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In 1906, the readers of The New York Times opened their papers to a story about the Bronx Zoo’s latest attraction: Ota Benga, a 22-year-old Mutwa from today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Ota Benga let some of the savage nature of the African forest come out yesterday,” began the story, in which Benga is drenched with a hose in the zoo’s monkey cage.
Today, the “savage nature” of Africa is still on display, in American headlines: “Uganda’s rebels in murderous spree,” “Congo a country of rape and ruin” “Africa’s Forever Wars.” Sometimes the savagery doesn’t come from the “savages” themselves. It comes from poverty—“NIGERIA: Focus on the scourge of poverty”—or disease—“AIDS at 30: Killer has been tamed, but not conquered.” Other times, all the savagery blends together: “Starving Babies, Raped Mommies, Famine in Africa—Do you care?”
All I can imagine from these headlines is that Africa—all 54 countries, all 11.7 million square miles of it—must be a very deadly place.
But I’ve lived there. It’s not. Or rather, it can be, in certain places, at certain times. Far more often, and across most of the continent, it isn’t. Not even in its most infamous “war-torn” countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Goma, part of a region the United Nations’ special representative on sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallström two years ago dubbed “the rape capital of the world,” I went to an impromptu hip-hop show, full of dancing Congolese. In Kinshasa, nearly a thousand miles away on the other side of the country, I met an oboist for the city’s symphony orchestra.
Congo, like America, is very many things, all at the same time. This should be obvious. Why would a foreign country be any less complex than our own? So why, then, if you’re reading or watching most American news, do you tend to see the same simplified stories over and over again?
“I used to joke—and I want to emphasize this is a joke—that you could write that you’d wandered into some obscure backwater in Africa where people had three ears,” Howard French, former Africa correspondent for The New York Times, once told me. “If it’s not literally true you can get away with that, it’s figuratively true that you can.”
Journalists in Africa talk often about misrepresentations of the continent we cover. But this isn’t an easy conversation: we’re all far from home, working for pennies, because we care about what we do. Broad criticism of our profession can feel personal. Often, even though we’re ostensibly in charge of the story, we feel disempowered. The best journalism takes time and money, and often, we complain, we have neither. Travel budgets have shrunk, and the Internet demands ever more content.
But this doesn’t explain why journalism from Africa looks and sounds as it does. For this, we blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. They also introduce clichéd shorthand, such as “Arab north versus Christian and animist south” (Sudan), or boilerplate background, such as “the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed” (Rwanda). Virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn country.”
For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.
Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label. Even stories that gesture toward something “positive” can’t escape the dominant narrative: “Africa isn’t a lost cause,” pleads one recent headline.
The argument about journalism from Africa is often whittled into two camps, Afro-pessimists vs. Afro-optimists. But these binary camps, too, miss that Africa is many complex things, simultaneously. In our news broadcasts and our headlines, though, it’s usually framed by just one static thing: suffering.
“It’s easy to write what people expect, and for people to be satisfied with that, because they get to cry over the famine or the children,” Stephanie McCrummen, who spent three and a half years based in Nairobi for The Washington Post, told me. “Those kinds of stories can be one-dimensional, like people have no life besides this generalized suffering.”
Nearly every story I published from Rwanda in my three years reporting there included a reference to the 1994 genocide. Dredging up suffering can win a busy audience’s attention, but it’s a limited kind of attention. It’s the attention of the kind-hearted stranger from a distance, the reader who stops eating his breakfast or reading her stock quotes to remember just how bad it is in other places.
Being an object of compassion is not the same thing as being the subject of a story.
Drawing attention to suffering certainly is crucial work. But that attention is more about our preoccupation with stories of suffering than it is about Africa. That’s what Nigerian and American novelist Teju Cole meant when he assailed our monothematic obsession with Africa’s plight, framed by a desire to help, the “white savior industrial complex.”
But there is a deeper problem, I think, that has not been sufficiently acknowledged. Since its first encounters with the continent, suffering is all the West has known of Africa. We’ve caused much of it—centuries of slave trade, followed by a near-century of colonialism and its attendant physical and structural violence, from the rubber fields of the Belgian Congo to the internment camps of British Kenya. But it’s also been our narrative preoccupation.
In his contribution to the book Humanitarianism and Suffering (2011), historian Thomas Laqueur charts the birth of “the sentimental narrative” and its role in changing hearts and inspiring action. “In the late eighteenth century,” he writes, “the ethical subject was democratized; more and more people came to believe it was their obligation to ameliorate and prevent wrongdoing to others.”
The sentimental narrative Lacquer identifies is a sneaky one. Superficially, it seems humane, a good-hearted response to the impoverished and their plight. But it also objectifies the sufferers it nominally empowers—people with pain to ameliorate, against whom wrongdoings are to be prevented, on whose behalf this compassion is to be invested. However many noble or real or useful things that investment may bring, it also flatters us, by affirming our own righteousness.
In the late eighteenth century, abolitionists deployed this emerging compassion and its narratives to great effect. For instance, one important moment in Britain’s anti-slavery movement was the Jamaican slave revolt of 1831. The brutal British response to the rebellion fueled abolitionists. But not, as Adam Hochschild points out in Bury the Chains (2005), because the abolitionists objected to the murder of slaves. Instead, they worried about the white missionaries whose churches the authorities burned in retaliation for congregants’ abolitionist sympathies. In public lectures and parliamentary sessions, witnesses’ stories roused slavery’s opponents by describing violence against well-meaning white Brits, not against black slaves. As Hochschild puts it, the missionaries “edged out the hundreds of dead slaves for the role of martyrs.”
Even if this is a “democratization” of storytelling, it misses an undemocratic truth, one also at the core of our narrow understanding of Africa: being an object of compassion is not the same thing as being the subject of a story. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. In American newspapers and on American TV, Africans remain objects—of violence, of poverty, of disease, and ultimately of our own compassion. Like the abolitionists’ stories of the Jamaican slave revolt, our compassion narratives ultimately are not about the people in whose name they are told. They are about us. We like these stories because at some level, we already know them, and because they tell us we are caring, and potentially powerful, people.
This vanity has consequences. Media attention influences donor attention toward certain interests—and therefore away from others. For example, media and donor obsession with sexual violence in eastern Congo has made rape allegations a “survival strategy,” according to Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern in their 2010 study for Sweden’s Nordic Africa Institute. In villages where most people are poor but donors provide free health care and other services to rape survivors, they argue, there is a strong incentive to identify oneself as a victim.
There are also economic consequences, for Africans as well as Americans. “If you are reading a steady diet about East Africa, for example, that consists of nothing but warfare and chaos,” said French, “you will not think the region has anything to do with opportunity for you, if you are an American business person.”
It isn’t only readers who might miss the mark. If you publish a steady diet of warfare, you might fall prey to similarly myopic thinking. Though hundreds of stories with exotic datelines have been written about Africans who live on less than a two dollars a day, the news approach to improving poverty has been different. When the World Bank announced in March that global poverty had already fallen by half—five years ahead of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals deadline—economic reporters in Washington, D.C. and New York dutifully wrote up the study. But who are the people now living on, say, four or even fourteen dollars a day, instead of two, and what do their lives look like? We don’t know yet. And if you’ve read anything in the last year about the burgeoning African economy—growing regional markets, increased manufacturing and infrastructure, soaring levels of foreign investment—it was probably about China’s bid for the continent, a story at heart more about our economic rival than about Africa.
You might also fall prey to this narrow thinking if you only cover the warfare-and-chaos beat. Jeffrey Gettleman, the Times’s East Africa bureau chief and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, admits he consciously chooses those stories. “There’s obviously distinct cultures [in Africa] and I don’t write that much about them,” he said in a talk sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I try to balance them, but I feel guilty if I know there’s something really bad happening in Sudan or in Congo—I feel bad, I feel like I’m neglecting an opportunity to help people or to shed a light on people who are really in danger or in fear or in distress if I go and spend a week on some music story or an education story or something.”
The problem with American news about Africa isn’t foreign writers. It’s the narrow American imagination.
He’s right, of course, that stories of violence deserve our attention. But this is also a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things—extraordinary violence and ordinary life—in the same story.
What I’ve described are stories most journalists would like to pursue, if only it weren’t for this or that pressing concern. As long as we think of this kind of work as a luxury, though, it isn’t likely to get done. But if we normalize it—if we don’t think that we need three months and a multi-part series to get at the multi-faceted lives in the places we go—maybe it needn’t feel like a luxury, either.
“We should be proposing and pitching compelling stories about people we haven’t heard, or read, or seen,” says Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, National Public Radio’s Africa correspondent, based in Dakar. “Perhaps the listener will say, ‘Oh, this is Africa?’ Perhaps they’ll just think first, ‘This was a jolly good tale.’”
In the Internet age, trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t go unnoticed. When CNN framed a story about a grenade explosion at a Nairobi bus stop with the studio backdrop “VIOLENCE IN KENYA,” Kenyans took to Twitter in protest under the hashtag #someonetellcnn. The problem, one blogger wrote, is that “Africa is not telling her own stories on the world platform.”
Representation of Africa is a contentious topic on Twitter and blogs, and a sizable constituency—from Western aid workers and academics to African and diaspora intellectuals and activists—suggests that taking the mic away from foreigners is the best option. In May, political scientist Laura Seay set off a weeks-long debate about journalism from Africa, in part by arguing that local reporters necessarily do better work than any foreign journalist ever could. It’s a suggestion many applauded, if not because it might actually solve the problem, then because it demanded that African voices tell Africa’s stories.
But this distracts from the real problem by assuming that American news is bad because Americans are foreigners, and that natives would tell it better because they’re, well, native. The argument assumes the same thing the eighteenth-century adventurers did: that the Dark Continent can’t ever really be known. It also assumes the same thing colonial governments did: the only way to work with the natives is to impress them into the service of foreigners. This argument isn’t a rejection of colonialism; it’s an embodiment of it.
The problem with American news about Africa isn’t foreign—or, in the race-based shorthand often used in this discussion, white—writers. It’s the narrow American imagination. Bringing African authors into the conversation can help change the paradigm. But American journalists have a responsibility to join in that work. We’ve inherited, and perpetuated, a simplistic narrative, which in turn influences how policymakers, investors, and ordinary, curious Americans see Africa and its possibilities.
Some journalists, of course, master the challenges and do help us imagine something new. “I often had in my head this imagined reader who is accustomed to stories about conflict and sadness,” the Post’s McCrummen said. “I often wanted to write stories that countered that. I got really good responses from those stories, when I could do them. People told me, ‘I had no idea that there was something approaching regular life in ___’—whatever place I was writing about.”
In Regarding the Pain of Others (2004), Susan Sontag describes our problem this way: “The other . . . is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees.” Not, that is, as a subject. We should rethink how we might speak with, and listen to, and ultimately represent Africans as people who, like us, see many things.
The responsibility to change our image of Africa doesn’t lie solely with the few journalists feeding the beast. It also lies with media consumers—readers and listeners and viewers—patronizing our media institutions with money or attention or clicks. Together, we should demand of ourselves that we take an imaginative leap and acknowledge something other than suffering as worthy of our attention. We’ll need assistance from African writers and thinkers and performers who are willing to help us move toward better understanding. But we can’t shoulder them with the burden of undoing the stories we’ve trapped them in. With each new story we read, or we write, we’re obliged to do the hard work of reimagining Africa.
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