Africa and the Media

Mall in South Africa

Mall in South Africa

The first few chapters of Mistaking Africa that we have read this week have resonated strongly with me as an African who has been exposed to western media representation of Africa since I was a kid. When I’m back home in Nigeria, I am constantly bombarded with news from all over the world, whether on local news channels, or on satellite TV, and now, Being a Nigerian a long way from home, I constantly try to keep up with news and popular culture from back home. In retrospect, I realise I hardly ever go to CNN or to check for news about Nigeria, not because they are bad news sources, but because I will never get the big picture if rely solely on these sources. CNN will never tell me that a Nigerian scientist has found a possible cure for diabetes, or that Ghana held peaceful presidential elections. That’s not typical “Africa.” I actually tried typing “Nigeria” into the search bar on the New York Times, and unsurprisingly, 95% (not exaggerating) of the related entries referred to corruption, a civil war which happened over 30 years ago or past dictatorial regimes (military rule in Nigeria ended in 1999).


Housing estate in Abuja

Which then brings questions like these to mind: “What is Africa?” “Where did our knowledge of Africa come from, and why has this knowledge planted certain stereotypes in our mind?” Who decided that animal skin loincloths and the Serengeti plains are more African than the skyline of Lagos, Abuja, Accra, or Pretoria? Even if Angelina Jolie hadn’t mentioned that she was going to Africa in Tomb Raider 2, we knew she was in Africa once we saw the animals running freely across the plain. How did we automatically reach the conclusion that she was in “Africa”? Why do many picture huts and spears when they think of typical Africans, instead of people living lives in the city and working from 9 to 5 in banks and law firms?

I would say our knowledge is moreorless linked to our consumption of media, whether in film, picture, or print form, as well as the notion of difference.

The concept of “Africa”, (the mistaken Africa), in my opinion, is closely linked to the power of contrast and difference. Like Conrad says in Heart of Darkness, “strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” Wealth is an accident arising from another’s poverty. Success is an accident arising from another’s failure. It’s easy see how opposite concepts relate to one another. But then, we can see how Africa is then the “opposite” of the United States and the West in general, especially. Western media generally represents Africa as a desolate place, ravaged by disease, corruption and dictators. Western media also represents the West as better half of the world, where people are healthy, and corruption and dictators exist only in history books. Africa is depicted as the past in the present, where the past evils of Western Society still exists.

The problem with these facts is not that they are false, (I called them facts), but that they do not paint the full picture. There are indeed PARTS of Africa ravaged by disease, and where dictators still rule the state, but then isn’t there more? Of course there is. We need to understand the context in which these images come to us before we place them in the category of “yet another primitive African stereotype”. If there was a war in the Land X for instance, and the media has paid no attention to Land X prior to the war, it’s easy to say that whatever we see in the media about Land X will be all that we know about Land X. Substituting Land X with, say, Sudan, we see how easy it is to get our stereotypes and views of places from the media even as we claim to be open minded while watching it. The media representation in itself is a lie, usually because someone else has determined how it should affect the receiving audience, by omitting some part of the story (e.g. the history of American slavery in Amistad, or the history of RACE, and not religous relations, in Darfur).

The way to get around media (mis)representation is a simple guess. POWER. But then, how does Africa get the power to be able to represent herself in the way that she feels? That I do not know the answer to.


One Response

  1. Props to that. Its hurtful to watch a place you call home presented and presented and re-presented as squalor and poverty and grime or as you mentioned, rustic landscapes and so called ‘primitive practices’ when – yes while there is certainly all of that – there is a lot more too. I completely understand where you’re coming from. Coming into Amherst, having to ward off questions about how I learnt english, why I didn’t wear a burqa, if i had restaurants back home – all these little things said by intelligent, well-meaning students were very disarming.

    – what we need is more reports and media channels coming out of African countries, and Asian countries – so careless, parachute reporting does not control the way regions are constructed.

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