Representations of Africa: The White Correspondent’s Burden
Representations of Africa in western journalism tend to obscure moral ambiguities and nuance in favor of simplified stories and objectifying compassion narratives.
Susan Sontag describes our problem this way: “The other ... is regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees.”
Photo By Ken Harper
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?
Representations of Africa: Is Suffering the Only Image?
“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.
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