breaking bias

How Egypt’s ‘Zoom Africa’ seeks to undo longstanding stereotypes

By Ati Metwaly

Posted on April 14, 2023 11:39

Over the past half century, the Egypt-Africa relationship has seen its highs and lows. However, the last decade witnessed significant revitalisation of efforts to turn the eyes of Egypt back to the continent. The media joins these efforts by presenting Africa to a large number of viewers, with the ‘Zoom Africa’ television programme as one of the latest significant endeavours in this regard.

For thousands of years, Egypt has had an active relationship with the rest of Africa, with modern age characterised by the 19th century’s irrigation projects under Mohamed Ali, laying the foundation for the close relations between Egypt and Sudan. The Centre for Sudanese Studies was established in 1947 and evolved into the Institute for African Studies in the 1950s.

The heyday of the relations was under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency and was especially marked by Egypt’s strong support for African liberation movements and joining the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM).

However, a television programme is now helping rekindle those relations.

‘Zoom Africa’

The programme is the brainchild of Sally Atef, a renowned Egyptian TV host, researcher and writer. It examines many African countries, reports on the Zoom Africa team’s travels across the continent as well as important Africa-related events taking place in Egypt, and tries to provide a rich presentation of the African diaspora living in Egypt.

“I want to show the real Africa, from within the continent, I want to bring the viewers closer to its unparalleled richness of life and customs,” Atef tells The Africa Report. A passionate follower of the African cause, she is known for dressing up in a variety of outfits characteristic of different cultures across the continent. The programme is conducted in three languages, with guests speaking Arabic to English subtitles or vice versa, in addition to segments incorporating French.

With her hallmark warmth and welcoming demeanour, Atef explains how Zoom Africa veers away from politics and focuses on topics like arts and culture, culinary delights, fashion, fauna and flora, geography, architectural gems, investment opportunities, etc.

In fact, the show is the cherry on the top of Atef’s interest in the continent, a passion that began in the mid-2000s when, as a journalist, she interviewed Sudan’s ambassador to Egypt when Sudan was signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

What followed was an offer from the embassy for Atef to work in its media office (2006-2010).

“During my work in the embassy, I got closer to Sudan and Africa. I began reading a lot and doing research about the continent,” Atef says. She then published three books about the continent with the latest one,  Africa’s Magic, out last year. It’s the culmination of two years worth of research into “unordinary” customs and traditions, imagination and magic, as practised by certain tribes.

Breaking stereotypes

Presenting people from all walks of life over the past 18 months, Zoom Africa has hosted many important officials, “more than 20 ambassadors of different African countries, a variety of heads of states and ministers,” Atef says, alongside people from different social strata who have various interests.

The team has travelled to numerous countries across the continent, reporting from the ground, while exploring the rich culture, and presenting the many investment opportunities.

Undeniably, culture is a big part of Atef’s programme, serving as a fascinating entry point to many cultures and centuries of history. Among the hundreds of interviewees featured on her show are Ibrahima Amadou Niang, an activist, poet, and author from Senegal; Nubian painter Dahab Hamdy, who underscores a strong linking between art and environment; Sudanese director Omar Mohamed, who talks about how today’s African countries offer advanced cinematic productions; Nigerian actor Samson King and the world of Nollywood.

Music is also another universal element that unites people. Certain episodes have featured the likes of Liberian singer Williams Pinky, or the Nile Drum Band, who blends an intoxicating blend between Sudanese and Egyptian songs.

Another singer from the Kingdom of eSwatini introduces her culture to viewers through the Ankwala Festival, while music by Sudanese singer Maab Moazz (known as Star), one of the rare Sudanese rappers in Egypt, creates a unique contrast with rap beats, attracting the attention of local listeners.

Those are but a few of the names hosted in the Cairo studio.

Diaspora across Cairo

The production team makes efforts to also visit the numerous sub-Saharan communities  scattered across Cairo.

One such journey takes the viewers to Al-Afarqa Street (Street of the Africans), located in Hay Al-Asher (10th district) in Madinet Nasr, a neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of the capital.

Often referred to as an ‘African city’, the district is heavily populated with immigrants from Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, to name a few. The residents follow their respective customs and many run their small businesses that serve their respective community.

Lara Ibrahim, a Nigerian fashion designer lives here as does Toito Lio, a hair stylist whose braided extensions are highly sought. Maamata, a cook from Ghana, presents different dishes from her home country, while Muzammil Ali caters to customers searching for original Sudanese cosmetics.

One episode presents Lisa Agu Marwel, a former inhabitant of Maadi, a Cairo district known for embracing many people from Sudan and South Sudan, Marwel had noticed that many children of those communities were not attending Egyptian kindergartens. In 2016, she founded a nursery that welcomes them, ensuring that pre-school education is taught in Arabic and English.

Within three years a number of similar nurseries opened in other Cairo districts. Marvel continued her mission in Juba when she moved back to South Sudan in 2019.

Egypt is African

“Egypt is an African country and it is natural that we host other nationals from the continent,” Ayman Zohry, an expert on Population and Migration Studies, tells The Africa Report. “Egypt was very open to all African citizens since Gamal Abdel Nasser (1950s-1960s), many African nationals were educated in Egyptian universities, established themselves in the country, opened their businesses and founded families here.”

Even if the Egypt-Ethiopia connection was shaken by political issues, such as the more recent Ethiopian dam conflict, this does not affect the Ethiopian diaspora

Zohry mentions that the political closeness was also extended to social and educational support, as well as touching on religious unity, which besides the Muslim unity with some countries, is also evident in a link between the Ethiopian Church and the Egyptian Coptic Church. “Even if the Egypt-Ethiopia connection was shaken by political issues, such as the more recent Ethiopian dam conflict, this does not affect the Ethiopian diaspora that is well established in Egypt.”

He stresses the special link between the Sudanese and the Egyptian people, and presence of initiatives as the Four Freedoms Agreement (2004) between Egyptian former president Hosni Mubarak and Sudanese president Omar El-Bashir, giving Egyptians and Sudanese freedom of movement, residence, work and ownership in either country.

The numbers of Sudanese living in Egypt today is disputable, and according to Zohry it varies between 2 million and 3 million, making it the most populous African diaspora in Egypt (with the country hosting a total of 5 million to 6 million foreign nationals overall).

Egypt looks away from Africa to the West

As Zohry explains, the openness towards Africa was very strong during Nasser’s presidency, but began to diminish under Mubarak. “Under Mubarak’s presidency, with the beginning of the 1980s, Egypt’s eyes began to turn away from Africa towards the US, which eventually resulted in numerous conflicts with the continent.”

However, efforts by today’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are seen to be bridging that gap through development projects, and mainstream media, such as Atef’s programme, and also filling in the cultural and societal vacuum.

With Zoom Africa becoming increasingly popular and countries across the continent running the programme on their respective channels, Atef hopes to see a further closeness of relations, and breaking down of stereotypes, to the benefit of both Egypt and the world.

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