Images from and about Africans

by Sabella Ogbobode Abidde

Africa…this is what people have come to expect. It’s 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” (Chinua Achebe).

Images from and about Africa and Africans can be gruesome and demoralizing. The images I see of the continent in the western press paint a picture of a continent and a people that are incapable of governing themselves, incapable of self-sustenance, and incapable of providing the most basic of all basics without western help. Generally speaking, there are four types of Africans one see 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.

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 needs help and direction in all spheres of life and living. Rarely does one see images of happy people. You see old and aging women with sickly children. The women are mostly tired, dispirited, with hollowed eyes in receding sockets. And the children are usually near death. Rarely does one see images of a happy, progressive and developing land. And 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 fetid conditions and hopelessness and death — death on the streets; death in refugee camps; death on highways or carcasses strewn in desolate tracts.

Until recently, the images coming out of Liberia and Sierra Leone were mostly of chopped off limbs; burnt body parts; kwashiorkor babies; one-eyed or one-legged children; raped mothers and brutalized fathers. Today, the images coming out of Darfur, Sudan and the Republic of Congo and Niger and other forsaken lands mirrors one another and is even getting worse. One sees pictures of infants and flies and maggots jockeying for space, and for 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 the western media speak of war and excesses, they speak of Africa. When they speak of dastardly acts, they speak of Africa. Nothing new and goods seems to be coming out of the continent. It is also sad to note that most westerners cannot differentiate one African country from another. They make it seem as though the continent is one big country — a continuous mass of nothingness and misery and want. A few others think Africa is made up of three countries and three countries alone: South Africa, Nigeria and the rest.

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 the city. The world knows very little about the continent and her people; and the little they know is clouded by prejudice, ignorance, racism and stupidity. And even those who should know — scholars, students and Foreign Service Officers — usually speak of the continent in insalubrious terms. 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 our presidents take orders. For instance, the vast majority of the World Bank, WTO and IMF officials who jet into an African country know very little about the real situation on the ground as they mostly sit in their offices and posh hotel rooms tossing out policy papers and recommendations based on computers analysis or some hocus-pocus development theory. Consider also a scholar who spent 1-3 months in Lesotho, Mali, or Cameroon then becomes an authority in African affairs. Amusingly, a few returns to Africa every so often spending a week or so then pound out a book or journal articles, goes about the lecture circuit or media outlet claiming to be an Africanist. It is amusing. It is amusing but true!

Besides the western prejudices and the gory images, Africa truly has huge problems. I cannot and will not pretend to know what the solutions are. Some have called for amalgamating the entire continent so there will be just 4-6 countries with about six political and or financial centers. Others have called for a single and united Africa based on the concept of United State of African. Whatever the solutions may be, it is time Africans find solution to their myriad problems. While other continents are experiencing high economic growth and human development; Africa is stagnant or regressing. AIDS/HIV and other diseases, hunger and starvation, bad governance, corruption and clientelism, ethnic and religious conflicts and a host of other palavers have become an everlasting feature of the African landscape.

For the most part the continent is very rich in human and natural resources; yet, year after year since political independence we have been begging for handouts. Since 1980 there have been some 25 intra and interstate wars. 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 with thieves of the highest order in the corridor of power. But more than the aforementioned, the entire continent suffers from inferiority complex — a complex that posits western is better; foreign is better; and anything white is much better and desirable. And perhaps it is this sense of less that makes it possible for the West to exploit us, to dump their waste and inferior goods on us.

While the rest of the world progresses, we bask in poverty, idleness, disease and terminal stupidity. The images we see of ourselves and of our land are mostly true. 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, BBC, FOX, the Economist, the New York Times, and other news outlet 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. We are, for the most part, what you see.

No one can deny the predatory and exploitative nature of the west. No one will deny the fact that free market is not amenable to the African way of life. And indeed no one will deny the fact that our continent is at the receiving end of globalization. And for that matter, our continent is not ready to compete at the global marketplace of ideas, good and services. We are not! Nonetheless, we are no more disadvantaged than the Asians that we can not hold our own. We could compete. We should compete. But first we must make our institutions stronger, educate our people, reshape our national culture, and disavow third-rate leaders. We should be serious about our selves and about our future.

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