THE BLOG
08/08/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2013

Media Myopia and the Image of Africa

There seems to be no limit to the media's unwitting capacity to mischaracterize the African continent. Given the often inaccurate and superficial stories that emerge from Africa, is it any wonder that many people in the U.S., for example, think that Africa is one country? Is it any wonder that many Americans believe that the Africa is routinely ruled by greedy despots who live in extravagant luxury while their people suffer in the grip of poverty?

As I mentioned in several previous blogs on this sad subject, the print and broadcast media have usually constructed an African narrative of endless ethnic warfare, incessant drought, tragic famine, unspeakable epidemics, rampant rape and chilling child abuse. The narrative also underscores dysfunctional family relations in which elderly patriarchs brutalize young women some of whom may be their wives, some of who may be their daughters or nieces. In short, the media narrative about Africa makes it seem like a brutal place where people lead miserable lives, a place that is so destitute and hopeless, that "we" need to "help" them.

These kinds of narratives embody partial truths about social life in Africa. There is no shortage of despots, epidemics, food insecurity, or family dysfunction in Africa. But for anyone one who has spent time living with families in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Kenya or Uganda, the narratives about social life in Africa become singularly complex -- as complex as social life in American society. Indeed, the people I've meet during more than 30 years of anthropological research in West Africa have been poor, but amazingly creative, resilient and wise.

How, then, do these over-simplifications about Africa and Africans get established and reinforced?

Here's one example from Nicholas Kristof, internationally renowned columnist for the New York Times. In his July 13 column," Where Young Women Find Healing and Hope," Mr. Kristof, whose important humanitarian work I greatly admire, described his visit to a medical center in Danja, Niger. Here's how Mr. Kristof began his "On the Ground" column about the Danja, Niger Fistula center:

They straggle in by foot, donkey cart or bus: humiliated women and girls with their heads downcast, feeling ashamed and cursed, trailing stink and urine.

Some were married off at 12 or 13 years old and became pregnant before their malnourished bodies were ready. All suffered a devastating childbirth injury called an obstetric fistula that has left them incontinent, leaking urine and sometimes feces through their vaginas. Most have been sent away by their husbands, and many have endured years of mockery and ostracism as well as painful sores on their legs from the steady trickle of urine.

It is incontestably important to bring into public awareness the problem of fistula in Niger. But how much can Mr. Kristof -- or anyone else -- understand about the social and economic conditions of rural Niger if they simply "drop in" for a short visit to the Danja Fistula Center?

For many months, Alison Heller, a medical anthropologist, has been doing research at Niger's four fistula centers. She has studied Hausa, one of the two major languages in Niger, and knows the social and cultural history of the people who visit the Danja Fistula Center. In a recent entry to her blog, Sai Hankuri: Fieldnotes from Niger, she not only pinpoints the inaccuracies in Kristof's column but also suggests how they lead to stereotypical beliefs about Africa and Africans.

Responding to Kristof's lead sentence, "They straggle in by foot, donkey cart or bus: humiliated women and girls with their heads downcast, feeling ashamed and cursed, trailing stink and urine," Heller wrote:

Women with fistula are incontinent, and although the severity of their leaks dramatically vary, they all leak. That said, most women with fistula meticulously tend to their self-care -- adapting to their condition, creating homemade barriers or sanitary pads, washing diligently, slathering themselves in perfume. Very seldom can you smell a woman with fistula. Indeed, although they shoulder a heavy burden, they "trail" neither stink nor urine. In fact, many women go years without anyone knowing about their condition, including those closest to them, those with whom they share a house, or even a bed.

In the same July 13th column Kristof wrote: "There is nothing more wrenching than to see a teenage girl shamed by a fistula," to which Heller responded:

... Nearly all of these "girls" have been married; nearly all have carried one or more pregnancies to term. Many sufferers of fistula are in their mid to late-20s, many in their 30s, and some in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Does the suffering of a middle-aged woman with fistula count for less than the suffering of a "teenage girl"? Is it less "wrenching"?

In the column, Kristof tells the story of one of Danja's fistula patients, Hadiza Soulaye. Heller, who has talked with this woman over a long period of time, suggests that Kristof didn't recount her story correctly. She stated:

Interviewing women about sensitive subjects can be difficult. It takes time to grow a relationship and foster trust. On the surface, many women's stories seem the same -- shame, pain, and hope for cure. But after picking and prodding and posing and prying (a process that takes not just hours, but weeks and sometimes months), their stories take shape, holes are filled in, and the diversity of experiences begins to show itself. Still, it is too easy to cobble together a patchwork of facts with the thread of supposition. Reality fades into to fiction.

Heller's "on the ground" critique suggests a problem of much greater significance. Can we rely completely on generalist knowledge in an increasingly complex world? Can we send journalists -- even one as good as Nicholas Kristof -- to faraway places where people speak unfamiliar languages like Songhay, Hausa, Tamasheq, and Wolof and expect them to quickly and fully understand what they are witnessing? This kind of quick representation often leads to negative stereotypes, mythical thinking, and misplaced priorities.

I am certainly not suggesting that Nicholas Kristof forgo travel places like Niger. I applaud his efforts to raise life-changing funds for the Danja Fistula Center. To set the record straight, however, more scholars like Alison Heller need to bring their nuanced ground-level comprehension of complex social issues into the public sphere -- one way to correct an epidemic of media myopia that creates and reinforces a fictive image of Africa.