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On Knowing Nothing 
about Africa

By Diannek

Updated Apr 2006
He knows something about Africa
Photo credit: Carrol Chrys


In thinking about Africa, and the mystique that surrounds it, I find it a very exciting, wondrous, and intrinsically interesting place. My images are oftentimes a blend of old books and movies. My first impressions of Africa were shaped by Tarzan movies, King Solomon's Mines and The African Queen -- darkest Africa, inhabited by stereotypes -- natives in face paint and carrying long spears, dancing to African drums.

Here's a list of the books and movies that come "out of Africa" -- the Africa from which my own stereotypes have evolved over the years:

I Explorer's Africa, which would include all the stories about the 19th century discovery and colonial period:
Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the quintessential book about darkest Africa
The Stanley and Livingston adventures
The Travels of Sir Richard Francis Burton
Pat Shipman's To the Heart of Africa, from the journals of Sam and Lady Baker
Those English ladies who traveled into Northern Africa during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
I should add Alex Haley's Roots here. No study of Africa, even a superficial one, would complete without at least mentioning slavery.

II WWII Africa, which I'll call Casablanca period. We could include The English Patient here.

III African Safari, all those Hemmingway stories and movies.

IV The Colonial era -- The book and movie Out of Africa and the movie Elephant Walk, come to mind.  and then, all those movies about Mau Mau uprisings, African missionaries, the blood diamond sagas, and those old Boer War movies. Le Carre's novel The Constant Gardener could be included here.

V The save-the-animals period of Diane Fosse, Jane Goodall, et al. My heart goes out to those people who are trying to save what's left of the African wildlife from poachers, and those who are trying to harm them for any reason.

VI Contemporary Africa, which would include apartheid, AIDS, and other horror stories. We could include Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and many current movies that westerners see. Our images are mainly shaped by what is seen through the lens. Our friends who go on those photo safaris have a good time and come home with beautiful photos of protected animals, and have memories of a white-washed and prettified Africa -- this too keeps us from understanding what Africa is really like.

All of the above are stories about how European explorers, adventurers, missionaries and do-gooders try to cope with and explain the darkest continent. There’s nothing I can think of that I've learned about Africa that wasn't filtered through Western thinking. I haven't read anything by African writers, watched any African movies, or have I listened to much distinctly African music. The filter is firmly in place.

Who in America or Europe can name the African bestsellers? They do exist, of course, and there are probably hundreds, perhaps thousands, of African writers whose works are for the most part unknown to Americans. It's frustrating to even try to look them up. As a simple experiment I tried searching amazon.com's database for African literature. Mostly what I got was African-American literature, which is a whole separate deal entirely. This lack of information about and communication with real Africans keeps our stereotypes in tact. Although we watch the African horror stories on TV, including famines, floods, AIDS, and war stories, we seldom, if ever, read or see stories about day-to-day life in Africa. 

As I was ambling through a used bookstore the other day, I came across a jewel of a book that is now out of print in the US. It's called Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, by Blaine Harden, written in 1990 (Houghton Mifflin paperback edition). Harden was and perhaps still is a reporter (bureau chief) for the Washington Post. The book is his personal introduction to sub-Saharan Africa -- in-depth studies of his visits to Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Zaire (now once again called The Congo), Kenya and Sudan. He writes about his travels, the people he met and the horrors he saw, and while doing so, he analyzes the politics of each area.

Here's what Harden has to say about our African stereotypes:

After coming to know Nigeria, I found myself more and more intolerant of a soft-focus stereotype of Africa that continues to captivate the West. The Oscar-winning movie, Out of Africa, was a paean to love lost among white colonialists. Time magazine devoted its most extensive African coverage of the 1980s, twenty pages of purple prose and color pictures, to an essay that rhapsodized about lions in the tall grass, sagacious pastoral warriors, and 'miles and miles of Bloody Africa.' … This is anachronistic claptrap. Many Westerners have fixated on a self-glorifying illusion, a tranquilizing chimera that justifies ignorance of modern Africa while sanctifying the purchase of khaki pants at Banana Republic stores. The first question to ask about Africa is about people, not animals (pp. 281-2).

It's a book that's easy to read but difficult to digest. Some are horror stories, like his description of his boat trip down the Congo River from Kinsangani to Mbandaka on a rusted old riverboat named the Major Mudimbi. In his words:

…an ungainly vessel made up of five rusted barges and a tugboat--is an immense, stinking, noisy, overheated, overcrowded African market. When I traveled on it, the boat was choked with about three thousand people. There were twice that many animals; a menagerie of farm, forest, and river creatures, alive and dead, stuffed under benches, hanging from roofs, tied to guardrails. The creatures all were bound for market--if they didn't die, rot, or fall overboard. (p. 26).

Each chapter of his book focuses on a different part of Africa and Harden goes into some detail about politics. At first I thought his "take" on politics would be somewhat dated because the book is ten years old, but that's not really the case. Most of Africa is under what is termed "self-rule."

According to Harden, what that really means is rule by Big Men who forcibly take control of their country "for life" or until some other Big Man wrests power from them. Although many African states claim to be democratic, it's not a form of democracy that Americans recognize. African state boundaries are for the most part simply what's left of the artificial barriers created during the colonial period. Apparently during the time before colonialism, hundreds of tribes carved up the land in different ways. 

The tribes still exist and still hold immense power over the people, so the Big Men, in order to stay in control, must pay off, bribe or kill off the different warring tribal factions that exist uneasily within each state. The Big Men must use the country's wealth to amass their own personal fortunes and in turn use it to stay in power. Little money is spent to make a better life for the people in general. Corruption reigns as the most productive source of revenue for politicians at every level of government. It seems to be a continuing nightmare with no real change in sight.

Here's what Harden says about

…Africa trying to revive itself with Western capitalist ideas…I had a not-so-brilliant epiphany: Westerners who give money and economic advice to Africa, as well as those who write about the continent, spend far too much time looking in the wrong direction. We concentrate our energies on semi-fictional, barely functional, frequently irrelevant Western imports: central bureaucracies, ministerial policy papers, macro-economic statistics, and the "sincerity" of leadership commitment to free-market reform. All of which can be condemned, applauded, or made fun of within easy walking distance of a four-star hotel. Meanwhile, we are ignorant of the indigenous system that helps hold the whole sorry mess together (pp. 63-4).

When I think of the African people, I cannot help being swayed by the photos and TV images of the thousands of hungry and hopeless faces of men, women and children, who are victims of drought, famine, and the incredible continuing tribal wars. And adding to all that misery, there is the ever-present HIV and AIDS.

The HIV/AIDS statistics alone are staggering. According to www.unaids.org, people with HIV/AIDS in Black Africa at the end of 1999 come to twenty-four and a half million souls. According to www.prb.org, Africa's epidemic encompasses 69% of the world's AIDS cases.

And according to the World Health Organization:

Sierra Leone's people, who can expect less than 26 years of good health, was at the bottom of their list. The 23 lowest-ranked countries among the 191 WHO members were all in sub-Saharan Africa, hit by the AIDs epidemic, malaria and other tropical diseases, poor nutrition and unsafe water. (From the San Jose Mercury News, 6/5/2000, p. 5A)

The more I read, the more depressing the situation seems to be. Harden argues that our first concern should be with the people of Africa. I agree. We need to do more, especially about the medical emergencies. American technology could be of great help there. We could help them with our knowledge about HIV, how it spreads and how to control it. We could make our AIDS-fighting drugs more accessible. We could immunize children and bring other health reforms into the countryside. It could have an immediate effect on the population.

Our other monetary efforts seem to be less successful. We put our money to use haphazardly, into the wrong hands for the wrong purposes. When we send food aid, we send the wrong kind of food to the wrong people. To use President Clinton's words, "We can do better." And of course, these days ex-president Clinton is busy working on the AIDS/HIV problem as a personal goal, which we applaud.

And then there are the animals. Harden says that it's too late for them, that most of them have been destroyed. I disagree with him there. As an environmentalist, I believe it's never too late to save those magnificent African animals that personify Darkest Africa for us. When I read the articles that tourists write about the African safaris, (See Clever Writers: Cheryl Levinson and Carrol Chrys), I realize once again how important those creatures are to our world. Both Kenya and Tanzania are committed to environmental efforts to protect them, and we should continue to support and help them with that endeavor. 

But above all, we, as healthy, educated and concerned Americans should do all we can to learn more about Africa and try our best to help the African people in whatever way we can.


The internet is a great resource for learning more about Africa. You might want to start with these sites:

The CIA provides "The World FactBook" which is a complete file of info on nearly every country in the world.

For a report on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, go to www.unaids.org

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