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.