The importance of re-inventing the image of Africa, in American eyes, has long animated my writing about the people and the region. Elsewhere, I’ve looked in detail at the meta-narratives, or paradigms, that continue distort clear thinking about African affairs –– and that cause otherwise intelligent people to ignore or dissemble about evidence of positive achievements by Africans, in Africa, for Africans. The other night, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, where I teach, I presented some 50 photos and a half-dozen short videos from my various trips in the sub-Saharan. The aim was to present the subject in a fresh way. Click here to view the entire presentation, “Africa: One Journalist’s Journey into a Misunderstood Continent.”
Or read an excerpt from my introduction, which stands as a kind “manifesto” against those who appear committed to diminish and demeaning Africans in order to rouse the world’s sympathy and perhaps assistance:
My aim tonight is to present an alternative way of looking at Africa – a contrarian approach that runs counter to the usual media images of disaster, disease and mayhem. Far too often, American journalists meet only sick Africans, murderous Africans and starving Africans – or they meet sick starving Africans murdering each other. I’m bringing you a different bunch of Africans – brainy Africans, caring Africans, hard-working Africans, damaged but dignified Africans – Africans who, under adverse conditions, do the best they can to build and sustain a decent life. Hopefully by meeting these Africans, your image of Africa will change and in ways that my surprise you.
The journey I take you on tonight I began myself, some dozen years ago. In 2000, I sat in a shack in the capital city of Burundi, smack in the heart of Africa, smack in the middle of an undeclared civil war, huddled together with a gang of irregular soldiers and their leader, a charismatic man in his 30s who I met with the assistance of Alexis Sinduhije, the leading journalist in Burundi. I sat with these men listening to them talk about mayhem from the heart of darkness – stories about pillaging and killing their ethic enemies – listening to them describing their actions and their motives – in short, doing what a foreign correspondent in Africa is supposed to do – reporting on human suffering, the people who inflict it, and its victims.
I spent three hours in a shack with these men and at the end I didn’t understand anything about who they were, what they did, where they came from, or their world. I wasn’t even sure what they told me was true, or whether that even mattered. So at the end of my carefully arranged encounter with young killers, I sat with Alexis Sinduhije in a restaurant and I told him, I don’t want to do this. Then I asked him a question – a question I would go on to ask many other Africans in many other places – can you show me something beautiful.
He did. And then on my own I kept looking for the beautiful in Burundi and then the beautiful in everwhere else I went in Africa. At some cost to my standing with editors at the famous publications I used to write for, I decided that far better journalism can be done by reporting on what’s working in Africa – the normal, the successful, the dignified, the beautiful – than by reporting on the stuff that usually comprises global media coverage of Africa and Africans. I decided that journalism ought not to diminish and demean Africans under the guise of displaying sympathy for them.
African problems need not be exaggerated or invented in order to get Americans to care about Africans. At least not in my own articles.
My purpose tonight is not to suggest that Africa is without problems, or that outsiders cannot help Africans. But the near-exclusive focus on African pathologies – and the media’s absorption on what some call the “pornography of pain” – presents only part of African reality and not the most interesting or significant part either. In these photos and films, I seek to celebrate concrete, commonplace African realities – realities that invite us to understand and engage Africa and Africans more deeply – and on a far more equal basis than we achieve by approaching Africans as objects of sympathy or assistance.