May 19, 2013
The Africa You Need to Know
Posted on Nov 28, 2006
What is disaster pornography? Africans define it as the Western media’s habit of blacking out Africa’s stock markets, cellphones, heart surgeries, soaring literacy and increasing democratization, while gleefully parading its genocides, armed conflicts, child soldiers, foreign debts, hunger, disease and backwardness.
I recently found myself making small talk with an airport official in the United States. “I hear in Africa, people are very poor and hungry, that they don’t have anything to eat,” he said. “I saw a documentary on Africa a few days ago on CNN, and there were all these hungry people, dying children, with flies all over their faces….”
Yeah, I replied hesitantly, not knowing exactly what a correct response should be. My situation was not helped by 22 hours of travel, which had considerably dulled my reflexes.
“But you look well fed,” he said, scanning my generous proportions.
I didn’t exactly like this attention to my physical details, but I had more patriotic worries. I had to let him know that Africa is not one huge expanse of waste, but 54 countries and two islands, in different stages of development, repair, disrepair and, of course, despair. Famine in Niger does not mean hunger in Nigeria, just as war in Liberia does not mean child soldiers in Lesotho.
I don’t blame him. Neither do I blame another official at a different airport who asked me if Africans keep their cowries in banks. [Editor’s note: Cowries are shells that were used as mediums of exchange in parts of Africa.] He was quite taken aback when I showed him a few naira notes [Nigerian currency]. I also don’t blame some of my American friends when they ask me how I “picked up such good English.” Far from picking up good English, I tell them, I have a background of solid British education. My country, Nigeria, was a British colony until 1960.
No one should blame these people or anyone else who displays such profound ignorance about Africa. Rather than educate and enlighten by disseminating fair, balanced and accurate information, all that the Western media seem to be keen on showing the West about Africa is backwardness, disease, hunger, want, deprivation, banditry, brigandage, slaughter fields, child soldiers, gang-raped girls, harassed mothers, wasted children, flies feasting on the living and vultures waiting to devour the near-dead. Goodness!
Africans of all leanings, from all walks of life and from every part of the continent, usually have only one question each time they are faced with these gory media depictions of Africa: “Where do they get these images?”
It is not only Africans who do not recognize their continent in the Western media. Michael Ledeen, contributing editor of National Review Online, laments this caricaturing of Africa in an article titled “Out of Africa: What the Western World Doesn’t Understand About the Continent.”
He says: “Those of us who love Africa almost never recognize it in the press or the movies. The racist stereotypes of Africans are so deeply ingrained in the guilt-driven worldview of Western elites that it is almost impossible to get to the truth.”
So what is the truth about Africa?
Africa is not a country. It is the world’s second largest continent and the second most populous, after Asia. Occupying 20 percent of the Earth’s land area, it measures roughly 5,000 miles from north to south and about 4,600 miles from east to west. This makes it about four times the size of the United States.
Africa’s population of about 890 million is slightly less than 14 percent of total world population. Its peoples belong to thousands of ethnic groups and clans. Some of the more widely known ethnic groups in Africa are Arab, Ashanti, Bantu, Berber, Dinka, Fulani, Ganda, Yoruba, Hausa, Kikuyu, Luba, Lunda, Malinke, Moor, Nuer, Tuareg and Xhosa.
Africans are by no means homogeneous. There is no African culture. Africans have diverse and varied ways of life. They behave differently from country to country, ethnic group to ethnic group and clan to clan.
There is also no African language. Africans speak about 2,000 languages. Among Africa’s most widely spoken languages are Swahili, Hausa, Yoruba, Bantu, Akan, Arabic, Koma and Songhai.
And far from being a perpetual laggard, Africa has made and still makes quite significant contributions to the world order. History 101 says Africa provided the slave labor that developed the New World and enriched the Old World. Today, Africa provides columbite-tantalite, the mineral from which the computer chips that drive the 21st century’s high-tech global economy are made.
Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Nigeria are the major petroleum and natural gas producing countries in Africa. They account for about 20 percent of the world’s petroleum needs. Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa together produce 50 percent of the world’s diamonds. Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe together produce nearly 50 percent of the world’s gold.
Africa also contributes 70 percent of the world’s cocoa each year, 34 percent of the coffee and 50 percent of the palm products. The United States imports 30 to 60 percent of key African products; French industry depends on Africa for over 90 percent of its uranium, cobalt and manganese, 76 percent of its bauxite, 50 percent of its chromium and 30 percent of its iron ore; and British industry depends on Africa for 80 percent of its chromium, 65 percent of its lubrication oil, 55 percent of its manganese and 54 percent of its cobalt. China imports nearly 30 percent of its oil and gas from sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa is the continent longest inhabited by human beings. There are two competing theories to explain how mankind spread across the globe from Africa.
The “Out of Africa” theory suggests that between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, modern man (Homo sapiens) emerged from Africa to slowly populate the rest of the world, replacing any human species that were already there.
The other theory suggests that modern humans arose simultaneously in Africa, Europe and Asia from one of our predecessors, Homo erectus, who left Africa about 2 million years ago.
Proponents of each theory, however, agree on one point—that all humans alive today could share common ancestry with a being in Africa who lived 120,000 to 220,000 years ago.
History is emphatic that Africa is the cradle of civilization. Egypt, Ethiopia and the ancient empires of Mali, Songhai, Kongo, Oyo, Kanem-Bornu and Ghana are among Africa’s early civilizations. The Nile Valley is also acclaimed for the inventions its African inhabitants bequeathed to modern civilization.
Africa boasts of having some of the best brains in the world. According to the United States Census Bureau, Africans are the most educated ethnic group in the United States.
But what do the Western media say Africa is?
Rod Chavis says in “Africa in the Western Media”: “Nouns and adjectives like hut, dark, tribe, King Kong, tribalism, primitive, nomad, animism, jungle, cannibal, savage, underdeveloped, third world, developing, etc., are pervasive when Africa is the story. Images of Africa in the Western Media, many times, are deeply troubling psychologically and emotionally, especially to those claiming her as primordial heritage, lineage, and descendancy. They portray a no there there: no culture, no history, no tradition, and no people, an abyss and negative void.
“With the stroke of a journalist’s pen,” Chavis continues, “the African, her continent, and her descendants are pejoratively reduced to nothing [but] ... a bastion of disease, savagery, animism, pestilence, war, famine, despotism, primitivism, poverty, and ubiquitous images of children, flies in their food and faces, their stomachs distended. These ‘universal’ but powerfully subliminal message units, beamed at global television audiences, connote something not good, perennially problematic unworthiness, deplorability, black, foreboding, loathing, sub humanity, etc.”
Hugh Hamilton in “Ownership, Diversity & Race: Confronting (Mis) Representations of Africa in the US Media” also highlights the same thread. “The dominant images of Africa in American mainstream media are of a dark and desolate continent, riven by tribal conflict, beleaguered by pestilence, poverty and disease, a place of fear and futility ...of despair and depression, of a lost people languishing in a lost land somewhere beyond the edge of modern civilization.”
This dehumanization of Africa has become a matter of concern not only to Africans, at home and in the diaspora, but also to teeming non-Africans who have suckled at Africa’s generous breasts.
Eleven former African heads of state from all over the continent rose from the African Presidential Roundtable, 2005, sponsored by Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center, with a common conclusion. While agreeing, though with nice words, that most African governments have been despotic, corrupt, capricious, inept and thoroughly useless, they lamented what they described as “Africa’s image in the American media.”
Their Excellencies examined the record of coverage of some of America’s most distinguished publications—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and U.S. News & World Report. They reviewed these publications over a 10-year period—from 1994 to 2004—and “found their coverage of the continent to be anything but fair and balanced.” Such an incredible labor of love, considering the fact that many of them had more than enough to do with Africa’s present sorry state.
They therefore concluded that “the findings of this (and other) surveys indicate that coverage of Africa, by the leading sources of American media is, at best, dismissive of the continent’s progress and potential, and thus leading to continued ‘exotification’ and marginalization of the African continent. At worst, coverage disregards recent trends toward democratization, thus betraying an almost contemptuous lack of interest in the potential and progress being achieved on the continent.”
How does this negative portrayal affect Africa’s fortunes? These former heads of state, who should know, because of their former and relatively still vantage positions, were unanimous that this negative portrayal “has profound relevance to everything— including the world considering Africa as a worthy investment venue and viewing Africa as a valuable trading partner ...it is reasonable to posit that negative perceptions lead to negative outcomes, namely, lower levels of aid and lower levels of investment.”
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