“Around the time I started there was so much fear, I remember. Most Africans weren’t prepared to say and show who they were with pride…All that is changing now.”
– Dr. Samantha Sibanda
For the past 6 years, Zimbabwean businesswoman, event organiser and proud single mother of two Samantha Sibanda has made it her mission to redefine the narrative around Africanness in China and beyond. Through founding Appreciate Africa Network and the Pride of Africa Awards, she describes her journey as one built on her drive and conviction to ‘keep pushing and never give up’.
Ahead of the 2020 Pride of Africa Awards, scheduled for June 13th (nominations open now, Click here), Black Livity China caught up with Samantha to hear her inspiring story.
‘Stay quiet, you’re representing the whole of Africa’
Appreciate Africa Network’s story begins back in 2012 when Samantha – then an MBA student at a Beijing university discovered the outdated and offensive stereotypes her classmates and, in some instances, professors held about the African continent and its peoples. As the only African and Black student in the class, she took it upon herself to change the narrative. Six years, four award shows and hundreds of nominations later, her mission continues!
Samantha recalls the start of her journey:
‘There was one particular day during one of my classes led by a Spanish professor who’d come to teach about cultural intelligence. We had to write about the countries of those present and state what stereotypes we had about each of them.’
‘People were writing things like “In America, people are happy, cheerful etc.”, but when it came to writing about where I came from -‘, she remembers, ‘funny enough, they didn’t choose my country but the entire continent – they listed things like “HIV, poverty, war”‘.
To Samantha’s disappointment, of all 20 classmates, not a single student wrote something positive.
‘”Wow – so this is what everybody thinks of where I come from?!”, I thought to myself.’
If this wasn’t bad enough, the professor then took things one step further. She’d prepared a video with clips from across the world: ‘It had people from each of the different regions of the world represented in our class and was supposed to reflect who each of us was and our cultures.’ Samantha explains.
‘When it came to my turn the video was of the Masai dancing and chanting – this was obviously not even Zimbabwe! But I thought to myself “stay quiet, you’re representing the whole of Africa“‘.
The icing on the cake was the Spanish Professor’s final remarks:
‘And then she made this comment– I can’t remember the exact words but it was in reference to the Masai man, like “imagine if you take this man and put him in a car, then take him and put him in a den of lions, he’s more likely to die of a heart attack from the car than the lions”‘.
‘I came to the realisation that despite writing about Africa…most of them had no clue’
‘I thought to myself ‘you know what Samantha you can’t give up. You have to keep pushing.’
So instead, Samantha explains that she sprung into action, devising a plan that would involve reaching out to several of the African embassies in Beijing. She was ready to showcase the African continent authentically.
‘I came to the realisation that, as much as most of them were writing about Africa none of them had actually been there. They had no clue. So I went back to my school armed with all these pamphlets and started by putting them everywhere across the room.’
Appreciate Africa Network is born
‘We were supposed to submit a capstone project (final year project) proposal and initially, my capstone was business-related but because of this issue, I spoke to my professor and chose to change it to focus on Africa.
‘And so, Appreciate Africa Network was born, with a mission to raise awareness around Africa and African cultures.’
‘People thought we were here to be teachers or drug dealers’
Samantha recalls a time when Africans were rarely celebrated either in the Chinese press or when people would speak about foreigners in China. ‘There was absolutely nothing’, she recalls.
‘I wanted to draw their (the media’s) attention to how we were contributing to Chinese society – the positive stories that there are’. And so, she soon began to build on her existing plan for Appreciate Africa Network to include a whole new idea – an Awards show.
‘I started to ask myself how else can I diversify this – I had to showcase what Africans were doing here too – because people thought we were here to be teachers or drug dealers. They thought we were uneducated.’
In 2014, Samantha took her commitment to fighting these misconceptions to another level, launching the first-ever Pride of Africa Asia Pacific Awards.
‘We simply were trying to showcase and celebrate what Africans were doing right here in China.’
Since that year, some 215 people representing countless different nationalities have been awarded at the annual event – but not just in China. People from across the APAC region have descended on China’s capital each year to take part as Sammy recalls ‘Last year, for example, we had nominees from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, India, Dubai, Thailand, Philippines, HK Australia, with many flying in for the awards.’
To Samantha, this indicates a need for Pride of Africa Awards Asia Pacific to continue their mission elsewhere in the region. ‘I realised that we’re getting a whole lot of interest from Africans in other [Asian] countries, so it’s my dream and my wish to not only keep the ceremony in China but to move it to other places in Asia.
In line with the widespread interest from the public, Pride of Africa Awards continues to recognise a diverse array of people, with award categories ranging from ”African Woman and African Man of the Year’ to ‘Friend of Africa’ (for members of the Global African Diaspora and non-Africans who show a commitment to African causes).
“I have also awarded members of the African diaspora and some Chinese people. Those that have assisted our community, whether through financing or sponsoring or anything else.”
She explains, “for me, this is all about promoting Africa, so if an African American, for example, is using their time to uplift an African then we must most definitely award their work.”
Beyond recognition alone, she notes that many awardees and attendees alike have benefited from taking part. Recounting just a few of these successes she tells us that ‘through the Appreciate Africa Network platform, some have gone on to be recognised, found employment, met their sponsors, partners, got headhunted…’ and the list goes on.
And having such an impact is what Sammy regards as her proudest moment to date:
‘I’ve learnt to see that this platform has raised many people that the world didn’t know previously. Africans doing great things both here and across Asia. And others have been encouraged by seeing what I do. They’ve said if she’s done it then I can do it too.’
‘I can’t be raising someone else’s flag when my own flag is down’
‘I’m seeing that more and more Africans are confident, they have embraced who they are and are holding events or starting businesses to celebrate this fact. I have also realised that being away from home makes us appreciate our home more than we ever did before. And I think that’s been the case for me.’
Confidence and pride in oneself as an African away from home, but more specifically in China, is a message Sammy is always keen to drive home.
‘You know, there’s one thing I hate – and I know some might criticise me for this – but when my fellow Africans pretend that they are from America, Canada, the UK – I see it as a big disappointment.’
‘Why are you lying? It’s okay to say you’re from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria.’
With Chinese schools’ notorious and biased preference for western teachers already common knowledge, could this influence some to deny their Africanness? Perhaps, but either way, Samantha stresses ‘I can’t be raising someone else’s flag when my own flag is down.’
‘Why don’t we stand up and say – you know what I’m proudly Ghanaian, I’m proudly Zimbabwean…the list goes on’
‘If we don’t show each other how proud we are – how much we care, nobody will raise us up. Its time as Africans to raise ourselves up’.
The name chosen for the awards says it all ‘Pride of Africa‘ – but in case there was any doubt, Sammy reaffirms ‘I’m hoping with these awards that people will proudly stand up and say “you know what I am proudly African…I am proud and I am doing something great”’
‘I never knew I could do this but here I am trying to make a change.’
As interest in the Awards continues to grow, so does the need for an extended format, as Sammy reveals in her plan for the future:
‘It’s all about how we can benefit from each other, how can we collaborate? I’m planning to make it more than just a single event. An event whereby people come to learn about how to do business in Asia for example, and other skills that are necessary to live and succeed here. I want it to really benefit the community.’
She ends optimistically with a reflection of her journey with Appreciate Africa Network and Pride of Africa Awards so far.
‘I would like the community to know that I am just a passionate individual – I never knew I could do this or that it was something I should do. But here I am trying to make a change.’
Action, Action, Action is Samantha’s closing rallying cry to fellow Africans:
‘It is high time for us as Africans to tell our stories, write our own stories. We want things to change so we have to show the world that we are leading the way.’
To keep up with Appreciate Africa Network and to watch Sammy’s new show Elevate, visit on:
Elevate with Sammy:
Facebook: Elevate With Sammy
YouTube: Elevate with Sammy
Pride of Africa Awards:
www.appreciateafricanetwork.com or Instagram @prideofafricaawards
Don’t forget – Nominations for the 5th annual Pride of Africa Awards Asia Pacific are open till the 31st of March – Make yours by clicking here.
Runako Celina is the co-founder of Black Livity China. She holds an MA in International Politics and African Studies from Peking University. She spent two years working for China's largest Digital TV platform broadcasting in African countries and currently lives and works in Beijing. During her time at Peking University, she sat on the committee for the Peking University Africa Think Tank.