In a recent blog post, "Out of Africa," Patrick Smith, author of Salon.com's popular "Ask the Pilot" series, presented impressions of his latest trip to West Africa. "I love the flight into Dakar," Smith wrote, "but in Senegal I see how the world is falling to pieces right in front of me."
Patrick Smith went on to present his take on contemporary life in Senegal and other African nations, where, according to the blog, you must put up with bad service, exotically distasteful food, and sullen beggars who endlessly hit you up for gifts -- food, clothing, or better yet, money. Patrick Smith seems to have become disillusioned with Senegal. He wrote:
Yet it's also true that the more time I've spent in Senegal, the less I've come to like it. The country has a way of beating you down, sucking your faith away. The heat, the garbage, the pickpockets and hustlers.
Everybody hitting you up for something. Nobody smiling
In the same piece, Smith described leaving a Lebanese restaurant and giving leftovers to a six or seven year-old child who was begging with a tomato can. He called the child a talibe, which he said refers to vagrant boys. In the blog post, he also described other places in West Africa, writing about the garbage strewn streets, of Mopti in Mali where "naked children splash in greasy water," and a "surreal" drive to Kano, Nigeria.
The topography is vaguely prehistoric -- everything rendered a deep, almost putrefied green, with insanely jutting karsts reminiscent of Vietnam or the south of Thailand. The trees are clumped and gnarled. Goats, no dinosaurs.
The man sitting next to the driver has an AK-47 and a Kevlar vest. He turns around and smiles.
We tip him well.
What does Patrick Smith know of West Africa?
His commentary suggests a dangerously profound ignorance of things African. It's clear that Smith has spent only a few moments of time on the continent, hopping from airport to airport and occasionally taking tours to places like Mopti and Timbuktu. He doesn't know, for example, that "talibe" refers to a Quranic school student. These young boys are not vagrants, as Smith suggests, but live with Islamic clerics who teach them the Quran. In the evening they beg for food. In Islam, it is a mark of piety to give food or money to the old, the infirm, the blind, the maimed as well as to young Quranic school students.
The filth that Patrick Smith describes in Senegal and Mali is a result of poverty, which, of course, is not unique to West Africa. You can find hunger, filth, beggars and shabby conditions in urban and rural America. In Nigeria, he describes a "prehistoric" landscape so much on the edge of criminal chaos that his taxi driver is escorted by a man wearing a Kevlar vest and carrying an AK-47.
This set of images paints an all too familiar portrait of social life in Africa. Smith's language suggests a backward, filthy, ramshackle, lawless and humorless place that is beyond repair, a place where "the world is falling to pieces." This portrait, however, is only a minuscule part of the picture of social life in contemporary Africa. It describes surfaces not depths.
If Patrick Smith had spent more time in Senegal, Mali, or Nigeria, if he had attempted to speak to Africans in one of their own languages, if he had lived, even, for a little while, with a Senegalese, Malian, or Nigerien family, his impressions might have been different.
Patrick Smith and I agree about one thing: you cannot deny the serious social and political problems in West Africa. Even so, if you get to know West Africans, you quickly realize that these problems don't sap their considerable social resilience. In my long study of things African, I've found that despite the ravages of extreme poverty, most African people are somehow able to get on with their lives and make positive and sustainable contributions to their families, villages, and nations. The West Africans I've befriended over a thirty-year period of research have come from all walks of life -- urban professors, rural farmers, international traders, artisans, and university, high school and Quranic school students. I can't say I've liked all the people I've met in West Africa, but I can say that most of them have impressed me with their humor and their capacity to adapt and adjust to difficult conditions. What's most impressive, however, is their deep sense of social connection to one another.
This more humane dimension of African social life, however is rarely discussed in the press. Patrick Smith's commentary of superficial impressions is, I'm afraid, much more common. Such a commentary creates a set of misleading perceptions about an entire continent, which, in turn, can lead to ethnocentric, if not racist, attitudes about people in Africa.
Patrick Smith's blogs appear to be popular. People like reading about a pilot's reflections on the adventure of air travel. But when it comes to representing the social lives of people, writers should take great care, for the power to represent is a great power, indeed, for it shapes our attitudes and beliefs, sometimes at great cost to those we are attempting to describe.