If there is one media narrative about Africa that refuses to be squashed, it’s the White-Savior-in-Africa bug. Despite the fact that some of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa, and that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora are perfectly capable of telling their own stories and transforming their own societies, the white savior framework lives, like some prehistoric literary insect that has managed to survive the ages without having to evolve. And just when you think the world has made at least some progress in beginning to exterminate this trend, a big, fat, multi-legged #WhiteSaviorInAfricaStory crawls into the mediasphere.
Louise Linton, an actress and producer, just may have written the defining work of the White-Savior-in-Africa genre for the digital age. Linton’s piece, “How My Dream Gap Year in Africa Turned Into a Nightmare,” published in the Telegraph, follows the venerable tradition of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — Africa seen through the lens of white or foreign central characters. This tradition includes recent films such as “Machine Gun Preacher” and ill-advised public relations campaigns such as #Kony2012, which position Western “awareness” as the solution to African warlords, and basically everything Nicholas Kristof writes about war-torn countries.
Linton describes experiences as an 18-year-old student who travels to Zambia in 1999, and claims that she didn’t know that war was raging in Congo. If “How Not to Write About Africa” were an Olympic floor gymnastics event, Linton’s piece would be a strong contender for a gold medal, because she deploys, with maximum flourish, just about every lazy trope there is when it comes to writing about Africa.
Make up for being light on research or knowledge about Africa by being heavy with good intentions.
“With a cheery smile, I’d waved goodbye to Dad and jumped on a plane to Africa without researching anything about its tumultuous political history or realising that my destination – Lake Tanganyika – was just miles from war-torn Congo.”
Good intentions allows for one to view Africa as one dark blob of violence, poverty, jungle bush and disease instead of a continent of 54 countries, each with a unique history and cultures.
Must include references to war, poverty, animals or disease (bonus points for all four in one story).
“But I soon learned that Africa is rife with hidden danger. I witnessed random acts of violence, contracted malaria and had close encounters with lions, elephants, crocodiles and snakes. As monsoon season came and went, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Congo began to escalate and then spill over into Zambia with repercussions all along the lake. Thousands of people were displaced and we heard brutal tales of rape and murder.”
Remind people that everything in Africa can, and if given the chance, will kill you.
Whiteness must be centered in stories about Africa. At all times.
“As the night ticked interminably by, I tried not to think what the rebels would do to the ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’ if they found me. Clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering, I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself how I’d come to be a central character in this horror story.”
Linton manages to imply that she was somehow more at risk for African violence because of her whiteness, while reminding the audience that with her “angel hair,” she is literally heaven-sent to Africa and the central character in the story, not the Zambians.
African orphans (bonus points for photos with said orphans)
“I was still struggling with the loss of my mother and found special comfort in my bond with Zimba, a six-year-old orphan girl with HIV who called me “Ru-eese.”
In the end, Africa must serve to remind Westerners to be happy about their own lives even when they feel down.
“I know that the skinny white girl once so incongruous in Africa still lives on inside me. Even in this world where I’m supposed to belong, I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.”
Linton really stuck the landing in her last paragraph. She also gets bonus points for narcissistically assuming that Zimba’s mere contact with her was the greatest joy the child had ever known.
Linton’s story is so riddled with Africa cliches, many wondered whether it was a parody. The popular Instagram account @BarbieSavior even took inspiration from Linton. Many Africans as well as writers and journalists took to the Internet to swiftly condemn the piece and the Telegraph’s editorial decision-making process using #LintonLies. (Linton has since sent a series of tweets apologizing for the offense her article caused and deleted her account.)
Africans all over the continent and in the diaspora are helping their own communities and telling their own stories. It was local groups in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, not Western savior intervention, that were instrumental in combating Ebola during the 2014 scourge. Skip the gap year accounts from wealthy foreigners in favor of Nicole Amarteifio’s hit Web series “An African City,” which documents stories of love, fashion and friendship in Accra, Ghana. Read Nigerian authors such as Okey Ndibe, Teju Cole and Chimamanda Adichie, who offer fascinating perspectives set in their home country. The erasure of the voices and experiences of Africans in stories about Africa, and the constant positioning in media narratives of Africans as background props for do-gooder Westerners, creates fertile ground for lazy thinking, writing and policymaking about Africa. It is dehumanizing, racist — and plain boring.