What the hell, these people aren’t starving?

IT’S EASY TO CRITICISE groups trying to help Africa. Invisible Children is the low-hanging fruit, but there are bundles of other organisations helping to paint the stories of suffering by destitute, incapable victims. If you want to make a career out of finding problems, the trough is deep and nourishing.

The far harder question, rightly raised, is to ask how it could be done better. How should we go about engaging with ‘Africa’? With the scare quotes, because as any competent media or African history scholar will tell you, there isn’t one homogenous ‘Africa’ any more than there is a homogenous Europe. So what we actually have is a problem of how to help the continent as it is, and how we defeat the pernicious ghost of ‘Africa’ that we have created.

Given the diversity of the continent, and the importance of history and context to any tiny piece of it, trying to give a general answer to the first question is an exercise in hubris that should be punished severely.

If you want to make a career out of finding problems, the trough is deep and nourishing.

But what about defeating the idea of Africa that lives in the media we consume? The Africa whose people hunger, kill, and have no agency of its own? How do you take a generalised notion of what the continent is and smack it with a mental sledgehammer? Because it would be useful if we could start to see things in more detail. See the different countries, the middle classes, and the nuance. To start to see what it is that you are being denied by advocacy videos and humanitarian propaganda.

Photo from Mama Hope

It’s not so much because what you see and hear about ‘Africa’ is factually wrong, but that those stories are incomplete. And because they’re often incomplete in precisely the same ways it’s hard to see what’s missing. If you’ve never been to a place before, and you have never been given any different information about it in the accounts you read, how are you meant to know that what the mainstream tells you is incomplete?

By way of an example, the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is probably the world’s biggest. If you followed any news at all about the famine in Somalia, you have probably seen pictures of it. The pictures might have been different from newsfeed to newsfeed, but the underlying themes are always the same. Emaciated children. Hungry faces. Branded handouts of food and journalists competing to find new ways to outdo each other in describing human suffering. Unless you read much more widely, you will have a fairly clear idea that Dadaab is its humanitarian environment alone.

But if you did read more widely, you would learn that the place is also a growing center for trade and business. There is even a decently-priced Ethiopian restaurant.

By deliberately subverting the stereotypes you would expect from an ‘Africa’ organisation, the video is effectively a form of African culture jamming.

Knowing that additional information changes things. It doesn’t take away from the fact that there are the starving, and there is a problem that needs responding to. But it forces you to realise that this isn’t all there is. And from understanding that complexity comes more informed reactions.

So back to the original question.

How do we go about unthinking the way we think about ‘Africa’? One idea, awesomely illustrated, is a promo video from the group Mama Hope (above). By deliberately subverting the stereotypes you would expect from an ‘Africa’ organisation, the video is effectively a form of African culture jamming. It’s not what you expect, and because of that, you are forced to think a little about what you expected, and how there is a different and more complex reality to what you might have thought before.

Is it a truthful video? Of course not. The people on the left come from a country called USA, while the ones on the right come from a country called Africa. And suffering is as hidden from this video as well-adjusted folk are from your average African news report. And I am sure if you really want to try, you can find a critical stick to beat Mama Africa with.

Is it a truthful video? Of course not.

But what’s awesome about the video is that you can’t look at it without questioning your ideas. Where do these people come from? How can they exist in the same universe as people like Bosco Ntanganda?

You won’t get the answers from this video any more than you will from Kony2012, but what you will start to understand, the more you see jamming-style narratives from across the continent, is that you have been manipulated. And only when you realise that, are you free to do something about it.

The smiling, well-adjusted faces in Mama Hope won’t give you answers. They give you something far, far more important. They give you an idea of the questions.