Everything you know about Africa is wrong.
No, no, not you in particular. I'm thinking about a more general "you" -- the American "you," the Western "you," and even the 18- to 22-year-old "you" who enrolls in my introductory African history classes.
When I allow myself to think about it, it seems as though I spend as much time un-teaching African history as teaching it. This reason is simple. Most students come into my classes knowing next to nothing about the continent, and what little they know is wrong.
It's not their fault. They're very bright, they graduated from good high schools, and they're (usually) eager to learn. But the culture that surrounds them has filled their heads with images of Africa that blend myth with distortion. Many of them, like most people in the West, imagine that Africa is:
--an unspoiled paradise of people and wild animals, living in harmony with nature
--a primitive backwater trapped in a timeless, tribal past
--a place where dangerous diseases and even more dangerous men wreak havoc
--an exotic wonderland of bizarre and outlandish people
--a broken place of collapse, death, and decay
Some of these stereotypes are contradictory, yet all of them are pervasive -- so much so that Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds' Africa in World History, a widely used university textbook, devotes its preface to unpacking them. Anyone reading this post can undoubtedly come up with examples from American culture that reproduce and reinforce these stereotypes, from Disney's The Lion King to last night's report on CNN.
I'm devoting Part 1 of this series on African stereotypes to "Broken Africa," to tracing the geneology of stereotypical images -- especially photographs -- of African suffering, victimhood, and brutality, from the anti-slavery movement of 200 years ago to the blindspots and hubris of Invisible Children.
Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood or Henry Webber: Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, c. 1787.
Before I get going, let me make a couple of quick points.
First, the "Africa" that I'm discussing here is not the actual continent, in all of its overwhelming diversity, with its nearly one billion inhabitants in over 50 countries. It's not the actually existing Africa that can't meaningfully be talked about as a single thing. That Africa is not one, but many. The "Africa" under discussion here is the one that floats through Western culture and lodges itself in Western minds.
The second thing to say about stereotypes is that they're not always wrong. Americans fly to Africa for safaris for a reason -- it really is the only place you're going to see lions, rhinos, and giraffes in the wild. And, without a doubt, far too many small African wars are killing far too many African people. Stereotypes do their damage not so much by lying -- although some do lie -- as by excluding. They can prevent us from seeing things in a broader, deeper, and richer context.
Third, older images that created stereotypes as well as contemporary images that reproduce them today aren't entirely bad. Take the image directly above. Its purpose was to build support within Britain for the movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. It goes without saying that this was one of the most important causes of the day. One of the first goals of the abolitionists was to convince Britons that Africans were their moral equals, not an inferior species of human being. Hence medallion and its slogan, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" Both were widely circulated -- in fact, the image became iconic. Within a generation, enough people answered the question with a resounding "Yes" to the medallion's question that the movement compelled Parliament to vote, in 1807, to end the overseas slave trade and, in 1833, to phase out slavery altogether.
William Blake: "Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave," copper engraving. 1796.
And yet... Nothing is quite that simple. On the one hand, the end of the slave trade and later of slavery were thoroughly good things. On the other, the medallion carried more than one message. The morally-equal man in chains is on bended knee. Unable to help himself, he looks up with pleading eyes at white Britons and Americans for help. The medallion one of the sites -- one of many associated with the campaign against slavery -- at which stereotypes of both the helpless African and the white saviour were created. (It's worth noting that many slaves actually freed themselves, from the thousands of runaways, in the United States, to the revolutionaries of Haiti.)
There's more. As David Bindman has pointed out, "much of the power of this image... came from the precision with which it expressed the idea of the gratitude expected of the liberated slave, who would... ever afterward be a loyal servant to the white masters and mistresses who had liberated him."
Abolitionism, suffering, helplessness, gratitude -- it's quite a package, both productive and problematic. And neither those stereotypes nor their contradictions have gone away.
Panos Pictures/Anti-Slavery International: The Reverend John (left front) and Mrs Alice Harris (right front) with a group of indigenous people on their visit to the Belgian Congo, 1910.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, news of outrageous atrocities, countless deaths, mass starvation, and ethnic cleansing began to leak out of the Congo Free State, the personal dominion of King Leopold of the Belgians. Leopold had acquired this vast domain (about the size of western Europe) by hook, crook, and brute force. His rights over it were confirmed by the great European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. (No one from the Congo was on hand to voice his or her opinion.)
Leopold claimed that by colonizing the Congo River basin, he would suppress the internal slave trade and bring the light of Christian civilization to those who lived in darkness. In fact, he was driven by greed, and in his zeal to extract the greatest possible profits from his colony, he and his many officials turned to forced labor. Men were imprisoned and sent to labor camps. Women and children were held hostage. The whip was freely used. The profitability of a given colonial outpost was directly proportional to the number of rifles it possessed. Rebels were hunted down without mercy. Notoriously, soldiers, who were expected never to waste ammunition, were ordered to return to their barracks with a human hand for every bullet they had fired. These are the real events that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is not about African savagery, as people who have never read it usually think, but about European barbarism.
Panos Pictures/Anti-Slavery International: An image of Alice Seeley Harris standing by the "Livingstone tree." The picture was printed in the Anti-Slavery Reporter publication (April 1915 - Jan1916).
Missionaries' and travelers' accounts of that told of these events and an official British report that confirmed them led to the formation, in 1904, of the Congo Reform Association [CFA]. The CFA's goals were simple -- to create a mass movement that would attack the atrocities by attacking Leopold, end them by ending his dominion over the Congo.
Two of the CFA's leading members were Alice Seeley Harris and her husband John Harris, Baptist missionaries who first went to the Congo in the 1890s. In the early 1900s, Alice Harris (that's her in the photo above) began to make photographs that documented the abuses carried out by Leopold's regime. Those photos became a vital part of what was probably history's first international multimedia human rights campaign.
Panos Pictures/Anti-Slavery International: Democratic Republic of the Congo. A young man and woman with severed arms. Mola's hands, seated, were destroyed by gangrene after being tied too tightly by soldiers. Yoka's hand, standing, was cut off by soldiers wanting to claim him [sic] as killed, c. 1904.
Alice Harris's photos (a few were by other photographers) were at the very center of the CFA's efforts to build a mass movement in Britain and the United States. Photography was still a relatively new technology, and most people believed that photos revealed the truth of a situation more fully and accurately than any other form of representation. The images, projected on a giant scale by magic lanterns before large audiences, packed a tremendous punch. People saw them as irrefutable proof of Leopold's crimes.
The photos also found their way into books and pamphlets. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people saw them. Many joined the cause.
Panos Pictures/Anti-Slavery International: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nsala of Wala with the severed hand and foot of his five year old daughter murdered by Anglo-Belgian India Rubber company militia, 1904.
Working with a large, bulky camera, Harris could only capture the aftermath of atrocity, not the acts themselves. Sometimes she did this with a kind of clinical coolness; sometimes, as above, with obvious passion.
Anti-Slavery International: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photographs of Congolese persons mutilated by rubber sentries, by Alice Harris and W. D. Armstrong, c. 1905. Reprinted from Mark Twain's pamphlet, "King Leopold’s Soliloquy."
The image above reproduces a page from Mark Twain's anti-Leopold satire, "King Leopold's Soliloquy." In it, Twain puts words into Leopold's mouth that acknowledge the damage that Harris's photos had done to his interests. As Adam Hochschild puts it in King Leopold's Ghost, his immensely readable history of "greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Congo," Twain's king "rages against 'the incorruptible Kodak. ...The only witness... I couldn't bribe.'"
Panos Picture/Anti-Slavery International: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three head sentries of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber company with a prisoner, 1905.
In addition to victims, Harris's images offer glimpses of the perpetrators of the atrocities. Some of the perpetrators, that is, the ones who couldn't escape the camera. Those perpetrators were the Africans, many of whom had joined company militias and the Belgian Force Publique under threat of beatings, imprisonment, or death. The white men who gave the orders were nowhere to be seen. After all, if colonial officials said 'no," there was nothing that Harris could do about it.
Panos Pictures/Anti-Slavery Society: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two British missionaries with Congolese men holding the severed hands of two men (Lingomo and Bolenge) from their village, murdered by rubber sentries from the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber company, 1904.
Some of Harris's photo introduce new characters. Besides victims and perpetrators, we now have men who, at first glance, might be the colonial officials who served Leopold and gave the orders to kill and maim. The reality, as the captions make clear, is that they are the white men who will end the violence and save those who cannot save themselves.
Panos Pictures/Anti-Slavery International: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Swedish missionary and a young boy mutilated by a rubber sentry in the employ of a "concessionnaire" company in the Upper Congo, 1904.
There is no doubt that Harris's photos helped to bring Leopold's savage rule in the Congo to an end. The CFA, which had indeed become a mass movement, exerted tremendous pressure on the British, American, and, indirectly, Belgian governments to do something about the Congo. Beset by diplomatic and personal troubles, a rapidly aging Leopold ceded the Congo to Belgium in 1908.
It was a hollow victory. Conditions improved very little in the Congo, and similar abuses -- if not quite on the same scale -- could be found throughout colonial Africa. At its root, the problem in the Congo, in fact, wasn't Leopold. The problem was colonialism, white supremacy, and predatory capitalism, as it ws throughout the colonized world. The CFA, however, couldn't address the root causes of the atrocities in the Congo without alienating the people and governments that it was trying to sway.
In the end, Harris's photos --- like the imagery of abolitionism -- were both productive and problematic. Sadly, the most lasting legacy of the CFA may well have been to lodge images of African villainy and victimhood, and of white saviours, deep in the Western imagination.
Smithsonian Institution: Fianarantsoa (Madagascar): Léproserie Catholique [postcard], c. 1905.
Harris wasn't alone in creating this imagery. It was one of the most common ways in which the colonial world was represented to the West.
Smithsonian Institution: Rencontre de deux Missionnaires dans la forêt [postcard], c. 1905.
Magic lantern shows, books, postcards -- all of these were popular forms of both entertainment and education. What people learned, of course, was a mixed bag.
Louis Dalrymple/Library of Congress: "Our foreign missions;-- an embarrassment of riches for the heathen." USA, 1900.
I'm including this cartoon simply to indicate that not everyone in the West was enthusiastic for the mission of "saving the natives." There was a significant body of opinion that felt that they weren't worth the effort.
Constance Stuart Larrabee/Smithsonian Institution: Father [Trevor] Huddleston With Children, 1948.
And I'm showing you this photo to acknowledge that any image can be read in multiple ways, some of which are completely off the mark.
One reading of this photo would see Trevor Huddleston as the archetypal Great White Father, in Africa to spread the light of the Gospel and save Africans from themselves. Huddleston had indeed come to Africa from Britain to save souls. But every photo must -- must! -- be read in the fullest context possible. Read this way, a very different meaning emerges.
Unusually for his time and place, Huddleston was a man who could listen and learn from Africans, a man who felt no need to cast himself as the hero of other people's story. Outraged by the racial injustice that he found in South Africa, he became an ally of the liberation movement, a friend and supporter of the African National Congress. He understood that, in South Africa, blacks would free themselves.
This doesn't mean that he saw no role for himself (or whites more generally). In fact, he became a thorn in the side of the South African government, wrote Naught for Your Comfort, an international best-seller that was one of the first exposes of apartheid, was recalled from South Africa by his religious order (one step ahead of deportation), and for the next 30 years devoted much of his energy to the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. In South Africa, today, he's remembered as a hero.
MSF/Brendan Bannon: This mother of six traveled by foot from Somalia to Dadaab. Her youngest child is malnourished and is being treated at MSF's hospital in Dagahaley. MSF medical staff are seeing not only children who have arrived at the camp malnourished, but also those who have become malnourished while staying at the camp.
I want to look, for a moment, at some contemporary documentary photography and photojournalism from Africa and at the ways in which they continue to be both productive and problematic.
Before I go any further, I need to say that I have a great deal of respect for organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF]/Doctors Without Borders and that occasionally I put my money where my mouth is. I also know and admire photographers who make images like the ones I'm about to talk about. I understand how difficult it is to to represent the problem without reproducing the stereotype.
MSF/Brendan Bannon: An MSF doctor examines the mother of a malnourished child in MSF's therapeutic feeding center at the Dadaab refugee camp complex. MSF is currently treating more than 2,400 acutely malnourished children in its outpatient therapeutic feeding program, 130 who are at risk of death in its inpatient therapeutic feeding center, and 5,047 moderately malnourished in its supplementary feeding program.
There's no question that the situation in Somalia has been catastrophic for the last 20 years. There's also no doubt that MSF has played an important role in bringing aid to some of those who need it the most -- often where no other aid is even remotely available. MSF workers do this at risk to their own health and safety.
Brendon Bannon's photos of MSF's work in Somalia undoubtedly prompted some of people who saw them to make much needed donations. No one can complain about that.
MSF/Brendan Bannon: Dr. Luana Lima works with patients at the MSF hospital in Dagahaley. MSF staff are seeing high numbers of malnourished children, especially those living on the outskirts of the camp.
And, yet, the photos also reproduce and reinforce the stereotype of helpless African victims who need outsiders (not all of whom are white) to save them.
In this case, the Somalis in the photos couldn't in fact save themselves. But many people who see them will read them as representing Africa as a whole, not one particular country with its own unique history.
So the problem isn't Bannon's photos, in and of themselves -- I'm happy that he made them -- but the way that they fit into a larger history of representing Africa. The responsibility for understanding this history isn't just Bannon's (I'd guess that he understands all of this), it's the viewers' as well. We can't be passive consumers of what we see any more than we can simply accept what we read.
James Nachtwey/VII for TIME: A young girl warily eyes a guerrilla fighter in the Lubero district, where a rebel group meets with U.N. personnel.
I'm going to end by taking us back to the Congo and to a photo essay that James Nachtwey shot there for Time magazine three or four years ago. I like it for a number of reasons. Most importantly, in this set of photographs you can see one of the world's finest photographers struggling to tell the story of devastating suffering in an African country, and, at the same time, break free of stereotypes and place events in a wider context.
The essay opens with an image of a child who, although she may not be in direct peril, is certainly in a dangerous situation from which she cannot free herself. The man with the gun is ambiguous -- doubly so, since we can't see his face. Is he friend or foe?
James Nachtwey/VII for TIME: A young woman who was raped and burned by Congolese troops receives treatment in a hospital run by HEAL African in Goma.
Another photo -- classic Nachtwey -- forces viewers to confront and somehow deal with the circumstances of a woman who has been gravely and grotesquely injured in body, mind, and spirit. Through no fault of her own (or of Nachtwey's) it's almost impossible to see her as anything other than a pure victim.
James Nachtwey/VII for TIME: FDLR guerrilla fighters stand guard at the meeting in Lubero.
Are these black men with guns dangerous or friendly? The photo and its caption provide too little information for viewers to make up their minds. The article that accompanied the essay tells the story. They were, in fact, perpetrators of atrocities, a danger to anyone who crossed their path.
Victims, perpetrators, and, in the background, the a blue-turbaned United Nations peacekeeper -- a saviour from the outside. We seem to be stuck with the same old story.
But -- in a different way entirely from the antislavery medallion -- it's not that simple.
James Nachtwey/VII for TIME: A child's weight is monitored to track the effectiveness of supplemental feeding.
I don't think that I'm wrong when I say that, in recent years, Nachtwey has been making sure to signal to his viewers that many -- often most -- of the caregivers in crisis situations in Africa are members of local communities. That's certainly part of what's going on in this photo, and you can see it in many MSF photos, too.
James Nachtwey/VII for TIME: A worker in Mongwalu sluices a streambed looking for fine grains of gold. Much of the fighting in the Congo is fueled by a desire to control its many valuable natural resources.
It's also clear that Natchwey has been searching for ways of showing his viewers that local conflicts are not rooted in mindless African savagery or ancient tribal hostilities, but have understandable causes that often implicate the West and, by extension, his viewers. Although the caption doesn't say it, the gold that's mined in the Congo doesn't stay there. It finds its way into jewellery, electronic equipment, and tooth fillings from New York to New Delhi to Beijing.
So in this brief essay Nachtwey managed to expand the range of African characters by including caregivers and to deepen the context within which suffering in the Congo is understood by indirectly including consumers in the West (and East).
But he couldn't avoid reinforcing the old stereotypes as well. That's not a criticism. It's the nature of the beast. Photos from crisis zones in Africa will inevitably be both productive and problematic. The best photographers, however -- and Nachtwey is by no means alone in this -- will find ways of broadening and deepening the stories that they tell.
I shouldn't make it sound like the burden rests entirely on photographers. Viewers -- that means all of us -- have a responsibility to be aware of the visual culture in which we live and to understand how images can reveal truths and still tell lies.
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In Part 2 of this series, I'll look at the genealogy of stereotypes of strange, unknowable, and exotic Africa. Throughout the series, I'll be drawing on the work of many people who have thought, and are thinking, about similar issues. The final post I'll talk about the ways that African and more than a few non-African photographers and writers are moving beyond stereotypes to create a much more complete picture of Africa (in all its diversity). I'll also provide links and suggestions for further reading.
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PS In a blog post for Foreign Policy magazine -- "Let's Stop Miscasting Africans" -- Christian Caryl talks about Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign and the video that went viral. Like me, he believes that it reproduces and reinforces stereotypes of African victimhood. He goes on to wonder why old habits are so hard to change. He concludes that the "sad fact of the matter is that we in the West... still prefer to imagine Africans primarily as victims and ourselves as their redeemers." One reason the Kony video "struck such a nerve" is that its audience "would much rather identify with the heroic crusader than the evildoer's depressing victims."
PPS I've written a piece about the relationship between Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, "The White Man's Burden," and Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. It's not a cheap shot. I'm looking at things in a deep historical perspective. In a way, it's an extended footnote to this post. You can read it, here.