This first appeared in the print edition of Weekly Trust, Abuja, Nigeria on March 10, 2007.
Farooq A. Kperogi
As I have been saying for the past two weeks, the CNN report on the Niger Delta is only a representative sample of the kinds of reports about Africa to which those of us who are sojourning in the West have become habituated.
It almost seems as if the media here have an abiding psychic need to affirm themselves only in opposition to us. The mainstream media here, of which the National Geographic is the undisputed leader, permanently create Manichean racial binaries in which Africans are the bad and the lowly and Europeans and their descendents are the good and the mighty.
I have learned to develop a thick skin to the pervasive media distortions of Africa and come to terms with the fact that people here simply can’t transcend the perceptual consensus of Africa that their media have imposed on them.
I know I am exposing myself to charges of crude media determinism—that is, the idea that the mass media solely orchestrate our everyday consciousness, attitudes and points of views. I am no media determinist. I know enough to know that a multiplicity of factors conspire to construct our perceptions of the world. It cannot be denied, however, that the mass media are the major sources of information about, and explanation for, social and political phenomena in the society.
People, especially in Western societies, are conditioned to rely on the mass media for images and perceptions of “other” people. These images color how they relate with “those” people. The anecdotes I will narrate shortly illustrate these points well.
One day, an incredibly good-natured, liberal white friend of mine asked me to suggest to him a place he could go for a vacation. I suggested several places, but somehow it occurred to me that he probably wanted me to suggest an African country. So I said he might consider Kenya, which is noted for its exquisite safaris. (I won’t suggest Nigeria as a vacation spot to anybody, truth be told!
) With thoughtless, dismissive, almost insensitive ease, he said, “Yeah, I have never seen a jungle before”!
Another day, I was conversing with yet another good friend of mine and, in the course of our conversation, we had reason to discuss Arkansas, the state of which Bill Clinton was a two-term governor before he became president. I asked my friend if the state is a nice place to live.
His response shocked me. “That’s the worst state anyone can ever wish to live in America,” he said. “I would rather live in Africa than live in Arkansas.” He appeared to have forgotten that I was African.
Well, it was a reflex knee jerk. From a suggestible age, Africa has been inscribed into his consciousness as the lowest common denominator of everything, as an uninhabitable jungle where only sub-humans dwell.
Again, during one of my graduate classes at the University of Louisiana, a professor was giving examples of the various motivations and “lacks” that inspire people to migrate across vast national borders.
He used me as an example of someone who is in the United States because “there are no universities in Africa”! I had already become impervious to such brazen ignorance. I simply asked him how I could enroll in the graduate program if I didn’t have an undergraduate degree from Nigeria. His response was even more staggeringly ignorant. “I thought you went to college [i.e. university] in England,” he said.
Illogical as his reasoning was, he had sympathizers among many of the students in the class, including, to my greatest surprise, the closest friend I had then. My friend said he too had honestly thought that I was educated in England. His politically correct but nonetheless ignorant explanation was that my English was too good for a non-native speaker who learned the English language in his native non-English-speaking country.
But I had told this fellow about Nigeria’s British colonial history, that English is our official language and the language of instruction in our schools. He knew the name of the university I attended in Nigeria and even knew what countries I had visited, England not being one of them. How could he, in spite of this knowledge, think that I went to school in England, more so that I don’t have a British accent?
Well, blame it on media-inspired, deep-seated prejudice. A philosopher whose name I can’t recall now once said that prejudice distorts what it sees, deceives when it talks, and destroys when it acts.
Sometime last year, an African-American whose news magazine I used to contribute to when I was in Louisiana told me of her experience in Senegal. She said when she got an invitation to visit Senegal she was elated at the prospect of seeing Africa, the continent where her ancestral roots are located. But she couldn’t help carrying with her the baggage of prejudice and bigotry that the American media had inspired in her about Africa.
So, as she prepared to travel, she told me, she decided against taking many clothes with her. Africans don’t wear clothes, anyway, she thought. Why should she wear expensive clothes and turn herself into a needless spectacle among naked, poor savages?
“To my amazement, I saw people in colorful attires in Dakar and I was put to shame,” she told me. “I had to rush to the nearby shop to buy clothes.”
The ignorance of and prejudice against Africa in the West is deeper than words can express.
One day, I almost succeeded in disabusing the minds of a group of Americans about the media stereotypes of Africa. I almost convinced them that the images that accompany most news stories about Africa are stale pictures about wars and famine in parts of Africa that don’t represent the reality of the whole continent. This was in a hotel where we lodged for a conference.
Just when we were about to finish the conversation, one of them switched to a popular Black entertainment station called the BET (Black Entertainment Television). And what did we see? A disconcerting “disaffirmation” of all that I had said. Some white do-gooder and his wife were soliciting donations from people to help starving and “AIDS”-infested children in a Kenyan slum.
The couple filmed their video in a notorious Nairobi slum—with stinking gutters and all. My colleagues all fixed a inquiring gaze on me that said, “You’re just a proud liar.”
I had a similar experience at a journalism conference in March last year. We had just discussed the unfair portrayals of Africa in the American media. A short while after that, a CNN editor presented a paper on new technologies for reporting. He told us that a new pocket camera that can record video and audio with perfect fidelity was now in use at CNN.
And he demonstrated a recent use of the technology. Guess what he showed? Jeff Koinage’s sensational report of the outbreak of the bird flu in Kaduna—showing a horde of almajirai unburying the infected chickens that had been slaughtered and buried the previous day by health officials.
Again, no houses were shown. Everything took place in the bush. The people he interviewed spoke halting, comical English. They were ragged and rough. All eyes in the conference room turned to me.
It is not only the traditional broadcast media that are invested in the project to show “Black Africa” as a wild “uninhabited” jungle. Even Google Earth, a new program that can show live pictures of many parts of the world from the comfort of your computer, deliberately refuses to show pictures of houses in “Black African” countries.
The only African countries that Google Earth captures are countries in North Africa, South Africa, and small portions of Zimbabwe where whites live. I have tried to get Abuja on Google Earth and, to this day, all I see is wilderness.
With these ceaselessly negative images of Africa in the American media, it came as no surprise to me when a recent research found out that the first thing Americans think of when Africa is mentioned is AIDS, war, famine, starvation, jungles in that order. Mandela is the distant 10th item that comes to their minds.
So the CNN report on the Niger Delta was merely the performance of a familiar script. I will borrow Malcolm X’s memorable satirization of the 1963 civil rights “March on Washington” to characterize the report.
“It was a circus, a performance that beat anything Hollywood could ever do, the performance of the year,” Malcolm said of the March during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his unforgettable “I have a Dream” speech. “Reuther [a white man] and those other three devils should get an Academy Award for the best actors 'cause they acted like they really loved Negroes and fooled a whole lot of Negroes. And the six Negro leaders should get an award, too, for the best supporting cast.”
I will rephrase that and say the CNN report on the Niger Delta was a performance that beat anything Hollywood could ever do. I am not sure it is the performance of the year, though, because the year is still too young and Koinage’s capacity for staged, performative journalism that ridicules Africans is boundless.
But I think CNN and its affiliates should get an Academy Award for the best actors because they really acted like they loved Niger Deltans and fooled a whole lot of Niger Deltans. And Jeff Koinage should get an award, too, for the best supporting actor.