The Real Africa

photo of serengeti pictures

When you think about Africa, what sort of imagery comes to mind?

I’ve never been to Africa, so all of my understanding has been constructed from what I have read, seen, and heard. The majority of my mental Africa file has been constructed by nature documentaries from the Discovery Channel, which gives the indication that Africa is full of animals and the only humans are the ones driving Jeeps around the nature reserves. My other main source would be what I have read, and I have to say most of what I have read about Africa is negative. If I was to compose a picture of Africa from what I have read in newspapers and online, then I would have to assume that the entire continent is rife with political strife, that suicide is rampant, and that AIDS is the single most dominating conversation topic among locals. My final input would be from the commercials that  flood daytime and weekend TV slots, featuring starving orphans with flies on their faces, who are doomed to a …

… life without education, where they are forced to care for their younger siblings with distended stomachs- unless I call now.

So is this accurate? Is Africa really such a desolate place?

Not according to the Columbia Journalism Review,

Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The death rate of children under five years of age is dropping, with “clear evidence of accelerating rates of decline,” according to The Lancet. Perhaps most encouragingly, Africa is “among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions,” according to the McKinsey Quarterly.

So if our perception is inaccurate, then how did we come to view Africa in this way? Karen Rothmyer reports that between May and September 2010, the ten most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth. Why is this the focus of the media? Rothmyer believes the cause is non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who report on impediments as opposed to accomplishments.

Focusing on the tasks at hand makes sense for NGOs, and has also aided them in securing funding to continue their work. And NGOs are now facing far more competition than before- where in the 70s there might have been only a handful NGOs, there are now hundreds. While NGOs obviously want what is best for the overall cause, in order to preserve the initiatives they have under way they need to secure donations, which means competing with other organisations. And sadly, donors are more likely to donate t the tragic images of dying children and mothers in need than they are to stories of success and growth.

Part of the issue also rests on journalists relying on NGOs for statistical information, which often ends up with misrepresented figures being published.

Take Kibera, a poor neighborhood in Nairobi. A Nexis search of major world publications found Kibera described as the “biggest” or “largest” slum in Africa at least thirty-four times in 2004; in the first ten months of 2010 the claim appeared eighty-three times. Many of those stories focused on the work of one of the estimated 6,000 or more local and international NGOs working there, and cited population figures that ranged as high as one million residents. Recently, however, the results of Kenya’s 2009 census were released: according to the official tally, Kibera has just 194,269 residents.

Obviously journalists should be more analytical when collecting statistical information, but NGOs shouldn’t be trying to give out facts and figures that they haven’t been able to properly collect.

So what is to be done to start changing this negative imagery?

The organisation is off to a good start. The organisation aims to show Africa to be an inspirational place, and to show the humanity in the people who live there as opposed to the tragic beings the media has made them out to be. Mamahope’s slogan is “Stop the Pity”, and their website features videos of children being, well, children. Getting exciting over every day things, showing how bright they are, and generally giving the impression that these kids could live next door to you as opposed to being forced to live in a gutter somewhere. The organisation supports creating sustainable communities, which will ensure that these communities will continue to thrive long after the aid workers have left town.

While I understand the tendency to segment issues as black and white, things rarely ever work out so easily. While Africa is in need of support to over come their obstacles, support doesn’t have to be embodied in pity. After all, Africa isn’t a mass of animals, dictators and fly-ridden children; it is a continent full of diverse people, thriving and flailing communities, and complex issues.

Next time you see African imagery on the TV, or read about it in the newspaper, take a minute to reflect upon how much of the information presented is accurate, and what the motives behind disseminating this information might be. After all, regardless of the situations facing an individual in Africa, is it important to remember that these individuals deserve the right to be respected as people, not stereotypes.

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