Africa: Its distorted image in the West

Lissalina Marwig

African children, ludi via Wikimedia commons

African children, ludi via Wikimedia commons

Many people tend to associate Africa either with images of war, conflict and poverty or with a beautiful landscape and an exotic wildlife. The part that lies between these two angles seems mainly to be forgotten: namely the ordinary life. As a result, it gives rise to the impression that conflict and poverty is present in almost every part of Africa. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it also does not seem to weaken. In particular, it creates a problematic situation for the people living inside and outside of Africa and for the development of Africa itself. The Western media is showing very often pictures of underdeveloped and poor African parts, which reflect poverty and danger, and as a consequence, a lot of people are biased towards Africa and have misguided perceptions, which do not mirror the reality. Indeed, poverty, conflict, corruption and criminality exist but not everywhere.

For example, my friend who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) explained to me that she never saw a mud hut in her whole life in Africa. In her point of view the problem is that Western media does not specify and explains clearly and well enough images of Africa. The pictures that are often shown towards the public were taken in rural and remote areas, but they are all labelled with the stamp “Africa”. Another factor is that the media coverage concentrates on negative sides of Africa and leaves out positive stories or simply the normal life. In general, news tends to be negative and people rather keep negative stories in their minds than positive ones. Though one can find now more headlines such as “Rise of Africa”, it does not eliminate the negative perceptions of Africa.

However, not only Western media but also other stakeholders are supporting the picture of a poor and dangerous Africa. For instance, NGOs are triggering this image  often by their exaggerated communication strategies, which are used for fundraising campaigns. Additionally, African NGO’s and African governments are using images that portray a poor and underdeveloped Africa as well for fundraising campaigns or any other support they need. Thus, not only Western media and stakeholders but also African actors are involved in painting this distorted picture of the African continent. But what can be done in order to change it? One solution is to mobilize civil society in Africa, that can play an essential part in changing the face of Africa and there are positive developments that support this change. For example, Congolese migrants mobilized among others in England, Belgium, USA and Germany during the elections in DRC in 2011. These movements were opposed to the re-election of president Joseph Kabila. Such groups were by far not homogenous, however, it indicated that Congolese itself began to engage and to raise awareness of the situation in the DRC. Though there were different approaches and groups, they started to give Africa a voice from within the West. My friend from the DRC explained that Congolese migrants realized that they need to do something as well and that they do not want to leave it to the Western media.

Another concrete example is the short documentary “An Africans message for America”. An activist from Kenya, Boniface Mwangi, tried to get to the core of why people want to do voluntary work in Africa during a stay in the United States. A journalist documented his project. Mwangi confronted young people with their motivations to come to Africa and asked them why they do not start and help their local community instead. Moreover, Mwangi explains the reasons for his travel to the United States with following explanation: “So there is this idea that you need to be helped, I don’t think you need to be helped but I know as human beings our challenges are connected. So I came here to share with them what we do and what we can learn from them.”

The main message is that Africa does not need a saviour and if volunteers come to Africa they should question their motivation and for whom they are doing it. Too often volunteers receive the main benefits from volunteering and do more harm than good. Mwangi starts to paint a new picture of Africa and raises awareness in the West. These engagements from people from Africa highlight their strength and that there is no need to empower them because they are. However, the exchange of information and skills is highly desirable because Africa and the West can learn from each other. Consequently, in order to improve the image of Africa depends on a better Western media coverage and as well on the civil participation of Africans.

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