Apr 182011

Somewhere between heaven and hell

That is where you will find real freedom

We’ve been waiting for so long, for this freedom

Lucky Dube

Esi Sutherland, lecturer in African Studies, was first to open my eyes to the subtle and not so subtle ways in which images may be used as a powerful tool to tar a group of people.

Today, after two international conferences in Europe, it is to the concept of images that I feel most drawn as a powerful point of reflection. These reflections, difficult but necessary, aim at a somewhat detached analysis of the attitudes that confront many an African travelling in Europe and elsewhere, forged no less from a negative stereotyping of the African personality and state of being on the continent and manifesting in a certain concrete reality.

One question only is answered. Was I not African, what images of the continent and its people would I leave with, given the contexts in which references to Africa were made?

One sits in an international forum on the management of infectious diseases. A lot of useful presentations are made, no doubt. Predictably however, there are copious negative references to the developing world and to sub Saharan Africa. If indeed, sub Saharan Africa is the grand mama mia of infectious diseases, why then is it that over 80 percent of the presentations on HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis are being done by people who see but a fraction of the cases that African specialists encounter on a daily basis?

Who then are the real subject matter experts? And what does it say of these Africans if their own subject matter experts and scientists so easily concede what might appear to be a natural advantage?

The image is one of a continent whose scientists and political leaders have perhaps hopelessly lost the plot and sought false refuge in being passive attendants at these international fora instead of strategically positioning themselves as the ones with something to share with the world following from a determined execution of an African agenda to improve the lot of its people. How can the African scientists and health professionals hog the headlines when they are not rigorously documenting and publishing their own work? In some case, stories are told about squabbles over who takes the glory for a piece of work thereby ensuring that good work lies buried forever!

In the event, a European who confesses seeing not more than ten HIV cases   and sixteen cases of malaria a year will have the honor to wax eloquently to Africans who see hundreds of these cases daily!

Every time reference has been made to Africa, the image has been negative. The face of Africa is the face of hunger, poverty, neglect, squalor, disease and deprivation. It is unnerving how for the many presentations from an unnamed European country, all the cases of Malaria and HIV they get is from the “immigrant African population.” The one case of failed prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV recorded was in a white woman. Incidentally, the presenter is quick to point out that “even this woman was married to an African!”

These bad Africans again, I think! In the networking session, a white consultant cheekily tells me, “It is always a pleasure to meet with colleagues coming from where it all happens.”  She means well, probably, but where all what happens, I ask myself? But the recommendation of the infectious disease expert in a European country given to a Nigerian family with a pregnant mother intending to spend a three month vacation at home is most telling.

Don’t go to Africa! It is not safe for you, they tell her! Your immunity is down, Nigeria is highly endemic and your child and wife are at high risk. True perhaps, but if the mere intention of this family to visit relations is the equivalent of a death sentence, what does it say about the women who get pregnant in Africa, the intermittent preventive treatment regimens we have and the thousands of women we successfully treat each day?

Africa must be such a terrible place then! Don’t go to Africa!

When during the conference, a reputable scientific journal contemplates launching an international edition, the face on the dummy edition is that of a stricken African boy holding a ‘donor’s biscuit’ with the caption “hungry for profit”.  Whenever it was time to show the picture of a disease stricken person in a presentation, it was the face of black Africa that came to the rescue. In that same presentation however, we gawked in incredulity as a beautiful white woman’s picture was used when the time came to portray a healthy pregnancy. Images, images, images.

I am beside myself with grief. My heart bleeds. So we don’t have pregnant women in Africa who are beautiful and healthy? But as Maya Angelou said, if you don’t like it, write your own poem.

Given the above images, the barely perceptible and sometimes not so discreet slights all begin to make sense;  lack of seats for African visa applicants slouched on stones in the scorching sun in our own countries, the verbose, perverse and intrusive demands for pay slips, a birth certificate and marriage certificate from people who are better at living and fornicating together without certificates, the flippant rejection of applications by people who travel to Ghana without visas, safe in the knowledge that they have three days to regularize their stay, the palpably heightened security awareness on entering a foreign shop, the silent furtive whispers between conniving shop attendants who themselves don’t have a dime to spend, the false pretentious smiles, the extra attention paid to your travel documents… the list is truly painfully endless!

Africa allows this? I ask again, Africa allows this?

Perhaps not! Which is why we must tell our own stories, write our own books, draw our own pictures, portray our own images, show our own pregnant women who are both healthy and beautiful!

Each African ought to realize our individual and collective compelling duty to strive to make a difference in our communities, nations and the global arena where some of our people are big players. There is clearly an urgent need for success, success of which we are capable. We cannot fail so miserably in managing a national airline and expect to be treated like kings elsewhere. We cannot commit millions to trivia while neglecting massive investments in education and opportunities for our young people. We cannot swallow whole sale recommendations from important foreign collaborators and turn around to accuse them of imposing on us when we have demonstrated a woeful inability to define and pursue our own interests. We cannot support political parties only to ask what is in it for me personally as opposed to better policies and programmes for everyone. We cannot continue to allow highly educated big political players to focus the debate on who traded the best insults while some of our people compete with cattle over drinking rights to the village pond!

Maybe we need a deliberate grassroots uprising to refocus the agenda on our development needs; a new kind of politics, new leaders and professionals at all levels with greater urgency and less satisfaction with the status quo. The debate must become so rich and the actual implementation so fast that no one will tell you we do not have the time of day for your politics of distraction. It is the kind of resurgence that should send a clear message to decision makers at all levels that we the people also deserve some respect.

The responsibility goes beyond politicians.

Many individuals have the solutions and are succeeding.  The communities and the nations are failing. Private success is however not good enough to the extent that many times, the inability and/or the refusal to subordinate individual interests to mutually-enhancing partnerships are preventing the synergy that will translate individual success to community success.

Increasingly, there is need for us to stand together and support each other more by forming great partnerships to ensure a rapid narrowing in the time frame for achieving desired outcomes even as more people succeed simultaneously. Our artists, doctors, entrepreneurs etc who have led measurable improvement in their areas have a responsibility to document and share what has worked which we must quickly escalate to scale within local contexts. We must master our fate and drive success to scale with greater urgency.  

It is certainly time to aim beyond the individual and his spouse and their car and another car and the latest mobile telephone and the house and another house … in exchange for shared learning and success.

We are truly hungry and thirsty for more inspirational and less depressing images of Africa everywhere.

This is a call to arms and to joint development action!

  5 Responses to “Global images and Africa’s resurgence”

  1. A Kenyan friend shared with me last week how the like minded and action oriented young professionals have taken over key positions at the Kenyan Central Bank. The effect of this is that the central bank is all of a sudden now driving the industry with innovative policies and the industry is not only playing catch up but also sending officers back to learning new things.

    We the young professionals must be more daring, taking on and bringing transformation to every facet of the civil and public service.

  2. Не that has a full purse never wanted a friend.

  3. “…It is certainly time to aim beyond the individual and his spouse and their car and another car and the latest mobile telephone and the house and another house … in exchange for shared learning and success.”

    …You couldn’t have put it any better than that!!

  4. From observations i have made, i think the African is happy with whatever food he finds on the table (once it will fill his belly, no matter the calories) but does not give thought about finding out how that food or table came into existence in the first place and maybe, only maybe, produce the same or even something slightly higher next time, whereas an European and American will search deeply and laboriously into the least particle that makes up the food and the table. (thus ipod, iphone, ipad, all with slight variations, very soon we will be graced with the ipen).We need to develop a habit of researching, taking risks, using information to our advantage, and like you say ‘tell our own stories, write our own books, draw our own pictures, portray our own images, show our own pregnant women who are both healthy and beautiful!’ if we can’t do this for ourselves, it will be done for us. we can start by organising these forums ourselves and inviting the Europeans to listen in. We do it our way!

  5. I like you friends, brother and sisters, share some, if not most of your sentiments. As an “African”, who also has firsthand experience of living with HIV; I have done my share of challenging the “experts” in conferences and given my side of the “African experience” in different fora. I also hope that in that process I have challenged the picture of an African as “the face of hunger, poverty, neglect, squalor, disease and deprivation”. Agreed, we have the responsibility “to write our poem” if we are going to influence the portrayal of our images, experiences and realities. Whilst it is true that we don’t challenge the ‘experts’ views on our experience, I truly believe that it’s not for lack of wanting to. I would like to believe that a lot of us would want to stand up to give our view, tell our story and challenge some of the views and images put forward about us. Apart from the fact that speaking up and speaking out is a difficult and scary business, another reason most of us might not speak out is that we are bound by the policies of the organisations we work for. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the institutions that fund the work of our organizations and establishment not only hold the purse strings, they also formulate the policies. Sadly, reality is that behind these institutions are some ‘experts’ with deep seated and skewed beliefs about Africa, and its people. Yes, we want to change their views, however, changing other people is more difficult than changing ourselves. I suggest therefore that perhaps it might be easier and more effective for us to tell our story the way we want it told by learning to become more independent, financially and otherwise. This includes accepting our responsibilities more fully and making our governments accountable for what they sign up to.
    Meantime, like swimming against the current I continue to put in my 2pence as an advocate and educator of my issues and experiences. The following link illustrates some of my thoughts – http://www.positivenation.co.uk/feature/138/world.php

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