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Africa’s Negative Image

What comes to your mind when you hear anybody talk about Africa? Do you begin to marvel at the cultures and civilizations that sprang out from that continent? Do you begin to wonder about how richly blessed the continent is? Does the thought of the continent’s untapped economic resources give you ideas? Or do you, instead, begin to visualise a poor continent? Do you picture a group of people with “funny” English accents make merriments for 6 days and rest on the 7th? Do you picture an unholy alliance between culture, underdevelopment and AIDS? Do you picture a completely “hopeless people” in a hopeless continent?

The African continent, no doubt, is viewed from many sides. For a long time, any mention of “Africa” to Europeans or Americans brings out the imagery of a continent filled with animals and black people with colourful cultures that are yet to be understood. In recent times however, Africa is largely viewed as a poor backward continent, riddled with heinous political crisis, blessed with despotic rulers and monarchs, cursed with AIDS and Malaria, and, of course, steep in abject poverty that it requires helps from the West to feed its people.

How did such imagery come to exist? Are these beliefs based on objective facts or are they just stereotypes?

 

This is a tough question to answer without good analysis. So in this piece, we will discuss the origin of Africa’s negative image, and how it evolved and became refined in modern times. We shall discuss that the negative image of Africa stems from multiple issues across its history, and that since colonial times, the view has being promoted by the narrow-mindedness of the Western media.

Before Decolonisation

Science tells us that the world is over two billion years old. Archaeologists tell us that Africa is the “cradle of civilization”, and gave us proofs via artefacts and other sources. Yet, the first contact between Africans and Europeans is less than 600 years old; the first contact was in 1441 when the Portuguese arrived at Benin in modern-day Nigeria.

At first, relations were good, and according to Toyin Falola, a notable Nigerian Historian, the Portuguese even took about a dozen Africans to Europe, and converted them to Christianity, before sending them back as missionaries (Other accounts say they were kidnapped and taken as slaves). During this early period, stereotypes and racist beliefs were nearly absent. Africa was considered as goods trading partner.

Africa’s image began to look negative following the emergence of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade in the 16th century. Slaves were seen as cheap labour to work on the plantations in the Americas. Meanwhile, the Pope’s ban on the use of baptised Christians as forced slaves meant that Africans would be used instead.  It should be noted that a huge number of black people on the American continent through the slave trade.

But as the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade began to end in Europe and America, religion (as seen above) and racism had to be used to rationalise the use of slaves, and Africans in particular. This seriously affected Africa’s image negatively.

The Europeans and the Americans got a huge boost through Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. This gave them a scientific basis to agitate for the exploitation of Africa and Africans. “Survival of the fittest” became the mantra with which Africa was stigmatized as an uneventful continent, backward and ready to be “civilised”. The Europeans saw themselves as superior, while other races were inferior, period.

By 1900, the stereotype of Africa as a dark and uncivilised continent was already firm, and it was being solidified by academics. In the early 1800s, the German philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel said that Africa was no historical part of the world. He said it showed no progress or movement. And that the only thing one could find in Africa were the gyrations of barbarous tribes. Such harsh rebuke of the continent helped to further stigmatize the continent as negative.

Another historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, said that nothing exists in Africa. And that the only history of Africa to write about was that of Europeans in Africa, every other thing was darkness.

These beliefs were pouring out from many academics and were used to support colonialism as a civilising mission. These led to a greater spread of stereotypes about Africa and Africans.

Since Colonial Period

However, since colonialism became discredited, Africa hasn’t done too well to improve its image though, and this has been the main tool used by the Western media to promote Africa’s negative image presently.

With high poverty rates, wars, despotic rulers, social and economic under-development, corruption and insecurity, Africa’s post-colonial situation is a pathetic one. Meanwhile countries like China, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, who share similar colonial histories with African countries, have greatly improved their lot.

The stagnation of Africa after colonialism, and the growth of other countries, was synthesized by the Western media to produce a new media stereotype for Africa.

Although in the 21st century African countries have been improving, the Western media have instead favoured a single, stale and uninteresting tale about Africa: a continent that is still in crisis.

Every imagery about the continent on the Western media either promotes Africa to “see nature raw” (i.e uninvolving cultures), or captures a crisis the continent is facing. Rarely do reports spring forth, that tell Africa’s development as a normal event. Instead, any growth is captured as one that requires special attention, because it is seen as rare.

Thus the negative image being promoted about Africa right now is a continent riddled with crisis, conflicts, poverty, outdated cultures that inhibit progress or development, and a location good enough to dump surplus goods in. Yet this image is a hypocritical one, for a few reasons.

First, the underdevelopment of Africa has a lot of foreign influence to it. Colonialism on the one hand, on the other is the roles played by Cold War diplomacy and France’s interest to keep control over its former colonies. The US support for dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko and others during the Cold War did damage to the growth of those countries, yet that story doesn’t come up on the mainstream media. And France’s control of Francophone nations till date ensures that their independence is a farce, as it controls their treasuries even down to how contracts are awarded.

Second, crises in Africa have been grossly exaggerated and generalised. One common, ignorant view a lot of foreigners have about Africa is that they believe crisis are the same everywhere. This view is no doubt aided by the fact that their media promote a single monotonous view about Africa.

Third, although the continent has indeed witnessed a lot of conflicts and political instability, it has not been uncommon for such to happen in Europe or elsewhere. Countries like Spain, France and Italy have recent histories of political instability similar to that of African countries. For instance, Italy has continued to look frail and vulnerable since World War Two, and has even seen its rulers misuse power greatly. Silvio Berlusconi is a case in point. Meanwhile Spain endured under the dictatorship Francisco Franco between the 1930s and 1975. Such crises are thus not peculiar to Africa.

All these are known facts, yet the negative image of Africa persists unabated. In 2014, an NGO tried to dispel some of such stereotypes by challenging people to see Africa not as a country, but as a continent, which has more people than NAFTA countries put together; and with more cultural diversity than the Baltic region.

Summarily, this article discussed Africa’s negative image. It shed light on the origin of these negative images, and gave a holistic view about how colonialism and the Western media have fanned such views. It progressed to discuss that the negative image of Africa is no more than the hypocrisy of the Western media, and gave points to justify this assertion.

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