Media is one of the most powerful tools used to spread information. With that power comes responsibility, both on behalf of the producer and of the consumer. Information from the media should be absorbed with a grain of salt, and with awareness of the extent to which it creates and perpetuates profound paradigms that exist in our minds.
This kind of dynamic is particularly apparent when examining Western media concerning Africa. It takes little effort to find an article in current affairs about the poverty, conflict, corruption, and disorder that exists on the continent. It takes more effort, however, to find an article that does not rely on these victimizing images of Africa. These ongoing discourses are caught up in power relations and will continue to determine external influence in Africa.
The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it.
– George Kimble
In the face of media mingling with external influence in Africa, which manifests itself through aid, socio-political and economic interventions, it is important to take some time to question our idea of what this continent looks like and how it functions. Otherwise, our unquestioned preconceptions will prolong deeply damaging consequences for those who are misunderstood by us. For example, aid programs are often implemented with NGO’s goals in mind rather than what the cause really needs, leaving communities with failed and unsustainable projects, and the money used to fund the projects in the hands of the wrong people. This repeating process enriches some while leaving others poor, increasing inequality and making things worse. To help change this, we must also reconsider the problematic teleological approach that we continue to use when talking about the past, present and future of Africa.
In light of reconsidering our approaches, Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina, talks about the liberation of the imagination as being one of the most powerful political acts. This resembles Steve Biko’s liberation of the minds of black South Africans, in his ‘Black Consciousness’ movement, which attempted to breakdown the ‘monopoly on truth’ and power held by the Apartheid government in South Africa.
Below is a satirical essay written by Binyavanga Wainaina, “How to Write About Africa,” performed by Djimon Hounsou.
In the video, we realize the pitiful voice that is used to describe Africa in media, and how it reinforces feelings of alterity. One idea surfaced towards the end of the poem, among many, is the romanticizing of African scenery and wildlife. It is true that we see a stark contrast between the victimization of African people and the idealization of the continent’s landscapes and animals. According to the media, African people are powerless, poor, and homogeneous, while African wildlife is wise, powerful, and honorable. The media tells us that African leaders are corrupt and incompetent, but that the lions enact integrity and perception. The rural people are uneducated and powerless, while the elephants embody understanding and patience. There is something wrong here.
The misconception of Africa and African people extends to Hollywood. Watch the humorous video below that also shows how ridiculous our idea of the continent the people living on it is.
As a result of all of these stereotypes, it becomes easy to become numb to individual stories and to group all Africans into one image, forgetting that the continent is home to 54 (debated to be 55) countries, around 2,000 languages, multiple religions, economies, knowledge, resources, climates, and political systems. The grouping of an entire continent into several victimizing images can make it easy to disregard all of this. It also can justify the belief that Westerners have a role in intervening and speaking on behalf of the ‘powerless’ Africans. This is false, and fails to recognize and respect individuals living on the African continent, and the agency that they have in determining their own lives.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
In addition to the general mainstream media believing that it has a justified role in acting as a voice of Africa, celebrities are taking to the scene, trying to act as leaders in the development discourse about the continent. Watch the following video, where Dambisa Moyo talks about the celebrity culture of aid, again showing how media overall is perpetuating certain paradigms about Africa.
Dambisa Moyo has written her famous book, “Dead Aid”, that further expands and adds to the points made in the video above.
Sometimes, we can better understand the impact of the way we think about a situation when we reverse the roles of the partakers. In this final video, Trevor Noah, famous South African comedian, reverses the usual role of Africans needing aid, and applies the same template to look at Americans during the economic recession. In the video, he asks South Africans to adopt an American family, to support them during times of hardship. When done this way, it is a lot easier to see the problematic methods used by the media to victimize its objects.
To summarize, one cannot deny that there is poverty, conflict, and disorder on the African continent. However, Western media likes to focus on the negatives, supporting the West’s underlying assumptions that Africa is in need of help, and that the West should be the one to provide this help.
Framing countries (and continents) in a discourse of developed vs. underdeveloped, rich vs. poor, victims vs. non-victims, is largely reductionist and has detrimental implications on multiple levels. It is our responsibility to find a way to broaden our view of Africa, zooming out from just the negatives and seeing Africa for everything that it is. What Western media shows us is significantly limited, and it is up to us to change that — or to at least be conscious of it.
In top photo: Girls collecting water in South Sudan- Photo Credit to Arsenie Coseac (photo cropped).