Confusing a Country for a Continent: How We Talk About Africa

Africa has an image problem. Or, put another way, the West has a perception problem. Because when we talk about Africa, more often than not, it's to talk about catastrophes and epidemics, and to conflate a single country with a continent.

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Africa has an image problem. Or, put another way, the West has a perception problem. Because when we talk about Africa, more often than not, it's to talk about catastrophes and epidemics, and to conflate a single country with a 1 billion-strong continent. Take this recent Time magazine article, "Africa's Drinking Problem," which took a few scattered facts and anecdotes about alcoholism in Kenya and decided to create a story about an entire population's issues with alcohol. "While governments in the West are considering minimum pricing standards for alcohol, in nearly a dozen countries across Africa... governments are applying tax breaks to booze," writes Jessica Hatcher. (Nearly a dozen...out of the 54 nations that are part of the African Union. Let's just say the article's argument deteriorates from there.), based in South Africa, responded to the Time piece today, addressing a key issue: The tendency to make sweeping generalizations about entire continents. According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, the same report that served the basis for the Time article, Kenya ranks 118th out of 189 countries for heavy drinking. Also worth noting:

  • The WHO Africa region "excludes seven African countries with large Muslim populations – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Djibouti, Morocco, Somalia and Sudan"
  • "The WHO Africa region’s per capita alcohol consumption is only 0.02 litres higher at 6.15 litres a year. This is lower than Europe and the Americas, which consume 12.18 litres and 8.67 litres respectively." 
  • The WHO report doesn't have statistics on the number of heavy drinkers in 20 African countries (so, nearly half of the region)
So no, Africa does not have a drinking problem, though Time's piece fits into the larger, convenient Western narrative of Africa as a barren continent plagued by problems. Even people who know that Africa isn't a country, and that's not everyone (you too, Rick Ross), can't get past the images of poverty stricken villages, violence-plagued townships, AIDS, malaria and misery. The Time article, though purportedly about a continent-wide binge drinking epidemic, sprinkles in familiar imagery, namely, corrupt politicians and poor people rummaging through trash heaps next to pigs. Jina Moore, a journalist previously based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, described the single-mindedness of Africa portrayals in the Boston Review in 2012 when she wrote:

We [writers] blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. They also introduce clichéd shorthand, such as “Arab north versus Christian and animist south” (Sudan), or boilerplate background, such as “the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed” (Rwanda). Virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn country.”

For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.

Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label.

The other major narrative often attached to the continent is the concept of the White Savior. When the KONY2012 viral campaign launched last year, Ugandan bloggers took issue with the campaign's portrayal of Ugandans: poor, helpless Africans who can't do anything to solve their own problems. As Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire explained in a video:

I think it’s all about trying to make a difference, but how do you tell the story of Africans? It’s much more important what the story is, actually, because if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless… you shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on. 

In a 2009 Ted Talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke on the dangers of a "single story," the idea that an entire culture can be summed up in one narrative. Adichie described meeting her American roommate after moving to the United States to attend Drexel University. The roommate expressed an interest in listening to Adichie's "tribal" music, wondered where she'd learned English (it's Nigeria's official language) and assumed she didn't know how to use a stove. Adichie continued:

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

Adichie offers a solution to the single story problem that is both simple and complex: We should try to move beyond it. "Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes," she said. "But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.