English, Portuguese and Arab - can be divided into four groups: governmental web sites (e.g. national TV channels, newspapers and radio stations), personal web sites (realized by citizens featuring blogs, information on specific themes, still rare), commercial web sites (they are often linked to multinationals and private channels such as "Canal + Horizons" and TV shows connected with big formats such as Big Brother Africa and lastly what may be defined as "development web sites". In these "development web sites", African youths appear highly committed to social causes such as the struggle against poverty and AIDS, since they are involved in campaigns for information and prevention. Interestingly, the World Wide Web offers a great deal of projects that are socially engaged: web sites, booklets, broadcasts, TV adverts, advertising campaigns and documentaries. Most funders of social programs believe that communication is the most effective mean to have an impact in Africa and more specifically affect the "development" process. Therefore, they promote and realize programs in this field and then advertise their results in the web. In this way, Internet becomes a primary source of information on media productions that deal with development and are funded by international institutions. The other projects that do not focus on development, are smaller in dimension and do not rely on international support, are rarely advertised in the web and hardly find space in the web.

Online African media production
In order to find online development productions the research must identify the funders and organisations that deal with international cooperation.1. Information on African media can be found in specific browsers specialized on Africa or sponsored by developing countries2. For instance, in South Africa media analyses have been extremely developed. Many media-specialized institutes have published their researches in their web sites3. Post-Apartheid South Africa has invested a lot in the study of media production in order to understand its past and to promote a responsible media communication.

The application of the research of Glocal Youth
The analysis of the online documentation was the starting point for selecting the case study Trendsetters. "Trendsetters" is a development project financed by an international organisation and executed in Zambia by a youth's association. By using online documentation, collecting larger amount of data for the case studies (addresses and references), and establishing links with researchers, institutions and universities (particularly with the Department of Cultural and Media Studies at KwaZulu-Natal University in South Africa and with the browser Communication Initiative becomes easier.

In particular, two case studies can be defined as "development sites". The first one, La Lumière is a school booklet promoted by a school and a missionary association, which started as a practical exercise for the students of an IT workshop in Rwanda. The second one, Planète Jeunes is the most popular review among young people in French-speaking Western Africa. It is edited by a non-profit association based in Paris.

Art media

Another access to African media productions is offered by art. Media and other communication means - such as comics, posters, documentaries, painted houses - are now studied and valued in contemporary art. This approach tends to look for and promote a great variety of languages, often unconventional, and offers a much richer and innovative image of African systems of communication. In some cases through this artistic approach the African continent can be perceived from a different point of view (by valuing for instance the adverts painted on houses, the "pass the word on" communication system, and the surprising development of mobile telephony). In other cases, this approach brings to the surface phenomena that deserve to be observed (such as independent artistic projects and digital art). Furthermore, it can promote innovative initiatives that open new communication channels (that was the case of Going Places and other projects financed by the Doual'Art art centre, located in Douala, Cameroon. The latter through urban interventions aims at placing under the spotlight young people and women, who according to the traditional hierarchical rules would not have the right to express themselves other than through art).

African media productions and contemporary art
Information on African media productions and innovating means of communication can be found in contemporary art reviews and web sites. We can mention here some web sites and reviews of particular interest: "Africancolours" (English version:, "Africultures" (French version:, "Universes in Universe" (English and German version:, "Third Text" (English version, "NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art" (English version), "Revue Noire" (French and English versions, "Artthrob" (English version, "Glendora" (Lagos, Nigeria; English version), "Coartnews" (French and English versions and "Africa e Mediterraneo" (Italian, English and French versions specialized in comics and cultural studies).

Application within the research of Glocal Youth
Within Glocal Youth, two artistic projects have been identified as case studies Going Places (an urban intervention realised in Cairo by young Egyptian artists) and Banc Jaxxle (a short film by a young Senegalese director and presented in many international film festivals). The satiric biweekly Popoli is also closely connected with the art field as it contains comics and cartoons.

The media productions tend to have always new formats as they change quickly. In our research, we tried to select case studies that could be easily applied to the contexts of formal and non-formal education. Specifically, the materials were chosen in terms of their availability and reproducibility. Nonetheless, it would be extremely interesting to develop these studies further in order to focus on those media and media productions that can be hardly labelled and classified, as the case of the "pass the word on" communication system and the slang utilized with mobile phones.

Aaah, Africa!

The method employed in the selection and in the research of the case studies was based on an underlying intention: avoiding and challenging the stereotypes on Africa. Africa is simply a continent, and not "a continent to be saved", or "a poor continent", or "a continent where people have sense of rhythm". We should rather regard Africa as the most underestimated continent of the world. The selected case studies do not attempt to provide a portrait of Africa, since they cannot represent all the nations, regions, linguistic areas and income ranges of the continent. The case studies do not offer any general rapresentation, rather they can attract the reader and raise some key issues.

Condemned development
One of the most interesting features of African media products and means of communication is the support they receive from international funders. The international investors (such as: foundations, NGOs, cooperation projects, foreign cultural centres, the European Commission, Ministries of Foreign Affairs) tend to provide funds especially for initiatives that advocated development. Indeed, the international funders that sponsor African projects usually finance almost exclusively development initiatives. Consequently, the local initiatives that obtain the funds are usually inserted in development discourses4.

Interestingly, even advertising can be transformed in a development project in Africa: Coca Cola, for example, donates fridges (in which you can only fit Fanta, Sprite and Coke and whose label is clearly visible) in order to promote and support the local market.

Access and productions
Access is another key issue in African media. Access has various meanings: being able to read written material, be informed, speak French, English or standard/classic Arab to comprehend the national news, have internet connection, afford newspapers, the presence of a national censorship system, access to libraries with updated texts... Thus, access has much to do with African widespread illiteracy, censorship, denial of human rights, linguistic issues, digital divide, and obviously, the social, political and economic situation of each specific area.

As far as access is concerned, Africa offers a wide range of extremely different situations. Contrary to Western countries, even within the same African nation, district or city, completely different levels of access can be found. However, innovative formal and informal systems have been created in the continent to facilitate the access to media products, means of communication and generally to sources of information. The latter can be exemplified by the diffusion of mobile telephony, which is slowly replacing landlines (mobiles do not require the installation of cables, they are not tied to national bureaucracy, and work with pre-paid cards, which are relatively cheap), call boxes (which are similar to open air phone boxes, and are specialized in mobile telephony), satellites and wireless channels (these systems are usually installed in the inland, for fast internet connections and long-distance medicine), shared-access systems (a television can be shared between several families; newspapers and magazines can be read by many people; Internet is accessible through internet points; phoning-centres are extremely common to make phone calls since they are usually very frequent in the quarters) and last but not least the everlasting "pass the word on" system6

Moreover, the issue of access is interwoven with issues of production, which is usually extremely problematic. Independent young productions are extremely rare for many different reasons. To mention a few: the difficulties linked to limited budgets, the ties imposed by international financers, the obstacles posed by national burocracy, the rigid structure of school systems and obviously the impediments to gain access.

The project Glocal Youth is inserted within this frame. The project has considered and analysed productions of young people, realised as artistic initiative (Going Places) promoted within development projects (Trendsetters), within traditional school curricula (La Lumière) and supported by experimental educative centres (Banc Jaxxle). Other interesting young media productions are Radio Bessengué City, Radio Oxi-Jeunes and the Kinshasa street comics. The former started in the Doual'Art art centre and was directed by the artist Goddy Leye as an urban intervention in Douala, Cameroon. Leye then started a new project establishing a small radio station where all the local children could participate during their holidays. The second project Radio Oxi-Jeunes was created in Pikine, in the suburbs of Dakar, taking advantage of the Internet availability. Unfortunately though, these projects have not yet been analysed within the project Glocal Youth.

Being young: youth representations in African media products

The project Glocal Youth investigates youth representations in media productions that are present in different areas of the world. The research revolves around three main themes: youth, citizenship and difference.


Generally, people refer to "youth" when they are not young any more, or when "youth" becomes the main focus of a project as it ensures fundings. According to the European Union the definition "young" applies to those who are aged between 15 and 25, but there are few exceptions. Italian Rails offer discounts for young people up to 26 years old, whereas the project Glocal Youth addresses people between 14 and 20 years old (since the designed activities are designed for high school pupils). Consequently, the word "youth" does not refer to a specific group of people, but can be applied depending on age, education or lifestyle standards.

According to most statistics, Africa is a young continent: the average age is 20 years, and the average life span is much shorter than in Europe. In different parts of the world, the average age is affected by the presence of armed conflicts and the spread of illnesses. Sometimes, during war times a whole age group disappears. As a matter of facts, not only are the males of specific ages recruited but also children (it will suffice to think about the phenomenon of children soldiers) and civil society. Wars are also responsible for the many orphans and street children all around Africa..

Moreover, the virus of HIV has a major incidence in the transformation process of the population of the world at large, and more specifically of Africa, where the virus is particularly diffused.

Depending on the nation and its social and political context, it is quite frequent to come across classes that gather pupils of different ages. Needless to say, this is very rare in the Western education system. This phenomenon can be understood only by taking into consideration different causes. In some cases, young people start their academic iter at different times, in other cases they quit and start again, and they have to take their exams over again.

The school magazine La Lumière is produced by editors whose age ranges between 14 to 30. The war in Rwanda and the different family situations often forced children to interrupt and then start again their education in different times. Another factor that has to be considered is that classes are taught in French. Students in Rwanda as well as in most African nations start their curriculum learning a new language that differs from the language that they normally employ in their oral conversations. This challenge is one of the causes of the longer studying times. School systems, in particular in public and missionary schools still rely on very strict and rigid didactic models: children are taught to obey and pay respect and therefore their creativity and self-discovery is not encouraged.

For example, the Forum Media Centre in Dakar, which has produced the short film Banc Jaxxle. offers trainings especially for children from the suburbs of the city. The students who learn the different phases of production of the digital movies come from difficult backgrounds and this partly explains why the age of the participants varies incredibly.

Lastly, strikes that often last for a long time span, should be considered among the major forces that determine the age of the students that attend school and trainings. For instance, one particular strike, named les années blanches, was carried out by the teachers for a whole academic year.7

Social problems such as soldier children, children prostitution, mutilation, AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, miseries and street children are not phenomena that are unique to Africa, yet they are more frequent than in the West. Regarding the African youth, it is crucial to emphasize that not all the youths of the continent live in difficult or dramatic conditions. Yet, it is our duty to underline that those who are victims of these social problems rarely have the freedom and the privilege of talking about their reality. There are however exceptions to that. There are few associations whose mission is to re-integrate children who endured hardships. These groups tend to employ techniques such as painting, photography, poetry and interviews in order to offer to these children the chance to narrate their own story (for instance the Man-Keneen-Ki association in Dakar is committed to street children).

Conversely, the TV program Big Brother Africa which was analysed by Glocal Youth, provides an image of young Africans that is perceived as atypical. The program has been considered immoral in relation to the emergencies of the continent and has been read as a direct consequence of an invasive globalisation. Specifically, many critiques have been advanced to the superficiality with which the guests of the South African house dealt with their love life. This superficiality has been regarded as non-educative for an audience, which is largely affected by AIDS. Needless to say, "Big Brother" does not offer a realistic representation of youth in any country where it is broadcasted, but rather a boring caricature orchestrated by pay-tv. Yet, it is interesting to consider the "Big Brother" phenomenon given its great popularity in Africa. Probably, the entertainment industry (without any educative or development mission, but deceiving the participants by promising fame and wealth) works all over the world almost like a lottery.

Being citizen

Development and health projects
As already mentioned, the media products and the "development" media are manifold in Africa. Moreover, they have acquired much visibility especially through the employment of Internet. Whilst Planète Jeunes is essentially a development project started and supported by the West, Trendsetters is a local initiative. The latter is a review both printed and online born in Zambia, targeting young people and produced by a youth association that supplies information on health and sexuality. Sexuality is without any doubt a key issue in the development projects that are intended for a young audience, since they are usually the first victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The campaigns of health and sexual education employ various means of communication: radio, TV adverts, film, documentary, comics, boards, stickers, budges, music, web sites etc.

Political engagement
Popoli èis a satirical biweekly produced in Cameroon whose comic strips are very popular among young people. The pages of the magazine are full of political satire that was often censored. Similarly, the director of the publication was often attacked by the government and the police. Youths and mostly students have been the most active agents in the national political arena. In election time, for example, young people write slogans in the streets supporting one of the other political candidate and sometimes they even use violence as a political tool. The strength of youth's political activism is reflected in the high numbers of associations linked to political parties.

Going Places is an extremely innovative project of urban art, which has been produced in Cairo by young Egyptian artists. The dominance of issues related to the environment shows their interest and concern for the urban space and its evolution.

This interest for the environment also appears in other media productions created in Africa. This trend is exemplified by Set Sétal, which since the 1990's promoted youth engagement in the urban areas of Dakar, Senegal. This movement was grounded on the idea of improving the quality of life: it promoted the creation of graffiti and the cleaning of the city. Various groups of musicians and artists have maintained this tradition up till now supporting youth engagement both in the city, and in particular in the suburbs, and in rural areas.

Being "other"

The dream of migrating is the central theme of many media productions realized in Africa. For example, the short movie Banc Jaxxle by a young Senegalese director analyses the dream of departure and its illusory nature. Most of the youths who wish to migrate are aware of the challenges that they would have to face at their arrival. Yet, seen from home, these challenges seem endurable and minimal compared to the advantages offered by the flight: it is as if from home "the others" were the lucky ones who have returned enriched from the West and can now afford all their dreams.

The stereotypes
Some articles in Planète Jeunes offer an image of the youth which is extremely "politically correct". In other words, it seems that they are suggesting that "youths are similar everywhere in the world (similar in terms of age and wish to enjoy themselves) although each person has his/her personal style and colour skin". This shows that Planète Jeunes has a didactic and development purpose. The magazine is sponsored by international companies and has great visibility since it is often used as a text book in the schools. As a matter of facts, as opposed to books, magazines allow teachers to deal with updated issues. The underlying mission of the magazine influences both the way in which youths are represented and at the same time how readers reproduce the behaviours and the trends divulged in the magazine. This clear didactic purpose often risks to justify the creation of new stereotypes since most of the images in the review are artificial. This kind of publication - that has a didactic purpose, aims at being politically correct and has a wide diffusion and influence - does not exist in Italy: the only reviews that are comparable represent exceptions that have little market.

The rhetoric of Africanness
Although many intellectuals keep stressing that Africa is an extremely diverse and vast continent and that it cannot be neither studied nor approached as a monolithic entity, yet, the rhetoric of Africanness seems to pervade any discourse on Africa. Usually the rhetoric of Africanness is defined according to two different perspectives: an external and an internal one.

From the internal perspective, the sense of belonging to Africa is closely linked to the times when the states obtained their independence often through national propaganda. At the same time, both political and anti-racism black movements in the Americas and Caribbean often stress their belonging to the African diaspora and their tie with the African continent. From the external perspective, the rhetoric of Africanness acquires a completely different meaning, since it generated from the post-colonial patronising gaze. It is often suggested that the racist gaze has nowadays been replaced by white guilt. Unfortunately the latter did not encourage an interest and an analysis of the continent but simply pity, that keeps Africa distant from the West and most crucially that becomes a heavy burden for critical and dialectic studies.

In dealing with "African youths", it becomes very easy to fall into the rhetoric of Africanness (African media productions are often examples of this attitude). Sometimes, national media support panafrican propaganda, sometimes Western media import and export oversimplified images of the continent, and lastly young people tend to be perpetrators rather than innovators of fixed stereotypes. As it is often the case for media texts created by young people, the process is sometimes more interesting than the content, as it reiterates what other media have already said. In the selection of the case studies for Glocal Youth, we attempted to avoid easy stereotypes linked to the rhetoric of Africanness. The project portrayed different representations in order to value the heterogeneity of the African media landscape.

1UNESCO, The Johns Hopkins University/Center for Communication Programs, the BBC World Service Trust, Ford Fundation, the Communication for Social Change of Rockfeller Fundation, Bellanet-Supporting Collaboration in the Development Community, the Acacia-Communities and the Information Society in Africa Program Initiative, the AISI-African Information Society Initiative, the ORIDEV- Les Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication au service du développement l'IIthe IICD-International Institute for Communication and Development, the infoDev- The Information for Development Program
2 The Communication Initiative,the Institut Panos Afrique de l'Ouest,, Africa'nti-Observatoire de l'insertion et de l'impact des technologies de l'information et de la communication en Afrique, the OSIRIS-Observatoire sur les Systèmes d'Information, les Réseaux et les Inforoutes au Sénégal, the African Studies Center della Michigan State University
3 The Department of Cultural and Media Studies of the University KwaZulu-Natal in Sudafrica, and the National Media Education Initiative
4 An extremely significant example is represented by the Biennal of contemporary art in Dakar, Senegal: although it is a cultural event, this panafrican exhibition is essentially supported by the European Commission since it is grounded on notions of cooperation and development (it promotes the growth of the market of African art, it offers vacancies, facilitate professional trainings). If we compare the African context to the European one, the "developmental" nature of this initiative is rather puzzling and can therefore be challanged. For instance, hardly anybody would suggest financing the Biennal of contemporary art in Venice as if it was a cooperation or development project. In the West, cultural projects are essentially promoted for their artistic value and for the publicity that the nation, city and the sponsors would gain.
5 In North Africa, media usually employ standard Arabic, which is the simplified version of classic Arabic and is used in schools and writing. The Koran for instance is written in classic Arabic. In oral conversations instead people tend to use different languages depending on the nation. These idioms - other than having different accents and pronunciations - are strongly influenced by local history, and last but not least the language of the colonisers.
6 The dossier Africa and the Digital Divide (n.41, December 2002), and Africa Cinema and its Audience (n.45, December 2003) published by "Africa e Mediterraneo".
7 In Senegal, between the end of the 1980's and the beginning of the 1990's some academic years (i.e. 1988, and few exams in 1992 and 1994) were not approved since the strikes were protracted for too a long time. During these "white years" the pupils who went to public schools could not attend their courses or exams and were therefore forced to repeat that academic year, even if they went to school every day. Other academic years were not acknowledged in other parts of Africa, like in the Republic of Central Africa (between 1998 and 2003), Benin (1988-1989), Ivory Coast (1990-91), Togo (1991-92). Usually teachers in public schools go on strike when they are not paid. Through the strike the teachers aim at pressurizing the government to pay their wages, advocate school reforms and improve their working conditions. These strikes have often led the wealthier families to send their children to private schools rather than the public ones.

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