Let’s forget bad images of Africa

January 2, 2014

Travel & commenting

Published in Sunday Monitor September 15, 2013. http://www.monitor.co.ug


Better look. In between the negative portraits of Africa, images of well-dressed middle class school children and teenagers have entered the picture. Oxfam’s Food for All Campaign is part of the change, writes Vibeke Quaade

Africa is on the move. But while the international media and aid sector increasingly show multi facetted images of Africa the commercial marketing of African goods, services and even investments opportunities is still happening on a pity-evoking tale.

We have seen them a million times, the traditional Western images of Africa.

Pictures of starving African children in remote rural areas, HIV/AIDS victims, corruption challenges, overcrowded classrooms, stories of refugees fleeing war zones, droughts, floods and other natural disasters leaving thousand of people in the villages without a livelihood,

The bombardment of sad stories from Africa in the Western media has been intense for decades.

A new, positive Africa
But in recent years something has changed. In between the negative portraits of Africa, images of well-dressed middle class school children and teenagers have entered the picture. So have African intellectuals and entrepreneurs on TED talks, news on elections without bloodshed and well-stocked shopping malls in buzzing metropolis like Nairobi and Johannesburg. From CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera to the New York Times and the Guardian the reporters have begun to replace the usual jargon on victimhood, aid, hand outs and poverty with words like entrepreneurship, creativity, business opportunity, trade and investments.

Wars are not happening on every street corner 
For African residents it is nothing new that wars are not happening on every street corner and that the continent is rich of talent and opportunities. But it is new that the Western media has begun to portray more positive and multi-facetted images of Africa than the dominating pitiful image of Africa.

Fragments of a sad tale
The story of images of Africa in the Western media goes back to the 19th century and is completely entangled with Europe and America’s relationship with Africa.

During colonial times Africans would be depicted as either children or warriors in European popular culture including the mass media; children whom the European would have to teach everything from Christianity to new livelihood skills and structures of governments. Warriors the Europeans had to fight against for their own good in the name of the colonial project.

Stereotypes slowly mellowed from 60s+
From the 60s and 70s post-colonial era the clear-cut hierarchical images slowly mellowed down. Yet, the undertone of Europe having parent-like obligations to assist the continent, as if it was the child of Europe who never really got it right, lingered on throughout the century. The Economist summed up the standard Western media story of Africa as a backward continent by calling it “hopeless” on its front page in 2000.

Positive outlook
A decade later this tone of voice changed dramatically. The Economist swallowed its own words in 2010 by carrying a 10 pages Africa special entitled “Africa Rising”. It highlighted development and progress from all corners of the continent and set the tone for the rest of the media industry.

The main Africa story became the continents impressive economic growth rates of more than 5 percent, the mobile revolution and the growing African middle class – living the same life as the middle class anywhere else in the world; having private cars, being land and house owners, enrolling their children in private schools.

Fundraising is getting harder for international charities
Simultaneously with the media, the international aid organizations and foreign donors began reviewing their storylines on Africa.

The usual fundraising images of communities and individuals in need of development assistance were supplemented with success stories and photos of individuals benefitting from the organizations work.

Food for All Campaign
Last year, on Boxing Day (2012), Oxfam went a step further in the attempt to put distance to the traditional sad images with its “Food For All” campaign.

On the background of stunning Africa-photographs, the campaign slogans were “Let’s make Kenya famous for its food markets, not food shortages” or “Let’s make Africa famous for its epic landscapes not hunger”.

In the UK daily The Guardian Dame Stocking, Oxfam’s Campaign Manager explained the motives behind the campaign as a deliberate attempt to put distance to the stereotypical pitiful Africa images and at the same time advocate for – and fundraise to eradicate hunger.

She described that too many people in the UK were only associating Africa with disaster and hunger and that people had become desensitized towards the stereotypical images.

About time to change the feel-sorry-for jargon
Criticism of the unbalanced coverage of Africa has been going on for years in Africa and in the Western countries. And a more nuanced image of Africa from the media and the development industry definitely falls on a dry spot. It is about time that the western world wakes up, smells the coffee, and realizes that the rest of the world, including Africa is on the move.

Therefore, it is a surprise to see that sales and marketing of the African products, which with Africa’s economic leap forward increasingly find their way to the Western markets, continue the feel-sorry-for jargon.

Buy and help
Take for instance African goods in the Western supermarkets. Whether it is soap, cream or sugar beans the products are not only being sold for their good quality. There is a second layer to it, a story about how the Western consumer will contribute to the positive development of Africa by buying the product.

Sainsbury’s fairtrade investment
The world’s biggest retailer of fairtrade products is the British supermarket chain Sainsbury. When Sainsbury in 2010 increased its investment in Africa by quarter of a billion pounds over a five-year period, the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said:

This is very good news. Trade and private enterprise are the best ways for the people of Africa to pull them out of poverty, and this investment will help thousands to do that. I look forward to seeing more African products on Sainsbury’s shelves very soon, giving British shoppers the choice to make a difference in some of the world’s poorest nations.

“Making a difference” and “helping Africa to help itself” seems to have become the branding tagline for African products whether it is shea butter cream from small online stores or large scale investment opportunities.

Absurd pity branding
It is almost ironic that while the Western aid industry and media houses are attempting to portray a more balanced view of the continent, the business sector clings on to the traditional Africa tale.

One may ask why it is necessary to promote African products by using the image of a pitiful Africa? Why appeal to the very same bad conscience that the charity industry uses to raise funds and awareness but is increasingly turning away from.

Is it because the consumers could otherwise get the idea that the Western businesses want to exploit Africa? Is it because the Western urge to protect Africa, as if Africa is a child that needs help, has become so ingrained that it is not to be ignored while selling African products?

Whatever the reasons, the present marketing of African products in Europe is to a large degree staged within the framework of the old images of Africa.

Frankly, it seems absurd. The reason why African products and trade are promoted is that Africa is on the move. Why is it then necessary to sell it on the old image of a child that needs help?

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Love politics, media, trend spotting and groundbreaking new ideas

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