Back in May I published a short post on the discursive renderings of the African continent in major US publications. A cowboy riding a zebra, a giraffe with a cell tower for a head, the “scramble” for Africa by foreign investors. These images and words, I argued, replicate ideologies of space, race, and technology, and structures of power.
I’m now in Accra, Ghana conducting my dissertation research, and I find myself once again floored (but at this point my surprise should be the real surprise) at not only blatant descriptions of Africa as a place of unimaginable wealth to be extracted by the West, but also articles which seek to debunk stereotypical notions of the continent, but end up reifying them in the end. Here are some examples that have caught my attention as of late:
October starts with this short article by the Economist, which discusses Africa “as the last great frontier market.” The imaginary of a frontier draws on notions of vast space and natural resources of the wild wild US West. These riches were considered by some a “destiny,” but could only be accumulated through the “pacification” of local populations.
Last week CNN did a report on the construction industry in Ghana, and declared that despite the 3-year old financial slump and chronic lack of electricity, now is “a great time to build in Ghana“. The reporter, all smiles, signed off the report by referring to [Ghana] by its colonial name, the Gold Coast. I read this linguistic choice not as accidental, but rather, a blatant connection between construction, investment, wealth and power– an utterance that is not nostalgic for the colonial past, but a reassurance of the colonial future.
In early September NPR covered a segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In the clip, Oliver welcomed US students back to school with a lamentation on how by and large students do not learn about Africa. NPR’s Goats and Soda blog responded with “a crash course in Africa,” an 11-point list of “trivia” that may come in handy at “future cocktail parties.”
The list starts well, first declaring that Africa is not, in fact, a country, and then providing a brief history on borders. Yet, the 11-point primer quickly replicates stereotypical, racist tropes of Africa: war, poverty, death, disease, animals, youth (bulge), and economic growth despite all odds (the problematic Africa Rising narrative).
Bill Gates makes an appearance in point 4 (re: mosquitos) because it’s not a story about Africa without the authoritative voice of Gates or Bono. And perhaps that’s part of the reason why students don’t learn, because the narrative isn’t expanded outside a few authoritative voices, often white, American and neoliberal.
If people want young Americans to seriously engage with the continent, then it is time for the narrative around Africa to change. That starts with 1) those of us who are constructing such narratives, and 2) expanding the reading list to actually include folks from the continent. I’ll write about that next.