This post was initially an email sent to us from Nnamdi Awa-Kalu (thanks Nnamdi!) but we decided to share it on the Beat because of the interesting issues it raised. Is it OK to promote the general picture of "the suffering Africans" in order to garner sympathy and aid from the West? Are they (we) essentially "pimping" us (ourselves) to the most sympathetic "bidder"? Does it matter as long as some good ($$) comes out of it?
A friend of mine recently told me about a facebook group that was opposed to
what it's creator termed "development pornography" which refers to the pseudo-voyeuristic tendencies of those in the better-off world to display pictures of "suffering" and afflicted Africans to the world to earn their sympathy. Her argument was that the inundation of the world with these pictures- constantly depicting Africa's poorest and illest in the most visually- unbearable poses- will desensitize an already ignorant West to the problems of that part of the world.
I did not completely agree with Wendy (my friend). And our argument went on to cover several grounds of pet hatred which we young, vibrant students in diaspora (who are relatively free of "suffering") have to contend with day after day. These included the general portrayal of Africa as a single body, which is the single biggest mistake anyone can make seeing as our proud but tired continent is the embodiment of cultural proliferation and multiple ethnic identities. I generally agree that poverty should not be attached as an emblem to Africa nor should the West continue to be fixated on the immediate impact of horror stories but I definitely feel that Africa is not at a stage where it can debate such issues primarily because it is so dependent...on aid which is solicited by means of sympathetic stories. And nothing is so persuasive as "a picture of a shorty armless," as put so poetically by Kanye West in "Diamonds from Sierra Leone". With regards to the issue of Africa frequently referred to as a sum of its parts, we are unfortunate that we have to band together to summon as much bargaining power as most western nations can command individually. Chronic economic and political instability can tend to that. But that is not the subject of my writing.
I was overjoyed to see that two Nigerians had received literary awards in the last week. Chinua Achebe received international recognition with a Man Booker Award for "literary profundity" over the course of his career and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was rewarded with the Orange Prize for fiction for her excellent Biafran examination "Half of a Yellow Sun". And the title of the article by Rosie Millard: " This is the Africa you don't hear about "encapsulates my viewpoint. It is important for Africa to find it's voice and allow it to ring loud and strong. It was once said that poets (and writers in general) are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" and these literary geniuses, with their continued brilliance could deflect attention from the struggling underbelly of Africa so that there is at least a balanced presentation of Africa and its numerous peoples. They could and should become a reflection of Africa's own artistic gifts which will compare favourably with anything and everything in the West, and take their rightful position as African leaders.
Not that this hasn't been happening, but it is important that it happens with
this kind of regularity. Achebe beat off competition from the likes of Margaret
Atwood whose work is a personal favourite and Chimamanda's work was standout favourite for the Orange prize and will probably go on to win a Booker. For her own part, Adichie intoned that: “On TV you never see Africans involved in helping Africa. It’s always some kind westerner. If I got my information only from American TV, I would think Africans were a bunch of stupid idiots...The Africa that you see on TV here is not the Africa I know. Africans don’t sit down, filled with despair, at least the ones I know don’t. They move on with life. Even in the poorest areas of Africa there are people who are showing initiative. There are other stories to tell.”
And it is our artists and writers, our talented performers in growing entertainment industries that will tell these stories in the right context, with the right sentiments and in a succesful light. Let's toast to more of this sort of coverage.
Thanks again, Nnamdi...look out for a piece on either Chimamanda or some more up-and-coming artists/writers in the near future! Also, for more "positive" portrayals of Africa, check out the award-winning documentary, "Africa Open For Business" which seeks to dispel the myths about business in Africa by showcasing ten entrepreneurs on the continent who tell in their own words their path to success.