Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Running into Africa

I was cleaning my room yesterday after deciding that I should no longer be intimidated by the huge unpacking job before me. On my computer, Youssou N'dour and other mbalax Senegalese music was blasting. While going through papers in my desk, I came across a National Geographic magazine from 2005 with Special Issue Africa in huge letters on the front. In the subtitle the reader is warned: "whatever you thought, think again"! The optimistic person that I am, I immediately started thinking that this issue of National Geographic would be different; that it would no longer portray Africans as tribal, backwards, naked remnants of our distant past. And then I flipped through the magazine to find the first article:
Ask someone to tell you quickly what they associate with Africa, and the answers you'll get will probably range from "cradle of humankind"and "big animals"to "poverty" and "tribalism". How did one continent come to embody such extremes? Geography and history go a long way toward providing the explanations...
No mention of how wrong these mental pictures actually are?! More page turning and elephants, zebras, and faces of starving children confronted me, not only in the articles, but also in the advertisements. I was looking for any mention of Senegal. You know: the first country in Africa to have a peaceful, democratic change of parties, the home of well known African cinematographist Ousmane Sembène, and the grounds where world renowned singer Youssou N'dour has decided to reinvest his fortune in the development of his own country. But in Senegal there are no giraffes, no rain forests, no tribal or even religious violence outbreaks, nor lots of other things people associate with Africa. So National Geographic didn't mention Senegal once.

And you wonder why Americans are so confused when it comes to talking about Africa.


  1. Right. And so now it's our responsibility to gradually teach, gradually show, how Senegal is part of this big idea of Africa...which should not be limited to zebras and famine, even though both exist on the continent. It's hard not to be offended on behalf of Africans, or to take on a kind of White Man's Guilt/Self-Righteousness (does that work for the 21st century?) now that we have had a sliver of Senegal. I imagine that our job is to never forget, to keep sharing, and someday, to go back.

  2. Man, this is really depressing. Why did they say "think again" if they were just going to re-hash what everyone thought before? Also, I definitely try to distinguish between "Africa" and Senegal (something I'm trying to write a blog post on right now, actually) because the distinction is very important.