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a call for dignity & hope in “Images of Africa”

January 3, 2013

This blogger looks at the narrow, incomplete story told by media and NGOs about Africa and Africans, and calls for more complex, nuanced, diverse and dignified tellings – for multiple narratives and perspectives, and for images of coping, strength, aspiration.
I have caught myself telling similarly grim stories about the northern communities I have worked in. When I was doing shorter stints at health centres and returning home to my own curious community, it was hard to talk about where I had been without feeling like I was misrepresenting the people there. After all, I mostly encountered people in one little part of their stories, and my experience of our meeting was filtered through my own “helper” lens. I did not often meet community leaders in their own places of power and authority. Most of the stories I heard were mediated through a clinical interview, and told by people who were trying to get what they needed by speaking in language they thought a nurse might understand – or else were told by other health care pro’s.

I was hungry to talk my way towards helpful understandings, but I often felt uncomfortable with the image I portrayed – of the people, the cultures and the institutions where our worlds intersected.

A friend who spends part of each year in Cambodia, working with local people to restore traditional skills in ways which work for rural families, understands this impulse not to speak. We have not shared many stories and impressions with each other, but we have bonded over a shared silence, a shared unsharing, a holding in. We keep this wordless space, in order to protect those communities from incomplete and biased representations coming out of our own mouths and reinforcing dominant stories which ultimately keep people in their place.

And we keep listening for stories worth telling, which we could share as pieces which suggest a whole we don’t know.
I imagined arcticfoxfire blog as a place for people to come together and discuss what we find between each other. I’ve been disappointed at times that there has not been more discussion. But today it occurs to me to value the sharing which happens here, with or without direct discussion, and the quiet space between us, where meaning might grow without interference.

Thanks for your essay, morealtitude. Your words are helpful to me.


Africa Cliche

In a study reported by the BBC today, aid agency Oxfam has said that people’s negative impression of Africa was making it hard to raise assistance for the continent. Instead, Oxfam says it wants to improve the way people think about ‘Africa’, and present a more hopeful image. Says Oxfam’s CEO Dame Stocking:

We need to shrug off the old stereotypes and celebrate the continent’s diversity and complexity, which is what we’re attempting with this campaign. The relentless focus on ongoing problems at the expense of a more nuanced portrait of the continent, is obscuring the progress that is being made towards a more secure and prosperous future. If we want people to help fight hunger we have to give them grounds for hope by showing the potential of countries across Africa…

This cry is by no means a new one. Binyavanga Wainaina’s popular, passionate and now-mainstream “How…

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