An image of a man kicking a soccer ball on a beach.
Screenshot from "Romanticising African Countries."

Maïmouna Elle is Romanticizing African Countries, One Instagram Post at a Time

The Senegalese videographer believes more African countries deserve to be seen in a glowing light.

Maïmouna Elle has always loved creating videos, whether class videos when she was in high school, a stint of YouTube series while she was enrolled in medical school after graduating from Howard University, or wedding videos for her family. After completing a year as a categorical surgeon at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and questioning her future career in medicine, she decided to take a break and live with her family in Senegal. Home was where Maïmouna’s interest in filmmaking and African cinema came to the fore.

While working to make connections with individuals from the diaspora who produce African cinema and Afro-feminist festivals and who have written and directed their own short films based in African countries, she continued making more videos as a way to keep her hobby alive.

Launched four months ago, her self-directed video series on Instagram, @RomanticizingAfricanCountries, has grown to be one of those postcolonial projects on social media that battle harmful narratives about the continent. Elle records moments of African city life, as well as the countryside, adding soulful music — either instrumentals or songs by well-known artists to give them a playful quality. Through her honest and witty lens, we see Senegalese women braiding their hair on a porch, a young Gambian man playing football by the beach, or a Mauritanian man displaying native prints in his store.

In that short time, the account has amassed over 100,000 followers. She attributes that to “the fact that in comparison to many places outside of Africa, we lack positive representations of the many real lives in African countries.” Her first videos were in her family’s home and neighborhood in Dakar. “They were beautiful,” she says. “These lives, though different from what we see romanticized in parts of the U.S. or European countries, deserve to be shown as beautiful too."

While there are several pages that share Elle’s vision, her account is notable for capturing not only the beauty of African city life, but also of the village and the countryside through video. The page also uplifts African artists, decolonized libraries, and fashion brands from the continent.

Elle spoke to OkayAfrica about why she created the account and what she’s learned from running it.

The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What inspired you to start the video series?

There was a rainy day in Dakar, not so terrible that it was flooding but enough to force me to run for cover. It looked pretty to me, the way the rain was falling over the leaves, the contrast of the gray sky with the bright-colored car rapids. I thought to myself: in any other Western city like New York, Paris, or London, a day like this would be romanticized. Westernized countries are always romanticized, but African countries almost never are. African countries have their problems, but so do Western countries. Why don't our countries deserve to have our beauty shared as well?

Why mainly videos and not pictures or text?

Simply stated, I like to take videos. Photos capture a moment, videos capture many. Photos give the impression of something that has passed, videos give the impression of something that is ongoing. In addition, I like creating small stories with videos, I view it as practice for eventually making a series or short film. The only text that I share is a title and a location. I do not claim to be a journalist or a historian. Fortunately, there are platforms that serve that purpose, but this is different. This platform is purely for capturing the beauty in the everyday lives of African countries.

You have documented across three African countries in less than four months. What have you learned through your lens?

I have learned that traveling through even neighboring African countries can be complicated and expensive. It is always best to travel with someone who is familiar with the border and speaks the local language of the people. Though from the creative perspective, I have learned that there is a different kind of beauty to each country. For example, Mauritania has a specific kind of clothing style, and Gambia is very green and tropical. But I always love seeing just how connected we all are, which is a general sentiment I aim to convey on my platform as well.

Why must we romanticize African countries?

I think the first thing that we must acknowledge is that as nations, African countries are very young countries whose development is being compared to countries that have been developing for centuries, and some of the most prominent ones achieved their level of development due to the exploitative systems of slavery and colonialism. Recognizing then that not only are our countries young, but we are not even starting at a level playing field, but really digging ourselves out of a hole, we owe ourselves some credit.

To focus only on the negatives, as so many platforms and general perceptions do, unfairly presents African countries as poverty-stricken lands that are torn by political conflict. Although these realities exist, there is so much more to be seen. The everyday life of so many African people includes joy, family, friends, love, shopping, dining, playing, swimming, fashion, creativity, etc. There is so much beauty here that needs to be seen and appreciated.

There needs to be a side that shows what we ought to be proud of and what we should cherish being a part of. And though “Romanticizing African Countries” is the name, I don't literally mean to romanticize as that is to cast an idealistic or unrealistic picture. I am capturing everyday lives in African countries as they are, and in that they are beautiful.

Can you talk about why the page features decolonized African libraries, artists, and fashion brands?

As a platform that primarily serves the African and diaspora community, it is important that I try to uplift businesses, artists, and brands from our community. As for “decolonizing”, the businesses that contact this platform for partnerships or promotions have already decolonized their brands. The library owner created a library with only African and diaspora writers, the fashion designer chose to make a luxury line of traditional Senegalese clothing, the sustainable artist chose to use tools that are common household items in African countries. The work of decolonization is done by so many more people than we know, and it is only my pleasure to help amplify their work.

Where do you see Romanticising African Countries in the coming years?

In the future, God willing, I will continue to visit African countries. Thereafter, I hope to develop a travel guide listing African or diaspora-owned accommodations, excursions, and businesses as many people in our audience would like to visit or live on the continent. Aside from my travels, I have started working on about five projects to expand our platform. For the sake of some surprise, I won’t reveal them all, but one is the #RACphotoseries that invites people to send in images of them or their families that match our theme of the week. In addition, I have made some recent connections that may enable #RACevents with the intent of showcasing African talents and to encourage networking within a Pan-African community.