The popular, pornographic view of Africa

Fall semester of the 2008 school year at McGill, my political science degree came to a sombre close. I had come to university as a bright-eyed, excited 18-year-old, in love with politics and assured that I was meant to study in the field. And like every other political science major, I was determined to pursue a degree in international law at a prestigious university and ideally wished to work in some sort of diplomatic department at the United Nations, after a wonderful and brief stint at a well-established non-governmental organization (NGO). This is how I would have saved the world.

But that was September 2005. By my fourth and final year, every ounce of idealism and hope had been successfully dismantled by too many fumbles into the dreaded bell curves and the endless nonsense of realism that seemed to punctuate all the classes I took in the department.

Regardless, I was saddened when my political science career ended. This sorrow, however, was not limited to the end of a personal era. The very last paper I wrote for my major was the first paper I had ever written on Africa. My only contact with the place prior to this was in the form of Egypt, in the Middle-Eastern context, and North Africa, discussion of which merely revolved around the recognition of the area’s existence. This final paper thus forced me to question and analyze my personal and academic relationship with the “Dark Continent.”

What I realized, in part thanks to conversations with my token African friend, was that my own perception, as well as the popularly projected view of Africa was almost exclusively this oddly pornographic, stagnant, and singular image of the continent. In other words, we have a grossly generalized and exploitative view of Africa, as bereft of its constituent parts, as a single entity ravaged by famine, poverty, and disease. We rarely think of the parts that make up Africa, and when we do, those pieces of the continent are limited to conflict-ridden countries.

The “real Africa,” as we know it seems to be in between North Africa and the south, the latter of which is associated with being Western and European. And we never go beyond the negative. We never even think to ask about Africa’s thriving arts, literary, and academic cultures. African history is limited to the period of and after colonialism. Rarely are the historical achievements stemming from the African continent, which have helped the world modernize and progress, discussed – let alone acknowledged.

International institutions and NGOs don’t exactly change this, either. While helping the poor and destitute of the world is vital, the campaigns undertaken by groups ranging from UNICEF to Make Poverty History to Save The Children have exploited and exacerbated the view of Africa as a single “country” ravaged by war, lawlessness, illiteracy, disease, and drought. These issues do exist, but in varying degrees in the various countries that share the continent. This attitude also clouds our perception of most of the non-Western and non-European world: this “other” world becomes ours to save. All we see is Kipling’s burden alive and thriving within our minds. In other words, every time you donate to World Vision, you are undermining the ability of Africans to be the agents of change of their own condition. How do you sleep at night?
I recently decided to see if this perspective is in fact correct: do most people see Africa through a pornographic lens? I updated my Facebook status (a most accurate empirical approach) and asked friends to comment, without pretending to be enlightened, with the first word(s) that popped into their heads at the mention of Africa. The results were unsurprising. Out of a total of 25 responses, three said “black”; four friends wrote “disease” (of whom one said AIDS); four said “famine”; and two responded with “Toto.” Other responses included: oppression, tribes, rain, drought, children, safari, cows, Simba, beautiful black women, Apartheid, and The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Intrigued, I updated my status once again, this time applying the same question to Europe. The results were radically different. The 13 word-associations included: wine, sophistication, art, dream destination, empire, culture, gourmand, imperialism, education, croissants, cafés, and cobblestone.

Europe epitomized high culture, savoir-faire, knowledge, art, and personal desire. The Cradle of Civilization, on the other hand, was reduced to a colour, to famine, to children, to Toto. One continent claimed the pinnacle of what a civilization should be while the other encompassed precisely all that creates the antithesis of a great civilization. The power relationship between the two continents, both historic and epistemic, is thus apparent. Surprise, surprise.

The “Dark Continent” remains as dark as ever, but more so because we have allowed for greater darkness to overtake it. By ignoring the contributions of African civilizations, the continent’s particular parts, its non-colonial history, and its thriving cultures, we do a great disservice to our fellow human beings and undermine our own so-called humanitarian efforts. Aid, food, condoms, clean water, and building schools will help. But nothing will help more than acknowledging that Africans are beyond care packages, that they are beyond drums, beyond civil strife, beyond pigment, and beyond our television screens.

Sana Saeed is back! Follow her exploits here every other week. Write Sana at