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
A 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.