Stories and attitudes towards Africa: the Kristof approach vs. Staff Benda Bilili

On Saturday I wrote about the unfortunate «un-meeting» between Kagame and Zapatero in Madrid. Luckily, and although Spanish policy blunders tend to occur more or less regularly (Western Sahara, Somali pirates, Equatorial Guinea, etc), these are not the only way in which the continent appears on the media and society. It is nevertheless, not a common occurrence – and therefore a loable one – that a newspaper like El País dedicates an editorial to the continent. It happened yesterday and the piece was titled «Despierta África» («Africa wakes up») (full text in English via Google Traslate, here). It did not say much new, nor it focused on Spanish policy, but it simply took as an excuse a number of events (the World Cup, 50th independence anniversaries) to point out the positive aspects of the African reality – from the continued economic growth, the importance of migrants, and the appearance of new actors on the African soil (a.k.a. China) – which are often ignored. The last two sentences summaried the idea of the piece nicely and also carried an important message: «All of this is good for Africa. And it would be better if it also served to wake Europeans from their indiference towards the continent». A welcome positive take on a reality which is often left aside in favour of showing disasters, poverty and violence.

Which takes me to a second point. The interest – or lack of it – of European and Americans towards Africa links nicely to the recent debate around Nicholas Kristof’s writting for the NYT, his tendency to put Europeans (or whites) at the heart of their stories, and the reaction this has provoked on part of the blogosphere. For those unfamiliar with the debate, Kristof himself (and the NYTPicker) has a summary of it:

One reader says, “Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.”
This is a really important issue for a journalist. And it’s one I’ve thought a lot about.
I should, first of all, from my defensive crouch, say that I think you’re a little bit exaggerating the way I have reported…
But I do take your point. That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there. And let me tell you why I do that…
It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that.
One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.

Nicholas D. Kristof – Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
This answer left blogger Texas in Africa (TiA) (who is also who asked the question in the first place) unsatisfied and wrote:

«Does he really believe that New York Times readers are only interested in good work being done by their fellow Americans? That we can’t relate to people on the other side of the world? Because to me, that seems insulting to the readership…
In the end, this answer is just another variant of the «good intentions are enough» mindset. It excuses stereotyping in the name of awareness, while assuming that Americans are too parochial to be able to recognize, relate to, and applaud the work of people whose names sound different from ours.»

Sean Jacobs, in Africa is a Country was also unhappy:

In his response, filmed in Israel, Kristof basically concedes that in his reporting he favors the “white foreigners as saviors” approach. His rationale: that without the white saviors as “bridge characters,” his potential readers wouldn’t read his columns. So Kristof is proud to admit that he is no different than a bad Hollywood movie.
That’s why I don’t read Kristof’s columns.

Also recently, Bunmi (A Bombastic Element) has also weighted in, but with a a different and interesting take on these matters:

my gut tells me Kristof is right, and disgustingly so, about how human beings–not just Americans–decide on, some time saving level, what to give their attention to…
But TiA is right that Kristof could do better; and I agree, because having an American protagonist or «bridge character,» though an extremely effective way to invoke identification from the average American audience, is by no means the only or most effective way of capturing their attention or get them to act.

I would like to make a few quick points about all this, alsthoug stepping back a bit from the debate of what is the most effective way to get people to care about other people. On this I agree with Dan Ariely’s argument (cited by Bunmi) that

«people relate less to statistics about how many are dying or how miserable you can paint the African situation. Rather they identify more on an emotional level with the personal story of an «individual» — not a «victim.»

, or, as the quote (wrongly) attributed to Josef Stalin says: «The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic». The fact is that, when thinking or writing about Africa, I feel that the use of a white «bridge character» – while perhaps effective – is extremely dangerous and counterproductive, for the role of this «white savior» resonates with numerous colonial and neo-colonial narratives that for years have presented Africans as helpless and simply as people that we need to care for. This reductionism, simplification and objectification is at the heart of the numerous paternalistic attitudes towards the continent that still plague the relations between Africa and the rest of the world. Attitudes that – I dare say – have numerous ramifications and constitute the single largest obstacle that stands on the way of a normal and balanced relation between Africa (and Africans), and the rest of the world.

The «antidote» to this – if there can be one – is not more «Africa is on a terrible state and it needs help» stories, but rather, an emphasis on the positive stories coming out of the continent and a critical re-examination by Europeans of their attitudes and prejudices towards Africa. Two interesting examples of how this can be done (related to the art scane), have taken place in Madrid recently. Firstly, an initiative by the Spanish Development Agency (AECID in Spanish), which has invited seven African photographers to use Spanish cities as the subject and background of their art pieces. The first one to do this is the Nigerian Emeka Okerere, who’s recently portrayed different aspects of Madrid, and has had the opportunity to live the celebrations of the World Cup victory in the capital. His thoughts about it: surprised that the the party lasted only a couple of days: «In Nigeria we would have celebrated it for a full week». An interesting project that will only be finished in February next year, and that shows how the curious gaze that Europe usually projects on Africa is at the same time being replicated the other way round, turning Europe into the subject to be observed.

The second example serves to point out that ultimately, European or African, people are people and that the connection between human beings is what matters and something can be triggered in many numerous ways, music being perhaps the most powerful one. And so, last Thursday, here in Madrid I was able to attend the (free!) concert that Staff Benda Bilili gave outside the CaixaForum. A wonderful show by a group whose members’ experiences (affected by polio) are not only terrible but also as different from those of most of the audience as possible. All of which did not matter at all when it came to singing, dancing and enjoying the wonderful music the Congolese band played.
A terrible quality picture I was able to take during the Staff Benda Bilili show in Madrid last Thursday.

UPDATE – Just came across yet another take on Kristof’s writing. This one is from Jason Stearn, writing on «Congo Siasa». Jason has a problem, not with the use of western characters but his reporting of the political context (especially in the case of the DRC – which is where Jason is an expert):

I am consistently vexed by his reporting, not only because he highlights white protagonists, but because his view of politics is often pretty rudimentary. It’s not so much that he shows only black victims and white saviors, but it’s the kabuki theater of victims and saviors in general that leaves me unsatisfied…The danger with Kristof’s kind of reporting is that as long as we don’t understand the political logic of the Congolese conflict, our solutions will be slapdash and inadequate. If it is just a bunch of savages raping to get minerals, we might conclude that the problem is getting rid of these savages or creating due diligence in mineral supply chains – laudable initiatives, to be sure, but they don’t get to the bottom of the problem.

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