Africa: Images and Perceptions of a Continent

Published on 30th September 2008
In spite of Africa's  real and latent wealth and possibilities, the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program paints a people and a continent at the bottom of the human development ladder: high mortality rate, high incidence of poverty and disease, limited access to quality education and health care and other basic needs, and an inconsequential Gross Domestic Product.

Africans, according to available statistics, are damned! But beyond the statistics are the every day practical realities of the continent and its peoples. True, there are hopes and hopeful signs. Botswana has been a perennial example of a hopeful and progressive country. Ghana, South Africa, and Uganda are said to be on the upward swing.

Nonetheless, it is better not to be unduly optimistic. After all, as the great Chinua Achebe once said, Africa is “not viewed as a serious continent. It’s a place of strange, bizarre and illogical things, where people don’t do what common sense demands” In the same vein, one cannot be overly pessimistic about this potentially great land.

To catch a glimpse of the continent, one need take a peek at the media images from and about Africa and Africans. Such images can be grisly and demoralizing; they paint a picture of a continent and a people incapable of governing themselves, incapable of self-sustenance, and incapable of providing the most basic of all fundamentals without western tutelage.

Newsletters and promotional materials from Non-Governmental Organizations also paint dire and ravaging conditions. There are four types of Africans one sees in the western media: the hungry and the diseased; a war-torn and war ravaged people; naked and bare-breasted maidens; and a people that are always dancing even in the face of deprivation. Africans, according to common parlance, are happy and joyous even in the face of misery.

Most, if not all of the images, are condescending. They portray a miserable people living in a forsaken land governed by brutes and savages. What one sees are child-like people who constantly need assistance and direction in all spheres of life. Rarely does one see images of a truly happy, content, and advancing people.

One sees images of old and aging women with sickly children: women, who are mostly tired, dispirited, with hollowed eyes in receding sockets. The children are usually near death. Rarely does one see images of a people going about their normal life. No; it is mostly about wars and famine and hunger and want and fetidness and hopelessness and death -- death on the streets; death in refugee camps; death on highways or carcasses strewn in desolate tracts. One sees pictures of infants and flies and maggots jockeying for space,access to food, water and medicine. Just about every image one sees about the continent saddens ones soul. The continent is associated with any and everything bad about human nature.

When most western media speak of wars and excesses, they point to Africa; when they speak of dastardly acts, they point to Africa. Nothing new and positive seems to originate from the continent. It is also sad to note that most westerners cannot differentiate one African country from another; they speak as though the continent is one big country -- a continuous mass of nothingness and miseries and want.
News anchors and reporters are of little help in this regard. If there is commotion in Tanzania, Benin, Uganda, or Cape Verde, these media personalities will simply say “there was….in Africa.” There is usually never a mention of the particular country. Just Africa! But with Europe, Asia or North America, these media houses are quick to point out the specific country (and even the city).

The world knows very little about the African continent and her people; and the little they know is clouded by prejudice, ignorance, and racism. And even those who should know -- scholars, students and Foreign Service Officers -- usually speak of the continent in insalubrious terms. Yet, these are the same people who sit in their offices in London, Washington DC, Paris and elsewhere and write development policies for Africa.

These are the same people from whom African Presidents take orders. For instance, some of the World Bank, WTO and IMF officials who jet into African countries know very little about the real situation on the ground. These officials mostly sit in their offices and posh hotel rooms tossing out policy papers and recommendations based on computer analysis or some hocus-pocus development theory.

Consider scholars who spend 1-3 months in Lesotho, Mauritania, or Cameroon then become authorities on African affairs. A few return to Africa every so often, pen a book or journal article, then go about the lecture circuit or media outlets claiming to be experts on African Affairs.

At this point, the pain and the conflicting feeling about the continent set in again. This is so because, in spite of the western prejudices and the gory images, Africa truly has colossal problems. I cannot and will not pretend to know what all the solutions are.

Whatever the solutions might be, it is time Africans find solution to their own problems. While most countries in most continents are generally experiencing growth and human development, most countries in Africa are stagnant or regressing. AIDS/HIV and other diseases, hunger and starvation, bad governance, corruption and clientelism, and a host of other African-palavers have become a feature of the African landscape.

There seems to be no end in sight in terms of the rubbish that pervades the continent. What is true of Nigeria is also true of three dozen or more countries: weak institutions, poor leadership, and an apathetic populace. Where is the anger? Where is the revolution? Where are the movements to rid the continent of its garbage?

Have you ever been to Chad and Niger and Mauritania? The conditions are pitiable. Have you been to Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, and some parts of Nigeria? The state of affairs, I must say, is subhuman. So the next time you see images of Africans on CNN, The Washington Post, BBC, FOX, the Economist, the New York Times, and other news outlets, do not turn your gaze, do not be shy, do not pretend you didn’t see it. Go ahead, look at it and think about what should be done.
No one can deny the fact that Africa is exploited and is at the receiving end of globalization. And indeed, our continent is not ready to compete in the global marketplace of ideas, goods and services. We are capable of, but we are not ready. We should compete. But first, we must make our institutions stronger, educate our women and children, reshape our national culture, and disavow third-rate leaders. We should be serious about ourselves and about our future.

Damn, it must be tiring. It really must be. Or, it ought to be: this high mortality rate, high incidence of poverty and diseases, limited access to quality education and health care and other basic needs and an inconsequential gross domestic product. It must be tiring.

Sabella Abidde, a PhD Candidate & SYLFF Fellow, is with Howard University,Washington DC.


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