Media Failure and the Image of Africa

04/26/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2011
  • Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University; Author, Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

Recent news from Africa has been brutally grim. In last week's Nigerian presidential elections, angry mobs in Kaduna, a mostly Muslim city in Northern Nigeria, hacked to death hundreds of Christians -- a reaction to the reelection of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from Southern Nigeria. In the Cote d'Ivoire Laurent Gbagbo lost a 2010 presidential election to Alassane Ouattara. Citing voter fraud, he refused to cede power to his opponent. Gbagbo's refusal to transfer power to Ouattara prompted an escalation of a long simmering civil war. Since November 2010 thousands of people have died, and many more, fearing for their lives, have fled their homes. On April 11, forces loyal to Ouattara stormed Gbagbo's presidential bunker and arrested the former history teacher. In the wake of Gbagbo's arrest, however, militias continue to skirmish in the streets of Abidjan, the economic capital of Cote d'Ivoire.

So it goes for the news from Africa. Framed by media reports, the image of Africa for Americans -- and others, of course -- consists of tales of unending political riots, cases of fraudulent elections, and scenes of drug-crazed teenage soldiers burning villages, amputating the hands and feet of their foes and raping women, both young and old. There are, as well, the horrifying documentary images of the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda, Congo, and more recently in the Darfur region of Sudan. Add to this lethal mixture of human misery, the social tragedy of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, widespread hunger and the sometimes fatal presence of such diseases as malaria and meningitis and you get the picture: a hopeless continent plagued by intractable problems, a place no one would want to live or visit.

My public university students, most who come from middle and working class families in and around Eastern Pennsylvania, usually hold these beliefs about Africa. Many of them think of Africa as one place where everyone speaks "African," practices an "African" religion, and suffers from "African" diseases or is a subject of a corrupt "African" regime. Accordingly, the first assignment I give to students in my course on Africa is to find a recent news item on something African. Invariably they come back with stories of rape, corruption, civil strife, wartime atrocities and genocide, and HIV/AIDS. Only on rare occasions does a student find a story with something positive to say about an African state or social practice. Given this distorted state of affairs, my professorial task is to present a more nuanced portrait of things African. By the time my students have completed the Africa course I hope they have become better-informed citizens who may want to enhance their comprehension of the world through extended reading, electronic exploration and -- in the best of all possible worlds -- through language learning and travel.

If they were to travel to the Republic of Niger, the poorest nation in the world where most people live on about one dollar a day, they might encounter the adolescent Nigerien woman I met in Niamey, Niger's capital in 2009. She was paralyzed from the waist down and got around town on a bicycle whose handlebars served as pedals. She stopped in front of me, smiled and politely asked for a few coins. I discovered that she was an orphan who, like scores of other orphans with a variety of disabilities, lived on the dusty streets Niger's capital city. She did not complain about her fate. She wasn't disappointed about the amount of money people had given to her. Rather, she smiled and laughed and continued to greet potential donors. When people offered her goods, she said she preferred to find her own food. Exhibiting pride and independence, she refused a small sum of money that would have paid for short-term lodging. She wanted to remain with her friends -- all of whom were disabled orphans. The next morning she returned to her spot in front of a tourist hotel and greeted me with surprisingly good cheer. As she put it, the new day promised to bring her opportunities. This young woman exemplifies the kind of social resilience that you are likely to routinely find in an African nation like Niger.

You won't find this young woman's inspiring story on the news or in most books or articles about Africa. Why not? It would be far too easy to blame our incomplete knowledge on the media for framing the story of Africa in simplistic, hermetically-sealed "black" and "white," "us" and "them" categories. The media, after all, are constrained by time and expense. Can we really expect them to be fully responsible for informing the public about the state of the world?

Who, then, should be responsible for informing the American public about the state of the world? As a professor, I believe educators should take up a good deal of the burden. Educators, after all, have the sacred trust of passing precious knowledge on to the next generation. In a globally integrated world such knowledge will enable the next generation to compete on a vastly transformed global landscape. If this is indeed the case, our elected officials need to find ways to support public education. Does it ever make any sense not to invest in our future?