Is there a “Real Africa”, and Does Anyone (Need to) Care?

[Note this post is part of an ongoing series. See Part I here.]

There is a puzzle that asks, “How long is a piece of string?” Since strings can be any length, the best answer might be, “Twice as long as half of the string.”

Another puzzle put to us these days is “What is the Real Africa?” Somebody must know, because whenever there is a picture or video of a scene from somewhere and some time on the African continent, there’s inevitably somebody complaining about how that picture or video fails to show the “Real Africa”.

Or worse, something is accused of promoting a false or damaging image of life in an African country. Often this is equated with promoting colonialism or “a colonial view”.

I’m a White American born to a White Austrian mother. Aside from friends and business interests my everyday life has no affiliation with the African continent. But I know things that are “real” about Africa. I want to participate in this discussion. I just don’t know if my opinion matters.

As Far as the Eye Can See
Aside from what the “Real Africa” isn’t (e.g. the World Bank portfolio population of “average households”), the first reality of Africa I know is that “Africa” is really many different countries, peoples, languages, regions, etc. ad infinitum. That’s not counting the yet-uncatalogued flora and fauna. Unless talking about natural phenomena (“Africa’s coasts”, “Africa’s latitude and longitude”, “Africa’s rivers”) Africa comprises so much diversity that it almost makes at little sense to talk about the “Real Africa” as it might the “Real Eurasia”.

The second reality I know is that the peoples of North America, Europe and Asia (here including what most call the Middle East) will never stop being part of everyday life on the African continent.

Geography and climate are part of the “Real Africa”. Africa has more resources than any imperial ancestor of the nations now sitting on the governing boards of the United Nations or the World Bank. But compared to conditions in the “heartlands” of Europe and Asia, those natural aspects made it difficult to establish large, centrally-controlled feeding, defense and administration of large populations over large areas. They made it difficult to grow, store and distribute a lot of food (especially not with domesticated livestock). There was heat, disease, huge areas of land and a diverse set of ethno-linguistic populations.

There were empires on the African continent before the foreigners came. They had large cities and agricultural projects, able to project military force over large areas. But Europe and Asia had the stronger armies, the stronger appetites and the stronger administration to take on even the mightiest historical African nations. Human nature and the strategy of “divide and rule” also helped. Rome took on the Carthaginians and the Egyptians. Islamic empires took on North Africa. The European empires took on West, South and East Africa.

None of those conquerors ever really stopped attacking. What we call Colonialism was just an episode in that history of attacks: conquest of a non-neighboring people, involving more administration than assimilation, with unequally distributed benefits for both conqueror and conquered.

Most of the conquerors left but they never really let go. They come for religious conversion. They come for economic gain. They come for the prestige of holding African land and African treasure. They take that land and treasure to defend against their enemies and defeat their foes, or to feed and enrich their own populations.

Even today, it’s not unreasonable to ask the difference between (a) a White European Colonial Officer writing reports, administrating a subject population and lounging at the Officer’s Club and (b) a White European/American aid company employee writing reports, administrating a multiple aspects of a community (health care, education, etc.), and enjoying privileged benefits such as paid travel and a relatively high income compared to the surrounding local population.

An irony is that while much of the above-mentioned interaction is carried out in terms of “developing” African countries or “saving” them, it’s really the other countries of the world that need saving by their African sister states.

They need African food and African natural resources. They need African markets. They need African artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists. Never mind that they need African countries to not produce the next close-call global pandemic (e.g. Ebola) or the next globally destabilizing organization (e.g. Al Qaeda).

So there’s no way these non-African nations will ever stop being part of what makes Africa, Africa. Their historical experiences of African countries, too, remembered and imagined, are part of what makes Africa, Africa. One can be certain that in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike against China, Europe and the USA there will still be boatloads of 21st Century Stanleys and Livingstones injecting themselves into everyday African life.

Who Labels the Labellers?
It might be that whether or not something is the “Real Africa” or a “colonial view of Africa” depends on who is showing or labeling. Not what is being shown.

One writer at the publication Ventures responded to the Taylor Swift video with pictures of what Africa “really…had to offer”. As if what the Taylor Swift video showed was inauthentic and not real, as if the “Real Africa” wasn’t joined to the same umbilical cord as its sister continents and countries.

Yet Ms. Omolayo’s suggestions of what represents the “Real Africa” make the term more rather than less confusing.

  • A cover of Drum Magazine (An English-language publication in South Africa)
  • A photograph of buses in Cameroon in the 1950’s (that’s French-administered Cameroon, and vehicles evolved from the machines of Europe’s Industrial Revolution)
  • A photograph of South African diamond miners (then almost totally controlled by the English and the Boers)

What makes any of these images more representative of the “Real Africa”? If Taylor Swift had incorporated these exact images into her Wildest Dreams video, would she have been spared the accusations of promoting a “colonial view” of the history of White people in African countries?

If the Clothes Fit, Wear Them
Another perspective comes from the magazine Those People, criticizing the appropriation of African fashion and markings by Black Americans.
If it isn’t part of your “everyday” life and if you don’t have a “real affiliation” with it, then it isn’t yours.

I agree with that. I cannot tell someone living in Africa, especially someone who’s family has lived in Africa, that I know more than them about what the “Real Africa” is or whether there is a “Real Africa” at all.

But interaction with people and resources in an African country is part of my everyday life, as it has been historically for the USA ever since its (at least partially) foundational slave-oriented agricultural industry.

Yet another outlook comes from a Somali photographer:

When you Google ‘Mogadishu’, the photos that surface convey a sense that life in Somalia’s capital is an endless cycle of death, destruction and despair.

Most of the images are of men and boys with guns, children playing in rubble, families huddled in refugee camps and scenes of carnage from explosions. Here and there there are snapshots of the city’s stunning beachfront and signs of hope and revival: new buildings rising in the skyline, solar-power-lit roads and brand-new ATM machines. While both types of images depict facets of reality, they don’t give a sense of daily existence for the city’s two million-plus residents, and what makes life worthwhile for them.

That last part seems key. Daily existence. What makes life worthwhile. If that is what defines the “Real Africa”, then it would really be different for everyone in every part of every country on the African continent.

And then I look at the pictures taken by the Somali photographer Abdulkadir Mohamed and I wonder if the pictures have more or less meaning, based on who is taking them.

Looking at the collection of pictures on Everyday Africa, does it matter to the “reality” of the scene who is behind the camera when capturing a moment of the “Real Africa”?

Two pictures submitted by photographers to the Everyday Africa Project

Mirror, Mirror on the Facebook Wall
In the end maybe none of it matters — neither the natural history nor the nationality of the definer.

In May of this year, at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in the Q&A that followed her lecture, ‘You know, I’ve actually found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself.

Perhaps that’s true. What are the negative aspects of how “Africa sees itself”? To what extent do people in African countries see themselves through “Western” eyes?

Is it through the international media? Is it through the still largely “Western” dominated international aid and development institutions, like the “Bad Numbers” identified by Morton Jerven?

Both the international press and the international aid industry employ the eternally recurring image of people in African countries as children or women or something “helpless”. (The blog Imaging Famine has a great breakdown of what’s wrong with that kind of imagery, like here and here.)

People in Africa: Poor Shoeless Children waiting for the “World Leaders” to save them.

But maybe, just maybe, this is more a problem for the “West” than it is for people in African countries. In both the case of the Taylor Swift video and the death of Cecil the Lion, the “international outcry” seems disproportionately heavy in countries off of the African continent. There is no doubt that people in African countries have opinions about these issues. But maybe those opinions are considered less important by people in the “West”.

While the World Bank is juggling numbers to determine whether there is or isn’t a “bottom billion”, while the Economist magazine figures out whether the African continent is “rising” or “hopeless”, people in African countries are getting along with their everyday life.

And that life, I assume, is different for every person relative to their family, their country and everything else that makes a person’s experiences unique.

Previewing “We Come as Friends”

I’m looking forward to seeing — rather, getting provoked by — We Come As Friends when the local Film Society screens it in September.

Art is art. But I already see the film as an artwork of “narrative colonialism”, where the dominant story about South Sudan is still the story told by the West.

That’s how it appears from the trailer: the music that triggers a feeling of tension or drama, the West’s “confrontation” with China, the exotic dress and architecture of South Sudanese people, the Western stereotypes like the heavily accented American evangelist.

Oil companies, multinational institutions and Jesus freaks aren’t the real story in South Sudan. It’s like if you made a movie about democracy and business in the USA, and you focused on Donald Trump. He’s loud. He’s controversial. And he’s largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

There is much more going on South Sudan besides oil and USA-China geopolitics. South Sudanese know this. As the National Geographic points out, we’re all dead if we can’t find a way to inclusively and sustainably develop the natural resources of countries like South Sudan. Especially food resources.

The West needs to stop pretending like South Sudanese aren’t real people who want the same thing as them — a mediocre but minimally financially sufficient job that leaves enough time for leisure.

The movie seems to cast sensationalist tint over South Sudan. It fits in with popular Clooney/Prendergast initiatives like Satellite Sentinel and the newly announced Sentry, which watch and itemize the destruction of lives and property in South Sudan without any mechanism for actually stopping the violence.

What does such a movie accomplish? Watch! Get excited! Get angry!
And then…what?

Will this sort of story build bridges between ordinary Americans/Europeans and South Sudanese? Help them see one another as peers?

Will it make it easier for ordinary South Sudanese to run their farms or businesses, by getting them cash or tools or mentors?

Will it help the audience’s break out of this image African countries as unchangeably dangerous, exotic, alien landscapes full of strange characters?

Will it treat the South Sudanese like real people who want to live their lives, rather than figments of the narrator’s imagination?