Branding Africa

Published on 4th August 2008

Prof. Carina Ray
In 1963 the respected Oxford historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, made the outrageous claim that Africa's pre-colonial history consisted solely of "the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes." Europe, he argued, had "shaken the non-European world out of its past – out of barbarism in Africa." It is precisely the continued pervasiveness of Trevor-Roper's contention, rather than the preposterous claim itself that merits our attention. 

Indeed, the way in which mainstream Western media outlets present Africa does little to challenge the assumption that the only thing the continent has going for it is the West. 

Africa is projected across Western television and movie screens, on billboards, and in magazine ads through what, in effect, have become its pseudonyms: HIV/AIDS, famine, war, refugees, genocide, and corruption. Yet, we also see something else in these public images: the West intervening to save Africa.   

Yet nowhere in the recent "lend a helping hand to Africa" frenzy have we been allowed to glimpse Africans helping themselves.  For instance, in late 2006 the popular American news program Anderson Cooper 360° aired "The Killing Fields: Africa's Misery, the World's Shame."  Prominently featured were Western aid workers risking their lives to bring relief to thousands of displaced people fleeing the war in Darfur. Glossed over in a few lines, however, were two striking statistics: first, of the 14,000 aid workers in Darfur 13,000 of them are Sudanese.  Second, of the twelve aid workers killed in Darfur all have been Sudanese.  The latter point was made to highlight the dangers posed specifically to foreign aid workers, rather than to underscore the strong sense of selflessness and self-responsibility amongst Sudanese citizens that drives relief efforts in Darfur. This kind of skewed representation perpetuates the false perception of Africans as helpless victims. 

There is something at work in the West's recent philanthropic engagements with Africa and the way that they are visually represented that deserves our attention. Thanks to the well-intentioned efforts of a number of celebrities, chic is no longer defined solely by aesthetics, but also by social consciousness. Donning a PRODUCT(RED) t-shirt from the GAP or watch from Armani, for example, allows consumers to "instantly become…Good Looking Samaritan[s]," in the words of Tamsin Smith, (RED)'s president. Corporations are quickly catching on to this new breed of humanitarian fashionistas' desire to do-good, while looking good. Aid to Africa, in turn, is arguably being morphed into a trendy accessory that manufacturers use to increase the desirability of their products. While there is no doubt that (RED) and other philanthropic campaigns raise much needed funds for various kinds of relief efforts, the danger inherent in such highly commercialized aid initiatives, what I call "Brand-Aid," is that they perpetuate an image of Africa as a crippled continent.  

Rather than cast aspersions on the intent behind these efforts, we need to critically examine their execution and outcome. It is imperative to ask whether in the long run these campaigns hurt more than they help. When visitors to Times Square gaze up at a (RED) billboard are they provided with an image that allows them to imagine Africa as something other than a tragic continent whose only hope lies in the pockets of western consumers?  

No doubt, (RED) advertisements have studiously avoided using images of Africa and with the exception of a few African supermodels, do not feature Africans. Yet the ads' silences scream loudly: the first two words that come to mind when viewing them are "AIDS" and "AFRICA." This is largely because Afropessimism has become so endemic in Western representations of Africa that the (RED) campaign doesn't need to conjure up graphic images of the AIDS crisis to convey the magnitude of the problem it hopes to address.  Africa as a continental landmass has, in effect, already been rendered an AIDS infected body in the global imagination. Thus, most viewers have an existing repertoire of highly visual mental images that they can choose from to fill in the blanks left empty by Africa's absence in (RED) advertisements.   

In this regard, now more than ever, Western cinematic representations of Africa have saturated the minds of movie-goers with an endless supply of stereotypical and deeply racist imaginings of the continent and its people.  Within the last year alone there have been three major Hollywood films that are to varying extents about Africa: "The Last King of Scotland," "Blood Diamond," and "Catch a Fire." Of these three films, only "Catch a Fire," which had an extremely limited release and was under-patronized, provides its viewers with a nuanced cinemagraphic encounter with Africa.  Centered on the politicization of one man, Patrick Chamusso, in the context of the anti-apartheid struggle, the film not only eschews the use of Manichean dichotomies between black and white, and good and evil, it also succeeds in telling an African story from an African perspective, and in doing so breaks out of the condescending Western cinematic tradition of narrating films about Africa from the perspective of a white protagonist.  Not so with "The Last King of Scotland" and "Blood Diamond." 

An extended critique of both of these films is beyond the scope of this article; however I want to make an explicit link between one aspect of "The Last King of Scotland" and the larger point I have raised regarding the way in which Africa itself has been stigmatized as an HIV/AIDS infected body.  The film portrays African women as fully sexually available: within the first five minutes of the film the young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, has managed to bed the first Ugandan woman he meets.  Later Garrigan goes on to have an affair with one of Amin's wife.  Numerous other scenes depict African women in a hypersexualized fashion: scantily clad prostitutes and gyrating dancers appear throughout the film.  This stands in stark contrast to how Sarah Merrit, the one white woman in the film, is portrayed: sexually restrained and moral, as she resists her attraction to Garrigan and remains faithful to her do-good husband. In branding African women as sexually promiscuous, a stereotype which is further amplified by the film's contrasting vision of white female sexual virtuosity, "The Last King of Scotland" peddles a racist vision of African sexuality that reinforces the equally racist, analytically lazy, and false notion that the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa stems from the uncontrollable libidos of Africans. Thus, the film adds to the existing repertoire of skewed visual images of Africa and Africans that circulates in the West. The overabundance and mass circulation of these images is precisely why (RED) advertisements need not feature a single image of Africa in order to have "AIDS" and "AFRICA" written all over them. 

While we can't afford to turn a blind eye to the challenges facing Africans, equally we can't continue to brand Africa, as The Economist infamously did in 2000, as "the hopeless continent."  If the PRODUCT(RED) initiative and others like it are going to strike an ethical balance between these two positions, they have to figure out how to galvanize awareness and raise funds without  stigmatizing Africa as a dependent and disease-ridden continent.  

How might this be done? Start simple: render Africa visible, and highlight the strong sense of selflessness and self-responsibility that exists amongst Africans.  Instead of solely featuring Hollywood celebrities in the next (RED) advertising campaign, also include the heroes and heroines of Africa who work tirelessly and often at great cost to themselves to improve conditions in every corner of the continent.  People like Awatif Ahmen Isshag and Patrick Chamusso.  Isshag, now in her mid-twenties, has published her own newspaper in the town of El Fasher in Darfur since the age of fourteen.  For the last four years her critical reportage has been the only independent local coverage of the violence in Darfur. Chamusso, after being released from prison for his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, built a home in South Africa for AIDS orphans, which today houses over 80 children. Now that's inspi(RED)!  

By Carina Ray

Assistant Professor History Department, Fordham University, USA

A version of this essay first appeared in the February 2008 edition of New African magazine.

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