Contrasting Portrayals of the African Continent and their Consequences

Contrasting Portrayals of the African Continent and their Consequences

Colonial dynamics dominate our global society. Contrasts in the portrayal of the African continent are invisible for some; others pay the price. 

Maike Köhler-Richter, International Teacher Education for Primary Schools (ITEPS) 
Picture credit: Maike Köhler-Richter 

Many think of the African continent as an ever-suffering land of food insecurity, malnutrition, disease, political unrest and HIV/AIDS. In the West, this portrayal of extreme suffering animates many young adults to go to Africa and work as volunteers. Once arrived, they teach Africans lessons about how to live life. This modern European intervention of the African continent, and the representation that inspires it, is a continuation of old colonial structures. Countries in the Northern Hemisphere like to give the impression that they care about human rights and equality among all peoples. Thus, we citizens of the north feel responsible towards those who live in the Southern Hemisphere. Here in the north, European parents say things like “children in Africa are starving, finish your food” to encourage their children to finish their food on grounds of compassion. However, such exhortation teaches Caucasian children from the beginning that they are better off than Africans and are somehow superior to them. In reality, the European urgency to help in the development of African countries ceases to exist when it comes to important democratic processes. Former colonial powers, such as France for example, have agreements in place which allow them to continuously profit from their former colonies’ resources. Furthermore, chocolate giants like Mondelez, Nestle, Mars and many more get away with child labor in Ivory Coast. These contrasts in the treatment of African nations and other related human rights violations are today becoming increasingly visible, after many years of suppression. This article will dive into the contrasting views and perspectives regarding the African continent and their varying impacts on its inhabitants. With an eye on the bigger picture, the current Western treatment of Africa becomes increasingly difficult to justify. 

To place the situation in its context, it is necessary to talk about colonialism. Even though most African colonies gained independence between 1960 and 1980, ending with Zimbabwe, neocolonial dynamics shape Africans’ contemporary reality and immediate future. Babissakana Thomas, an economist from Cameroon reports how most Cameroon’s financial reserves are preserved in French treasury, dating back to an ongoing agreement between France and Cameroon signed in 1948. With lasting, legally binding contracts between France and her former colonies, France is actually exploiting African francophone countries, not attempting to assist them. A truly autonomous country should be able to keep their financial reserves and natural resources. 

In the Western mind, the perpetual inferiority of Africans justifies and nurtures the white savior complex

The ongoing negative view of Africa and its inhabitants in the global West can be understood as a product of the purposeful disunification of the continent through the slave trade (since 1526), colonialism (since 1884) and replacement of indigenous names with European ones. Prominent white historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt reinforced images of African inferiority with respect to their mental, physical and cultural capabilities, even going so far as to state that Africans have an apelike appearance. These descriptions and the creation of the social concept of race made it possible to justify the inhuman treatment of Africans, in both slave trade and colonial contexts. 

Today, colonial portrayals can be considered from many angles. Western news reporting provides an omnipresent justification for established European opinions about Africans. Nobody is surprised by turning on the TV to hear about yet another crisis in Africa. International news networks like BBC, DW, CNN and France24 are just few whose reporting which contribute to a one-sided story about suffering on the African continent. As a result, recent years have seen the appearance of the ‘white saviorism’ phenomenon. Briefly, this occurs when young people travel to African countries and reinforce African stereotypes by sharing their experiences on social media. What would your parents think if a stranger came to your hometown here in Norway when you were a five-year-old, took a picture with you and then uploaded it on their Facebook page? This kind of social media content emphasizes that Westerners do not think of Africans as equals. No-one would dare take equivalent pictures with children in the villages of France or Austria. But in the Western mind, the perpetual inferiority of Africans justifies and nurtures the white savior complex. In this way, Westerners furnish themselves with a good conscience and avoid any deeper engagement with the issues surrounding this type of behavior and our unbalanced portrayal of Africans. 

Another example of such contrasting Western attitudes to Africa concerns the 2020 Black Lives Matters and Anti-Police Brutality demonstrations in the US. In connection with these demonstrations, protests concerning police brutality also emerged in African countries. Yet the sympathetic outrage in Europe over the killing of one man, George Floyd, by far eclipsed that elicited by the countless victims of the ‘Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad’. Simply put, Europeans do not feel the same way about young black men being brutalized by police forces in African countries like Uganda, Cameroon or Nigeria. Our colonial past provides one reason why Europeans do not feel that Africans deserve the same treatment as people in Western countries. The unconscious separation between ‘our world’ and ‘their world’ allows us to internally justify the injustices happening in African countries. This apathetic way of thinking allows us to pity Africans, but not empathize with them.  

The reality is that 60% of Nigerian citizens are living above the poverty line.

Ongoing globalization also shines a light on contrasts between the Global North and South. Although Western consumers might not think about the conditions of workers and distribution of profits for daily-consumed products, outrageous African working conditions are created and maintained by Western powers. Nonetheless, 2020 was an historic year, promising positive progress when it comes to increased global awareness regarding the treatment of Africans and black people all around the globe. Yet despite the fact that for the past seventy-six years the UN has attempted to establish an international dialogue for maintaining international peace and human rights, transnational companies can still get off scott-free by assuring their customers that they are actively working against child labor. So far, these companies have not been affected by conventions like the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unfortunately, the Council of Europe and the legal framework for human rights conventions state that human rights violations can solely be sanctioned in the country of concern.  

Case in point, multinational corporations like Mondelez, Nestle and Hershey have harvested inconceivable profits in the chocolate industry. In 2001, these companies promised to eliminate child labor in the cocoa-producing countries. According to The Guardian, 45 % of the global supply of cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast where multinationals such as Mondelez, Nestle and Hershey operate. Yet despite this promise, on the 12th February 2021, Oliver Balch released a Guardian article about an ongoing lawsuit, supported by the International Rights Advocates (IRS), against the largest chocolate industries. The plaintiffs? Eight children from Mali who personally suffered child trafficking, enslavement and child labor. The lawsuit, the first of its kind in history, can is a milestone in the fight against child trafficking. Furthermore, it also threatens a legal consequence for those who profiteer under the guise of human rights and false morals on the African continent. In today’s Europe, negative and inferior media portrayals of Africans leads to apathy among those who are constantly bombarded by sensationalist journalism. Child labor in Africa is hardly a secret, and yet still, for the majority, the subject goes unnoticed or is simply designated as ‘typical Africa’. Despite this, Eurocentric perspectives on the suffering of the Global South are slowly changing. 

Whether or not Europeans pity to Africans, we often fail to realize that many Africans also live independent and successful lives. The reality is that 60% of Nigerian citizens are living above the poverty line. In fact, Nigeria even has its own movie industry called ‘Nollywood’ which is almost unheard of in Europe. The country is also home to Africa’s world-famous band, Fela Kuti, and many of the continents’ leading artists such as Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy. These artists have a significant influence on the American music. Nigeria is also home to Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote. Dangote founded Dangote Cement, the continent’s largest cement producer. The Forbes 2019 ranking listed Dangote as the world’s richest black man with a net worth of $10.9 billion. While most people have heard of Elon Musk, Aliko Dangote does not enjoy the same type of attention, in part due to pervasive depictions of Africans as poor and in need of Western help. 

“Modernity can be considered a product of colonialism.” – Ngugi wa Thiong’o 

There is no denying that the suffering we see in the media is actually taking place. Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand the Africa’s historical background, whilst also leaving space for a diversity of reporting that includes Africans who are not living in disastrous conditions. Luckily, a change of perspective can be seen in contemporary initiatives spearheaded by students and young people. The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ Assistance Fund (SAIH) has come up with an annual awareness campaign called Radi-aid. Radi-aid presents four central principles on ‘How to Communicate with the World’: promote dignity, gain informed consent, question your intentions, and make use of your privilege to help bring down stereotypes. Another initiative that is worth mentioning is World’s Best News, an independent news organization created by Changemakers and supported by several Norwegian companies including Flytoget. The mission of World’s Best News is to present more constructive instead of destructive and sensational journalism.  

Today, black people around the world must cope not only with the psychological consequences of generations of trauma, but also with the ongoing exploitation of the African continent through globalization. Kenyan writer and academic, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, finishes the preface in his book Something Torn and New by writing that: “There is no region, no culture, no nation today that has not been affected by colonialism and its aftermath. Indeed, modernity can be considered a product of colonialism.” He dedicated the book to the decolonization of modernity. While Europeans still benefit from the consequences of colonialism, Africans do not. Thiong’o’s analysis is not only an historical observation, but also reality in daily life, as is evidenced by biased news reporting, disingenuous globalization, common platitudes in majority-white countries and white saviorism. Even though ongoing conflicts and the socioeconomic situation of many African countries cannot solely be blamed on former colonial powers, their actions have had an undeniable impact on the lives of all Africans. This history contributes to an ongoing African inferiority complex, not to mention physical and psychological exploitation. Nonetheless, globally arranged demonstrations, lawsuits against big international companies and the work of organizations like SAIH and World’s Best News promise a more critical approach in future development. In time, relationships of equal respect between North and South, and empowering visions for the African continent can thereby be developed. It is time to swallow white fragility and open our eyes to a less black and white world. The time has come to see the complex global reality of post-colonial structures and dynamics for what it is.