I don’t really like the idea of writing a blog post in response to someone else’s blog post, which is why I’ve never done it before. But I’m going to cave on this one.
Jonathan Kalan wrote a really interesting post about the way Americans’ view Africa, arguing that it’s mostly through the lens of NGOs, famines and tragedy. If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to do so. I resonate with a lot of what he says, and can definitely appreciate the gist of his argument — that Americans need to start demanding to hear the other side of the story about Africa (i.e., the part that’s hopeful and encouraging).
His post struck a chord with me for all sorts of reasons. He talks about his experience in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), which is often portrayed in the media as a black hole of violence and corruption, but where, he says, he had an uplifting time meeting some really inspiring people. I read his post while sitting a few hundred yards from the DRC border, and I have to say that, while walking along the wall that separates the DRC from Rwanda, I thought it looked kinda nice on the other side.
And of course, I wasn’t just sitting near the DRC; I was sitting in Rwanda – a country that most Americans immediately associate with genocide, but that has, for me, come to symbolise a model for urban planning and good governance in Africa (more on this in a later post).
So I definitely ‘get’ what Kalan is saying. I would only add a few caveats.
1. Kalan is disappointed with Americans for only consuming the bad news about Africa. I think this is actually a bit generous. I doubt that most Americans read any news about Africa of a regular basis. Given the average American’s general ignorance of the world outside, I think we need to recognise that taking an interest in problems on the African continent is a good start for most Americans.
Obviously, I’d love everyone to have a more balanced, nuanced and informed understanding of Africa, but how many Americans even have that well-developed an understanding of their own country? Let’s appreciate those curious Americans who take an interest in Africa, even if it’s not yet fully formed.
2. Kalan puts the burden for changing the narrative about Africa solely on the readers, saying that we must demand to hear the full story. He never explores, however, why the story is so one-sided, and what interests are promoting the current narrative, or why the suppliers of news only supply one side of the story. That would be a bit more uncomfortable than just issuing an open challenge to consumers of news, but without this deeper understanding, we’ll just be tilting at windmills.
3. Kalan all but endorses China as a model for positive engagement with Africa. He says, “they’ve been skillfully, diplomatically, and mercifully navigating inroads in all corners of the continent for years.” While Chinese investment in Africa is a welcome addition to Western aid, China’s involvement in Africa has often been bungled, tactless, and merciless. The argument shouldn’t be that Americans need to adopt, wholesale, someone else’s model for engaging Africa; rather we need a new, fuller understanding of the continent.
Having said all of this, I will once again emphasise that I think the general direction of Jonathan Kalan’s post is right on. The current narrative is overly pessimistic, and in my opinion is self-defeating to those who propagate it.
Aid organisations who milk the tragedy and poverty of Africa for too long are implicitly calling into question their years of interventions there. Journalists who capitalise on the sensational effect of their stories of abject misery and suffering are desensitising readers to the point that each story is just one more tragedy.
I don’t imagine our little blog will have much of an impact on the general public’s perception of Africa, but I hope at least that we are presenting you, our few precious readers, with the full story.