Faces of Africa: The perpetuation of the Single Story

Last year, Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer of contemporary African literature gave a talk at a TED conference about the danger of the Single Story. Her argument centered on the importance of stories to “socialize” minds about a place or about people.  The danger of using a single story is that a single reality becomes created, in which the “characters” of the story are expected to fit, or to conform to. A form of a single story is ad nauseam propaganda.

Wikipedia’s description of ad nauseam propaganda is the use of a single idea, repeated enough time that it becomes part of the consciousness, or it begins to be taken as truth. Businesses do this effectively by creating an image that is consistently broadcast to potential clients/customers and partners through their literature, advertising and other branding material.

This past week, a casual google search of the word “Africa” led me to the “Faces of Africa” photo gallery, on the National Geographic’s website. And here are some of the pictures depicted, to represent the faces of Africa.

After clicking through a few more pictures, I became frustrated and had to come back later to read the interview with authors and photographers  Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. After seeing the pictures, it was no longer surprising for me to have encountered people, who upon seeing pictures of skyscrapers, beaches and cars in Africa, ask to see the “real Africa”. Or college students who reduce the breadth of African music to ‘talking drums’. It’s true that pictures are just pictures;  they are the representations of one person’s perspectives, but pictures tell a story, they are said to be “worth a thousand words”. In all the pictures on the website, the only modern element was a “Kalashnikov” riffle in one of the pictures. There weren’t any Malick Sidibe-esque photographs in the bunch.

After, I went back and looked at the interview, I realized that they were trying to capture “traditional” Africa, which is fine, but why call it “Faces of Africa”, instead of “Faces of Traditional Africa”?  If they had done that, I would go in, knowing what to expect, hearing their voice loud and clear. To showcase “Faces of Africa” the correct way (in my opinion), is to juxtapose the contemporary and the traditional. Africa, like any other continent, is a conglomeration of cultures where the “modern” and the “traditional” struggle to co-exist.  That would be a balanced picture. Let’s say, a fourth-grader who had no previous knowledge of the continent was assigned a project about “Africa”. He/she starts doing his/her research online and this is the first website they come to, for information or for pictures. And this is from 2004.

The interviewer asked about the juxtaposition of “modern” and “traditional” in Africa. As an aside, the way the question was phrased a reader is to come to the conclusion that, anything modern in Africa is tainted by the “evils of globalization”. In other words, the traditional is the pure part…which they tried to capture and preserve. The way I viewed globalization is that, it’s a 2-way street. Case in point, the whole “tribal print” movement in the Western fashion industry…that’s a post for another day. Instead of talking about the juxtaposition of the “modern” and the “traditonal”, they talked about the “evils of globalization” using words like “civil wars”, “famine”, “AIDS”, “Political Upheaval”. It’s not that I’m denying that these are issues present in and impacting African countries, but it’s becoming cliche to see it in articles that don’t even have to do with those issues.

Near the end of the interview, when asked about what they gave back to Africa, they started talking about the “African Principle of Reciprocity”, which I’m sure is a part of many Non-African cultures as well. I guess, this is what Asian people feel like when non-Asian people start talking about Asian values. I think there are things cultures in the same region share, but I don’t think anyone ever stood up and owned them as “our thing”, “our values as a continent”.

They talked about giving back by supporting projects, such as building schools, digging wells and craft initatives. I’m tired of people talking in vague terms when it comes to what they’re doing to help. I would rather have heard them say, “We are committed to sponsoring 10 students through their education in their country all the way to university” or “We are supporting communities by investing in these specific microfinance schemes in their region”, or “We are creating jobs by teaching young people to take photographs and developing marketing plans to start and maintain their own studios”.

When all is said and done, this is the National Geographic’s website, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. Frankly, like a wise person said about music: it’s 2010. There’s no excuse or reason for having a skewed perspective about African countries and their diverse cultures. Go check out the interview for yourself and let me know what you think.

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4 Responses to Faces of Africa: The perpetuation of the Single Story

  1. Andrea says:

    Another nice africa blog…I will be back! Interesting discussion!

  2. Hi! Just found your blog. I will stat to follow it.
    You’re right. There are perspectives about african continent that should be just too old to be alive, but sad truth is that is the widest way of thinking:
    – ‘Africa’ seen almost as a country, as it was not amazingly diverse culturally and naturally.
    – ‘Africa’ as a place always ‘other’ than ‘developed countries’ (what a awful term this is, as the ‘first’ or ‘third world’ expression, which I think so offensive), a vague idea of a place somewhere where things just don’t work.
    – The use of the word Africa to relate to ‘black africa’, as the northern part of the continent being almost not-african because “it as a cultural civilization, almost developed countries” and, of course, because northern Africa shared the “classical mediterranean culture”.
    – Africa as a place that is always ‘wrong’: if the population of particular place maintains ‘traditional’ ways of living, they are seen as retrogade, obviously showing the impossibility of development. Where, as you say, there are cities with tall buildings, roads, cars (all the things seen as signs of ‘development’) this happens always in a confuse, chaotic, violent way, showing the lack inadequacy of local population to embody the ‘modernity’.
    And, related to this last one, lies a very subversive though of mourning the establishment of ‘western capitalism’ ruining the “ancestral harmony of ‘traditional Africa'”. All the people and the country in the continent were peaceful and happily living ‘traditional’ lives, in ‘traditional’ villages, in ‘traditional’ landscapes. Not cities, changes, mutations, cultural sincretism, movement. No, just a quiet, closed, far away of the world, village.
    This way of thinking, agressive and profoundly offensive, is the prevalent one. Unfortunately also in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘developmental’ agencies, sometimes it seems that helping someone is to erase the influence of the rest of the world and put him/her back in his/her grand-grand-grand parents village and return to traditional living.
    This is the though that made colonialism and still makes this neo-colonialism we live. And if someone wants to help any change in any african country he/she must first realize that people ARE NOT what is told to us.
    And yes, I totally agree with you: it’s National Geographic. But at the same time, given the world high visibility of NG they should show the example.

    Thanks for your post!

    Pedro Pombo

  3. Claire says:

    Excellent blog! In work in an N.G.O in the E.U and all too often we are guilty of perpetuating these stereotypes. Thanks for your insights. Will be using this blog as reference in the future!

    • Mak says:

      Thanks for the compliment, Claire! 🙂

      I hope your work is going well. We all fall into perpetuating the single story sometimes.

      Gosh, you may just be motivating me to write more here.

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