Suffering and Smiling: Vanity Fair Does Africa

Speaker's Corner: Africa is hot. Why? So we can save it? Frank Bures deconstructs the magazine's latest issue and what it says about Western views of the continent.

06.27.07 | 11:31 AM ET

Vanity Fair Bono coverA few years ago, I was sitting on a plane when one of those ads came on. You know the type: some Sally Struthers wannabe standing next to a mud hut with sad folks huddled in the doorway. We’ve seen them a million times, and these days every celebrity seems to want to jump on the Save Africa bandwagon. (See Ricky Gervais’s take.)  Because that is how most people in the West see Africa: A problem to be solved. By us.

My problem with this scenario is that, during several years living in and traveling through East and West Africa, I never saw anyone (without some deformity) who looked as miserable as the people on those charity shoots. As I walked past my neighbors’ huts, people yelled greetings, smiled, waved, laughed, asked what my news was, asked me for money and laughed when I said no. Then they invited me in for tea, killed a chicken, made me stay for three hours, eating till I was stuffed. But this warmth and generosity and humor are nowhere to be seen in those ads. They flatten the place I knew into a caricature of misery.

In Vanity Fair’s new Africa Issue, Binyavanga Wainaina, a great writer who broke out with a Caine Prize-winning travel story, (and who I interviewed last year for Tin House) makes much the same point in his article, Generation Kenya. “As I sit here in Upstate New York, and read the New York Times, or watch CNN,” he writes as current writer-in-residence at Union College, “Africa feels like a fevered and infectious place….This habit—of trying to turn the second largest continent in the world, which has 53 countries and nearly a billion people of every variety and situation, into one giant crisis—is now one of the biggest problems Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Ghana face.”

Not to mention the other 49 countries.

Wainaina’s piece is easily the best in the magazine, chronicling the story of Kenya in the 1990s, a time of protest and reform and economic rebirth and technological advance. Mostly his country was (and is) a place with hope, not because aid was pouring in, but because initiative took root. “We have learned to ignore the shrill screams coming from the peddlers of hopelessness,” he writes. “We motor on in faith and enterprise, with small steps. On hope, without hysteria.”

In an interview with NPR, Bono, who served as a guest editor for the Africa issue, said that his goal was “to portray Africa as opportunity and adventure, not just the usual white man’s burden.” He noted that the latter view was extremely hard to take for many middle class Africans. To his credit, the Africa issue does reflect some of that opportunity and adventure, with great stories by Wainaina, Christopher Hitchens on Tunisia and William Langewiesche on the daring pilots who keep traffic moving around the Congo. There is also a great piece on African literature by Tin House editors Rob Spillman and Elissa Schappell, while Sebastian Junger swashbuckles into Chad to investigate the Chinese influence. And Kelly Slater goes surfing in South Africa. Thank God there are no wildebeests or safaris.

There is, however, some “Project Africa” nonsense. A piece on AIDS. A piece on Jeffrey Sachs‘s attempts to “eradicate poverty.” A piece on Madonna’s effort to save Malawi. These stories are fine and, I suppose, possibly important. But they are also annoying in their tone and irksome in their simplicity and tiresome in their Gates Foundations volume. Not that I don’t support the malaria research, or oppose the Catholic church’s alleged disinformation campaign about condoms, or believe micro credit is a great thing. But as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ““If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life ... for fear that I should get some of his good done to me.”

Run Africa, run!

For those who look at Africa and see only poverty, I say that your view of the world is narrow and sad. For those who want to assuage their guilt by giving money to some charity, I say to read a couple books—Michael Maren’s Road to Hell and Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari—and look closely at the law of unintended consequences. See: Bob Geldof and the Derg. Better yet, visit the continent yourself. Talk to people. Take the bus. Travel around. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn.

Yeah, Africa has problems. Some big ones. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know quite how they will be solved. But they won’t be solved by foreign pop stars throwing money around. Rather, I suspect they will be solved by Kenyans and Nigerians and Zambians who see the problems in all their dimensions and find ways to cut them at the roots, instead of trimming back the branches.

The real point is that Africa is so much more than the sum of its ills. It is a rich place, humanity-wise. There are cafes and writers and music and cities and bastards and brilliant people. It is a hugely complicated and varied continent that even the word “Africa” doesn’t begin to capture. Because most of all, what the do-gooders of the world never acknowledge, is that Africa, despite its problems, is a place that has as much to offer us as we have to offer it.

Contributing editor Frank Bures, who speaks fluent Swahili, lived in Arusha, Tanzania and writes often about his experiences on the continent, including On Tanzanian Time and The Magical Miracle Tour for World Hum.

12 Comments for Suffering and Smiling: Vanity Fair Does Africa

ianmack 06.29.07 | 1:07 PM ET

an excellent piece.  it reminds me of a conversation i had with a friend, who spent a year living in Uganda teaching computer skills to locals.  I asked him what he thought of the “fly-covered-children-donate-now” africa commercials on tv, and he could barely contain his resentment.  he was quite clear in defending Africa as being much more than a continent of pity - and chastised the dealers in misery for portraying it as much.

a great satirical article on this topic is here

Eva Holland 07.02.07 | 12:07 AM ET

Great piece, Frank.

And of course even the bad guys in the typical African narrative can’t get any credit. I remember an African history professor had us read a story from Harpers about the Rwandan genocide, that basically described it as a bunch of maniacs (...dare I say savages?) running amok with machetes. The professor spent the next hour explaining about the amount of organization and planning and, well, bureaucracy that went into the genocide - bus timetables, supply orders, etc, etc. But no one ever mentions that, or even much in the way of background and lead-up - it often seems to be described as this spontaneous, inexplicable outburst of chaos and violence.

I don’t mean to be too harsh - but sometimes I wish I could get every celebrity that has ever gone on about saving Africa in a room together, and make them try to fill in a blank map of the continent’s countries and major cities. Bonus points for anyone who actually knows exactly where (and what) Darfur is…

Degan Beley 07.03.07 | 5:20 PM ET

excellent post, thank you.

Jane B. 07.03.07 | 6:08 PM ET

I used to read World Hum every day when I had this job that made me want to shoot myself.  I’ve moved on (praise the Lord), but I now remember why I like it so - it’s opinionated and open minded.  Rare these days!

Personally, I loved the VF story on the planes. I never really thought about the skill and ingenuity needed to fly and maintain these dinosaurs and I doubt I’d have the business stamina to survive in Africa.

Shaun Mazurek 07.05.07 | 2:45 PM ET

Wow, I was surprised to read such a treatment. Forgive me if this sounds simplistic but perhaps we should not be to hard on the so called “do gooders”. The first time I left the insulated US to visit Peru I was overwhelmed with the poverty I encountered in the slums of Lima and of course that is not the full story I was also taken aback by the warmth and generosity I encountered. It changed my view of the world and my place in it. Perhaps the real benefit of travel is that we in the west can experience a rich and varied life without so much of the artifice of a lonely and alienated consumer driven culture. Often travelers come back from a trip to the “third world” with a great sense of their own poverty as they drive in a box to park in a box garage and sit in their box house to watch a box when they are not working in their cubicle box Hell…all alone without the type of community that so warmly included them despite the economic, language and religious differences during their travels. This being said should we not also question the injustice of such a great disparity of resources? Why should Americans consume 60% of the world resources when we only account for 5% of the global community? It seems hardly justified to say to any country in Africa that they will need to solve their own problems many of which are a continuation of colonialism and now corporate globalization. Those of us who regularly travel need to be the voices that speak from experience against the many injustices we may encounter.

For a Great treatment of the Topic I would recommend Dr. Vandana Shiva’s book “Earth Democracy” .

Warren 07.09.07 | 4:12 PM ET

Way to go Frank Bures.  This is a bold statement and so well put.  Africa is much more than those Charity TV ads or the celebrity tours we get in our media.  Getting to the roots of such serious problems as the ones facing many African nations is incredibly difficult, but I agree with you that going for the roots is the only approach that will work.  I also agree that thes problems can and will be solved at some point, country by country, village by village, by and for the people living there.

Teri Peterson 11.30.07 | 11:49 PM ET

Great read.  I am going to Kenya in January 08.  I am very excited to meet the Maasai and see the region for myself.  I am a paraplegic in a wheelchair so the trip may present some unique experiences for me.  I could sure use some contacts for further Kenyan information.

Kelsie Noland 12.31.07 | 7:31 PM ET

This is an excellent piece, however, you’re placing these celebrity do-gooders in a slightly undeserved bad light. They’re not all bad, some of them actually want to see a difference take place in Africa. But, I have a much greater respect for those who are actually going to these places and spending time with the people there, moreso than the ones who simply send money and a good luck note. However, I don’t agree that money and celebrity notice will save this country, if it really does need much saving. Whatever mess Africa is in, whether it be due to poverty or AIDS, it was brought upon themselves and in order for conflict to cease, the African people must be able to take care of those problems by themselves. The problem must be solved within itself in order to be solved for good. There is not much Americans or Europeans can do if the African people aren’t willing to learn from the mistakes they’ve made in the past. Simply put, they are the only ones who clean up the mess for good.

Jennine 05.12.08 | 4:01 PM ET

In all fairness I think that it is harsh to say that whatever mess Africa is in whether it be due to poverty or AIDS it was brought upon themselves.  You see it wasn’t brought on by poverty or AIDS but these contribute to its countries being the poorest in the world and sinking deeper and deeper into the mess that was left behind for them after colonialism, corrupt leaders, and mismanagement that has lead these countries that are the richest in the world in terms of mineral resources into debt that they are not capable of getting out of.  I agree that foreign aid is not going to solve the problem.  How can pouring more money into Africa be beneficial when officials are using the money to their own benefit?  When people are living in survival mode everyday and governments are selling land to buyers who are exploiting it and have no care about environmental issues.  That in turn causes more troubles with health where babies are being born into sewage and have the highest rate of infant mortality, clean water isn’t available, people can’t farm for themselves.  Africans need to be educated about safe practices and also have take part in contributing to their country but they need to be given the means to do that, infrastructure, education, exposure to press, training.  You see there has to be a happy medium between international help, accountability the part of the African government and getting the country’s citizens to have jobs and roles in building the economy.  Our aid has been less than helpful sometimes putting them into more harm, ex:putting certain officials into power and looking towards Africa for the purpose of gaining resources.  We give money to NGOs to go and help say women who have been raped resulting from conflict over minerals, the government sees that the people are being aided from western aid and decides to milk the cow of international support they cut back their support, that can’t happen.  They need to have a responsibility for their people because without their people they will have no country.  There is no question that training programs and assistance funds need to manage and monitor funds more efficiently.  We have all of this money pouring into Africa but yet we have to realize that Africa is a continent and not a country so helping is really a large job, it can fit the US, China, India, Argentina, Mexico plus some inside it.  So there is no doubt that we can’t expect big changes right away, we need long term plans.  Its like having a friend crash on your couch, you can’t support them there forever but they need to be driven themselves and support can help to get them on their feet and headed in the right direction to meet their goals.

Al Fin 05.23.08 | 2:07 PM ET

Spoken like a journalist or an academic. 

There are cafes and writers and music and cities and bastards and brilliant people.

Modern countries need homegrown engineers, mechanics, surgeons, telecom technicians, accountants, honest government officials, network administrators, scientists, and other dull people who do not sing and strum the guitar in picturesque cafes, or writefolksy stories to be fawned over and patronised.

Take away the quaint patina and what do you see of the future in Africa?  Bravado in the face of overwhelming challenge?  A continent being taken over the Chinese enterprises and western multi-nationals because it lacks the homegrown expertise to do for itself.

Rick H 07.07.08 | 10:37 PM ET

I tried to validate the statement by Jane stating “Why should Americans consume 60% of the world resources when we only account for 5% of the global community?”

Where did this figure come from?  I did several internet searches and could not find this statistic.  I found many references saying that Americans consume 30% of the world’s resources and account for 5% of the population. 

60% is a long way from 30%.

vanity lights 07.15.08 | 5:43 PM ET

This is an excellent material. Africa’s problems should be a major concern for all the super powers. After all, we are trying to create our utopic peaceful society that eliminates poverty, yet we are still persecuting other people in the name of money.

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