Monday, October 14, 2013

The African Image

When one thinks of Africa through a Western perspective, there seems to be a distinct image that comes to mind. We've all seen the commercials and campaigns that attempt to grab your sympathy (and your money) by portraying Africa as a helpless continent characterized by political instability, starvation, civil war, and general suffering. This is "really" and "truly" Africa in the eyes of most Americans. This is the image that we have created.

Poor, dependent Africa. Keep in mind, I am not attempting to argue that Africa does not have these problems; these issues certainly exist and are widespread. But I am arguing that there is also an issue when an entire continent is characterized by one image (like the one featured above). The poor, starving children who absolutely need help from America and from other foreign nations seems to be the only image shown by our Western media via television, documentaries, newspapers, the Internet, etc. This raises the inevitable question: What are we leaving out? If Africa needs our help, then they must have no big cities or modernization, right? No, of course not. But this seems to be the general understanding that we have. It's not all safaris and poverty. Africa does, in fact, have large cities. Take this image, for example:

At first glance, one would not assume that this is a city in Africa. This is a photo of the city of Lagos in Nigeria, which recently surpassed Cairo as Africa's largest city. This city, as well as many others throughout Africa, is experiencing a massive growth in population, as well as in their economy. Lagos' tax revenue now exceeds $93 million/month, allowing it to innovate and to improve transportation and sanitation systems. This is still Africa.

Other groups have also taken on the issue of a bad African image, and are striving to find the positives throughout the continent. Take and, for example. Both of these sites present the good in Africa, promoting both innovation and positive news. Reading articles in this different perspective almost makes it feel as if you're reading about an entire different continent; this side of the African image just isn't as widely recognized. While of course, it is essential to pay attention to the negative issues of Africa in order to make progress and improve lives, it is also important to take a look at the good, and at the great progress that is already occurring. One dark, helpless image is simply not enough to convey all of Africa.



  1. Hannah,

    I really appreciated this blog post because my social studies class has assigned me to research the country of Kenya this year and I am very aware about the stereotypes you have described. Kenya is one of the more advanced African nations, and is home to cosmopolitan cities like its capital of Nairobi, which in recent years has become a very modern city. However, when Kenya is mentioned, most people still think of safaris and images like you have presented above. I know that the Kenyan government is working very hard, like many African countries, to dispel this stereotype, but like you pointed out, these images are very ingrained in our culture and they will not be easy to change.

  2. Reading your thoughts got me wondering about the most effective and fair ways to portray Africa through pictures. I came to a similar conclusion as you... we must see both the modern, progressive Africa and the abject poverty-stricken Africa. However, I think the WAY we see these pictures is also important. Putting both pictures side-by-side is the real kicker. Only when the sheer contrast between the two Africa's is apparent will any emotional response be triggered. In addition, I think each picture of a person should be accompanied by a picture of his or her environment. The sense of place and how individual people respond to it is extremely crucial in not only the understanding of Africa, but of any country and its people. Therefore, it might be the case that a series of pictures is more truthful and complete than one picture that runs the risk of being interpreted out of context.