Lazy, cliched articles about Africa in mainstream media seem to be an annual summer tradition in the West.
Last year, long before the now-infamous Valentino and Hermès enthusiast Louise Linton inflamed the world by berating a woman on Instagram for being poorer than her, the Scottish actress and wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin received a global donkey-stomping for another, uh, colorful piece of writing about her privilege.
Her essay “How My Dream Gap Year in Africa Turned Into a Nightmare,” based on a self-published memoir and published by the Telegraph, was a classic White-Savior-In-Africa story, riddled with tired Africa tropes about war, HIV-positive orphans, monsoons, lions, elephants, crocodiles, snakes, malaria … well, the list goes on. Not only did her piece wield every worn-out cliche in the book, it turns out — she made part of her story up. The Zambian embassy slammed her for making up facts in her memoir about Zambia being at war. The Telegraph took down the article, and her memoir’s listing on Amazon was removed.
Fast-forward to 2017: I thought the #LintonLies scandal would have made editors think twice about publishing lazy writing about Africa that paints the continent as a dark, primitive and dangerous place. Unfortunately, the New York Times proved me very, very wrong with its Aug. 18 piece “With Conrad on the Congo River,” by Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff. The premise of the piece was to offer a modern-day look at Congo (and, by extension, Africa) through the colonialist gaze of Joseph Conrad, the author of the white-man-in-dark-Africa classic “Heart of Darkness,” published in 1899.
The first paragraph alone was so cringe-worthy, I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a parody:
The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.
The piece only continued to spiral downward.
Jasanoff went on to say that Congolese people were better off under colonialism than they are today, failing to mention that the Congo was the personal piggy bank of the genocidal maniac King Leopold II of Belgium — and that under his rule, millions of Congolese were abducted, slaughtered or mutilated.
The backlash from Africans and Africa watchers on social media was hot, swift and fierce, like the desert winds ripping through the Sahara:
— Tristan McConnell (@t_mcconnell) August 19, 2017
— Chike FrankieEdozien (@FrankieEdozien) August 19, 2017
What I found most objectionable was her insistence that she was doing this as a white women. Totally gratuitous. https://t.co/xOfWSMvUlR
— Howard French (@hofrench) August 19, 2017
Every few years, some white person decides they'll be the one to ride a barge down the Congo River. They all think they're unique.
— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) August 19, 2017
To find out why narratives on Africa such as Linton’s and Jasanoff’s are so toxic, watch the TL;DR video above. But long story short, it’s time to leave the white colonial gaze on Africa in the past where it belongs.