I know that it is my duty as the moderator of this group to be present, active, and stimulate discussions. This is not just because that is the kind of thing one expects of this kind of online forum; it is also because those of us who joined the group joined in order to participate in discussions about anthropology and Africa. So, I beg your forgiveness for not doing more to get discussions started.

Let me try with something that I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while. First, one issue that has been making the rounds on the internet in the past few weeks. A South African movie director, Neill Blomkamp, made what has been described as the first African sci-fi movie. The movie, ‘District 9’, was produced by Peter Jackson of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ fame. Parts of the movie portray Nigerians as gangsters and prostitutes who are patronized by aliens. In fact, the name of the leader of the gangsters is Obesandjo (uncannily close to that of the former president of Nigeria, Obasanjo). There have been outcries from Nigerians both home and abroad, and the Nigerian minister for information has demanded an apology from Sony, the distributors of the movie.

What I have been thinking about is stereotypes, and how people relate to them. I have relayed the story because it has tapped into existing stereotypes of Nigeria in South Africa, where Nigerians are seen as criminals. I have also used that case as an example in order to show that one does not need to leave the continent before one sees negative stereotypes and portrayals of Africans.

Patty, in a coment here, mentioned the fact that many charity organizations in Dublin canvass for used clothing donation with ‘pitiful images of Africans’. Here in Berlin, I notice that almost everywhere there is a poster for fundraising on behalf of disaster victims etc. etc. it is accompanied by a picture of a poor African mother and her starving child(ren).

This has been an issue troubling me for some time, because I do not know how to think of the persistence of these kinds of stereotypical images of Africa. I know that members of this group have something to do with Africa, have most likely visited Africa, and have stories different from the stereotypes I presented above of Africa. So, could you help me think about why this kind of depiction persists? Perhaps it is just a thing of habit that is devoid of meaning altogether?

Sorry for a rambling post, I guess what I am trying to get at is the reason stereotypes exist and why they die hard. To relate it closer to the theme of this group, why do these negative stereotypes of Africa sell so much in Europe and North America?

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Olumide, I have an MA student at NUI Maynooth, Lucy Ellis, who is doing a project investigating the images of Africans used on the little coin collection boxes distributed by Trocaire during its annual Lenten campaign. I will try to get her to join OAC and contribute to this discussion.

Just one little note... Ireland is no more part of the U.K. than Nigeria is, although both were at one time colonies.
Thanks Patty. I look forward to contributions from Lucy Ellis. Her project sounds really interesting.

Of course, Ireland is not part of the UK, just like Canada is not part of the US. I was only reporting that my informants describe the goods that originate from both Ireland and the UK as UK goods, and the goods that originate from the US and Canada as American goods (America in Nigeria normally means the US).

Patty A. Gray said:
Olumide, I have an MA student at NUI Maynooth, Lucy Ellis, who is doing a project investigating the images of Africans used on the little coin collection boxes distributed by Trocaire during its annual Lenten campaign. I will try to get her to join OAC and contribute to this discussion.
Just one little note... Ireland is no more part of the U.K. than Nigeria is, although both were at one time colonies.
I relate to this thread at so many levels, but first through a filmed speech from TED by Chimamanda Adichie, The danger of a single story. She is a young Nigerian writer of fiction and the talk lasts about 20 minutes. It's brilliant. Maybe someone ought to add it to the common stock of videos on the OAC. She explains how shocked she was as a student in the US to be typecast as the poor needy African. Then how she visited Mexico and found she had herself internalized the same reductionist stories about illegal immigrants. Her message is that people everywhere deserve to be treated in all their complexity and difference, as if they were characters in a novel you would want to read, multiple stories. But the single story is what most people want. It's easier that way.

In my memoir, Africa on my mind, I recall how I was explaining once to a French woman why I thought Africa's future is rather hopeful (I am writing a book about it, call it an exercise in Afro-optimism). Her face hardened as I went on and, in knee-jerk fashion, I said "Of course, much of Africa is a mess". " Yes", she said, "it's a mess!" Sher had never been there, but it was important for her to know absolutely that Africa is a mess. I have come to believe that this is a general attitude in Europe. I am less sure about North America, for reasons that will become clearer.

When I was Director of Cambridge University's African Studies Centre, I was sent on a one day communications training course. This included being schooled in how to give a TV interview. The guy was a Guardian journalist. He said I could pick my topic, he would interview me for 10 minutes and we would review the footage afterwards. I told him my topic was the racist treatment of Africa in the British media. He flared up immediately, "But we are NOT racist! We are all very sympathetic to Africa." I had a hostile interview, but I stuck to my script.

This is, to be brief that, Europe is on the way down, especially the former imperial powers like Britain and France. Asia is taking over, we are old and can't reproduce ourselves, we hate the immigrants who come to work for our pensions. The best we can hope for is to become a museum for tourists. Failed politicians and ageing rock stars like Blair and Bono claim they will redeem Africa, single-handedly tackle its poverty, corruption, AIDS, you name it. The media talk as if Africa were the playground of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, war, famine, plague and death. You never hear about the vitality of the modern arts there, that Nigeria (Nollywood) has just passed Bollywood as the second largest exporter of movies in the world. Or that Angola last year had the highest growth rate in the world (23%).

South Africa is a wonderful, young, dynamic place and I have bought a beach flat there, but, when I tell my European friends, all they claim to know about is crime and violence there. I read a piece in the Guardian recently (the same), by a woman, saying she wouldn't go there for the World Cup because she would probably be raped. About where else could you get away with writing that kind of senseless bullshit in a so-called liberal newspaper?

I have a problem. I want to write about why Europeans are fixated on this single negative story about Africa. I think I know why. Deep down, we all know that the game is up. Having made world society in a form that guaranteed us unearned income, we are now losing our grip on it. I would be willing to make a bet that there will be one major and permanent loser from the current economic crisis, Europe. We know it, but we can't admit it. So we cling to the notion that Africa, at least Africa, is and will always be worse off than us. For 500 years we made world society as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, browns and yellows in the middle and blacks on the bottom. It matters that blacks keep their place. And to be fair, Africans have not yet done much to make this story untenable. Modern civilization is driven by democracy and science. Until Africans make a serious contribution to both, they will continue to be disparaged by racists.

In the meantime, Africa's arts explosion is impressive, women and young people are straining against the power of old men, the religious revival contains forces for social renewal that Weber would recognize, the post-1945 diaspora is connected to Africa and contributing, East Africa leads the world in commercial, financial and administrative applications of mobile phone technology. My bet is that an African team will win the World Cup, but don't ask me which. 80 years ago, the poorest, most violent place in the world was China and people in the West talked about it as they do about Africa now, while China is today taken to be challenging the US for world leadership. Things change rapidly. But Europeans and some portion of their American brethren cling to a vision of Africa's stagnation that Hegel or Conrad would have been proud of. They are wrong. There is everything still to play for, but it will take some effort from many Africans and their friends.
Asante Keith for your eloquent statements and for bringing African art into the picture. I have started writing on a book, based on my ethnography at an Arts College in Tanzania. As I was reflecting on the politics of doing anthropology in my introductory chapter I started pondering on how political my work is in terms of portraying Africa, especially since i am not focusing on misery but rather creativity. One of my analytical threads is the relation between material realities and social imaginaries. For example, the Arts College only has 4-5 computers with Internet access for a student population of 120. Even so, the students feel they are part of modern world society. Similarly, music students only have one computer with music software, yet this makes them feel like they are using state-of-the-art technology, similar to what Western musicians use. While acknowledging the material constraints of the College (which students themselves complain about), I want to focus on the students' creative uses of the equipment they have and their perceptions of what it means to them. And somewhere in my dry scholarly analysis I also want to convey the FUN I have had in my seven years of engagement with the College, a sense of enjoyment that is rarely associated with everyday life in Africa.

Recently, a colleague suggested it might be difficult to get my book published since it doesn't fall into the stereotypical negative portrayal of Africa.I wasn't sure if he was kidding...



Keith Hart said:
I relate to this thread at so many levels, but first through a filmed speech from TED by Chimamanda Adichie, The danger of a single story. She is a young Nigerian writer of fiction and the talk lasts about 20 minutes. It's brilliant. Maybe someone ought to add it to the common stock of videos on the OAC. She explains how shocked she was as a student in the US to be typecast as the poor needy African. Then how she visited Mexico and found she had herself internalized the same reductionist stories about illegal immigrants. Her message is that people everywhere deserve to be treated in all their complexity and difference, as if they were characters in a novel you would want to read, multiple stories. But the single story is what most people want. It's easier that way.

In my memoir, Africa on my mind, I recall how I was explaining once to a French woman why I thought Africa's future is rather hopeful (I am writing a book about it, call it an exercise in Afro-optimism). Her face hardened as I went on and, in knee-jerk fashion, I said "Of course, much of Africa is a mess". " Yes", she said, "it's a mess!" Sher had never been there, but it was important for her to know absolutely that Africa is a mess. I have come to believe that this is a general attitude in Europe. I am less sure about North America, for reasons that will become clearer.

When I was Director of Cambridge University's African Studies Centre, I was sent on a one day communications training course. This included being schooled in how to give a TV interview. The guy was a Guardian journalist. He said I could pick my topic, he would interview me for 10 minutes and we would review the footage afterwards. I told him my topic was the racist treatment of Africa in the British media. He flared up immediately, "But we are NOT racist! We are all very sympathetic to Africa." I had a hostile interview, but I stuck to my script.

This is, to be brief that, Europe is on the way down, especially the former imperial powers like Britain and France. Asia is taking over, we are old and can't reproduce ourselves, we hate the immigrants who come to work for our pensions. The best we can hope for is to become a museum for tourists. Failed politicians and ageing rock stars like Blair and Bono claim they will redeem Africa, single-handedly tackle its poverty, corruption, AIDS, you name it. The media talk as if Africa were the playground of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, war, famine, plague and death. You never hear about the vitality of the modern arts there, that Nigeria (Nollywood) has just passed Bollywood as the second largest exporter of movies in the world. Or that Angola last year had the highest growth rate in the world (23%).

South Africa is a wonderful, young, dynamic place and I have bought a beach flat there, but, when I tell my European friends, all they claim to know about is crime and violence there. I read a piece in the Guardian recently (the same), by a woman, saying she wouldn't go there for the World Cup because she would probably be raped. About where else could you get away with writing that kind of senseless bullshit in a so-called liberal newspaper?

I have a problem. I want to write about why Europeans are fixated on this single negative story about Africa. I think I know why. Deep down, we all know that the game is up. Having made world society in a form that guaranteed us unearned income, we are now losing our grip on it. I would be willing to make a bet that there will be one major and permanent loser from the current economic crisis, Europe. We know it, but we can't admit it. So we cling to the notion that Africa, at least Africa, is and will always be worse off than us. For 500 years we made world society as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, browns and yellows in the middle and blacks on the bottom. It matters that blacks keep their place. And to be fair, Africans have not yet done much to make this story untenable. Modern civilization is driven by democracy and science. Until Africans make a serious contribution to both, they will continue to be disparaged by racists.

In the meantime, Africa's arts explosion is impressive, women and young people are straining against the power of old men, the religious revival contains forces for social renewal that Weber would recognize, the post-1945 diaspora is connected to Africa and contributing, East Africa leads the world in commercial, financial and administrative applications of mobile phone technology. My bet is that an African team will win the World Cup, but don't ask me which. 80 years ago, the poorest, most violent place in the world was China and people in the West talked about it as they do about Africa now, while China is today taken to be challenging the US for world leadership. Things change rapidly. But Europeans and some portion of their American brethren cling to a vision of Africa's stagnation that Hegel or Conrad would have been proud of. They are wrong. There is everything still to play for, but it will take some effort from many Africans and their friends.
New book coming out (January 2010) that should be of interest:

http://rex.ucpress.edu/books/pages/11627.php

Edited by Anne-Maria Makhulu, Beth A. Buggenhagen, and Stephen Jackson
Hard Work, Hard Times
Global Volatility and African Subjectives

Foreword by Simon Gikandi. Afterword by John L. Comaroff.
Global, Area, and International Archive, 15

The description of Africa as a continent in perpetual crisis, ubiquitous in the popular media and in policy and development circles, is at once obvious and obfuscating. This collection by leading ethnographers moves beyond the rhetoric of African crisis to theorize people's everyday practices under volatile conditions not of their own making. From Ghanaian hiplife music to the U.S. "diversity lottery" in Togo, from politicos in Côte d'Ivoire to squatters in South Africa, the essays in Hard Work, Hard Times uncover the imaginative ways in which African subjects make and remake themselves and their worlds, and thus make do, get by, get over, and sometimes thrive.

Contributors: Beth A. Buggenhagen, Stephen Jackson, Anne-Maria Makhulu, Mike McGovern, Charles Piot , Dorothea E. Schulz, and Jesse Weaver Shipley
NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
Keith
There is much truth on what you say about Africa that you know from inside except one thing. I don't think Joseph Conrad as a Polish emigre was a racist .I

When I wrote that sentence, I knew that I was glossing over great complexity, but what the hell, it was only a post and already too long... Locke, Hume, Kant and Hegel have all been condemned as racists for saying things about Africans that sound bad to contemporary sensibilities. It's hard to extricate Hegel from something like this: "What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History."

The theme is taken up more recently by Hugh Trevor-Roper: "“Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at the present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness, and darkness is not the subject of history.” Both of these statements could be taken to support racist attitudes towards Africa, but the second is in my view more culpable, given its date. Trevor-Roper by the way once described the subject matter of anthropology as ""the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe".

Conrad, as you say, is much more interesting than both and probably not a racist, even though he was man of his times (the heyday of British imperialism). I was thinking of his title, "The heart of darkness", which is ironic, but not usually taken that way by people who hear it. The last words of Kurtz's letter are an incitement to genocide: "Exterminate all the brutes" (taken as the title of a wonderful book on the history of genocide by Sven Lindqvist. Marlow, the hero, is deeply ambivalent about the imperialist project. I had all of this and more in my mind when I was writing, but decided to rush on. I guess you could say "Gotcha", in the spirit of critique as picking holes.

I do not consider myself to be an Africanist, but someone who has long been interested in the history of Africa's relations with the rest of the world, especially the West, a relationship that is often best explored through literature and art. It has always been a two-way relationship, even if the Eurocentrics (most societies are racist in their own way, including Greece) usually don't see it that way.
This is an issue that I run up against constantly, not only in my own research, but also in teaching. I have to admit that I'm less optimistic about Africa's future than Keith. In fact, I see things from a rather negative point of view, but then I don't restrict this negativity to Africa. Things are a mess all over, sometimes in the same ways, and sometimes in different ways. I find it particularly interesting, for example, how the experiences of resource plunder by transnational corporations and their proxies have had similarly terrible results as well as similarly inspiring forms of resistance in contexts as far apart and apparently different as Canada's far north, DRC, Papua New Guinea, and Equador (and here I'm only mentioning a few places touched by the activities of one Canadian mining corporation). Now, having said that, I find that my students, as well as other people I deal with in Canada, often have profoundly distorted understandings of Africa, that combine, in strange and paradoxical ways, images of Africa as a land of tradition and nature, with no states, cities, infrastructure, technology, images of the noble savage, the jungle and the safari, a land left out of history, and images of 'tribal' wars, corrupt dictators, starvation, disease, poverty, and violence. Now, obviously our media do a wonderful job of perpetuating these images, drawing on them as a substitute for research, but I think that James Ferguson has made a good point that we anthropologists have done a rather lousy job of countering these distortions because we shy away from saying things concerning Africa as a whole. With that in mind, I wonder what the rest of you think of his book Global Shadows? I apologize if my thoughts are too messy at the moment.
Olumide, thank you for starting this discussion. I don't want to take the discussion in a direction not intended by you but was wondering whether your opening statement may also refer to the consequences of this stereotyping. Although I have not yet used it in my own research, some time ago I came across the concept of 'illocutionary disablement' put forward by the feminist philosopher Rae Langton. Her argument is about the effect of pornography on women's speech acts. I think the stereotyping of Africa may have a similar effect on messages coming out of Africa. Having said this, from my own research experience in Mali I think anthropologists should, as Ferguson suggests, resist a desire to relativise poverty and suffering when it is encountered.

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