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.

  • African Journalist
    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

  • African Journalist

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?

4/7/2013 11:04:44 PM

Thank you for this article. Many people who consider themselves well-educated do not know Africa's history, its tech and cultural scene, or that six of the world's fastest growing economies are in sub-saharan African. One can find those kinds of stories in NEW AFRICAN magazine but the mainstream media should cover them as well. .

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