Ask an African

And now for one last Year-in-Review Current Events Quiz: what headline from Africa dominated your news consumption in 2007?

We’ll cross off December’s changing of the guard at the top of the African National Congress in South Africa – Jacob Zuma, a hero of the people whose theme song is “Bring Me My Machine Gun”, unseated longtime incumbent Thabo Mbeki, as the country experienced a series of labor strikes over stagnant wages — and the ongoing corruption charges the new leader is facing; stuff that happens after Thanksgiving never does well in year-end polls.

Another story that broke in December cast what had been seen as a success story in a different, turbulent light. Kenya had made a generally smooth transition from rule by unquestioned leader Jomo Kenyatta after independence, then Daniel arap Moi for 24 years until 2002, to rule by democracy. All indications pointed to a victory by the opposition party in last month’s national elections. But as results trickled in with a surprising showing by the incumbent party, people took to the streets. When government election officials declared the incumbents the winner, anger boiled over. More than 400 have been killed in the wake of the bitterly disputed vote count, which many believe to have been rigged in favor of the ruling party.

But let’s go back in time a few more months. Did you hear about the United Nations report, released in September, which found that of the eight Millennium Development Goals for sub-Saharan Africa (concerning universal education, gender equality, environmental sustainability, health care, eradicating extreme poverty, and development), none are currently on track to be met by the 2015 target? The report found that while the African nations themselves are making progress, they cannot reach the targets if the rest of the developing world doesn’t step up with more substantial assistance.

Maybe you heard about Africa as a source for oil. Tiny islands like São Tomé and Principe find themselves sitting on potentially lucrative oil reserves. China and India are looking to get more oil from Africa. Ongoing instability in the Middle East has oil-consuming nations across the world pondering the same option. They’re well aware of that in Nigeria, the leading oil producer on the continent, which probably helps to explain why various bands of thugs have been waging new rounds of mayhem in the nation’s oil fields.

The Horn of Africa was an especially troublesome hotspot in 2007. Somalia was a battleground all year long, with troops from neighboring Ethiopia helping the government defeat an Islamic insurgency. The fighting has killed more than 6,000 and displaced more than 700,000, according to a Somalia human rights agency. It’s also caused a little nervousness on the global anti-terror front, where some fear that Al-Qaeda could get involved in the conflict, recruit operatives for other operations, and/or establish a safe haven, if it hasn’t done any of that already. (And it’s not as if all is peaceful in Ethiopia, where rebels have been fighting the government for more than a decade, and the government has beaten and arrested thousands of opposition supporters.)

Thus, the American urgency towards establishing a bulked-up base for African military operations. The Defense Department created Africom, a unified military command structure, from three previous regional commands; it’s to be headed, conveniently enough, by an African-American general. Its stated aim is to support African forces in their own military operations, and support peacekeeping and aid operations. But the African nations themselves are so leery about what this might mean for their own security and autonomy that no one’s welcoming the expanded American military presence with open arms.

Oh yeah – AIDS is still devastating the continent, even countries that had made some headway in treatment and prevention.

So with all that going on, what African subjects generated the most chatter in American media?

Darfur, baby adoptions, and a certain girls’ boarding school in South Africa. Three stories with mass media celebrities at or near the center of the story line.

Of course, there’s no equating the ongoing atrocity in Darfur with Madonna or Angelina Jolie dropping in to claim a new member of the family. But close observers note that all the attention paid to Darfur has allowed an even bloodier civil war to proceed all but under the radar. Fighting in Congo, supposed to have been ended by a 2003 peace treaty, rages on and on in the eastern sector of the country between the government and the Tutsi minority. Four million people have been killed there in the last10 years, more than 20 times as many killings as in Darfur.

Yet, as reported by Paul Salopek in the Chicago Tribune, the media have followed the George Clooneys and Don Cheadles of the world to focus whatever sympathy, outrage and/or concern about African affairs they might muster on Darfur, to the virtual exclusion of Congo’s older, more complicated struggle. There’s worldwide consensus that what has happened in and to Darfur is genocide, and there’s a corporate-backed Save Darfur campaign. No megastar has rallied to Congo’s benefit.

And while no one with any sense would begrudge Oprah Winfrey for establishing her Leadership Academy for Girls with her own money, if that’s what she wanted to do with it, it is fair to ask why that seemed to be the only story about education in Africa covered by the American mass media all year. Between the star-studded ribbon cutting in January and the November abuse scandal, few other educational institutions on the planet got anywhere near as much media play. But is understanding of the continent well served when we know what thread-count sheets these girls sleep on, and almost nothing at all about the education of their less fortunate peers?

The celebritization of our knowledge of Africa reached a high (or low) point with the July issue of Vanity Fair, guest-edited by Bono. It was a collector’s bonanza, with 20 different covers – some of them featuring real Africans! – photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Note that the red background used for the cover shots subtly echoes the shade used on the following six pages of ads from the Gap touting its involvement in Product (Red), the multi-retailer branding project aiming to get consumers to support global good works by buying high-end stuff (as opposed to, say, writing a check directly to an organization or volunteering to help). There are major articles about some of the themes mentioned earlier, like China’s lust for African oil and a pilot’s-eye view of the war in Congo. And there’s a nice piece on a music festival in Mali headlined by Tinariwen, a band born of earlier political strife and now a contender for the Clash’s former “only-band-that-matters” title.

But for the most part the issue reeks of post-colonialism, of Africa being a place right-thinking Westerners need to feel compelled to save because, goshdarnit, it’s just not capable of saving itself. For all the earnest, long-form journalism generated from Bono’s a-list address book, there’s only one article written by an honest-to-God African, Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay on the generational changes in Kenya (unless you count the Archbishop Desmond Tutu / Brad Pitt dialogue). Sure, there’s a nice roundup on the current African literary who’s-who, and some nice photos of various African movers and shakers. But nothing in the 226 pages of content, fashion ads, and Princess Di book excerpts would dispel anyone who didn’t know better of the notion that Africa would be in deep, deep trouble without a dependence on the kindness of European and American strangers.

This is not to take Bono, Oprah, Clooney or any other celebrity to task for taking an interest in Africa. Their willingness to use their money and influence to direct a spotlight towards noble causes is several worlds removed from the other grand media-celebrity obsession of 2007, that of young singers and starlets behaving badly in public. The damnable situation is that unless news of historic proportions is breaking, most of us hear about the goings-on in an increasingly intriguing and critical part of the world only because a movie star gets involved there.

Even then, media curiosity doesn’t generally dig deeper than the star’s involvement. One could argue that, given the media’s fixation on celebrity and traditional disinclination towards covering international news from anywhere besides Europe or a war zone, any coverage at all is better than nothing. But what, exactly, has to happen for said coverage to reflect the views of Africans on the ground in Africa, who will be living with the realities there long after the media circus leaves town?

Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation (HarperCollins, 2005), a harrowing novel about an African child soldier, spelled it out quite clearly in a July 15th Washington Post op-ed, “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa”:

There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.

In fact, the news from Africa in 2007 was not nearly as dire as one might imagine. For starters, the economy is actually growing in many locations, and not just from oil revenue. In November, according to the Boston Globe, the World Bank reported an average 5.4 percent growth in gross domestic product across sub-Saharan African over the past 10 years, a higher rate than the USA posted.

Democracy is supplanting prior political regimes in several nations, the blowup in Kenya aside. In Liberia, a truth-and-reconciliation commission, following South Africa’s model, is gathering first-person accounts of the decade-plus of civil war, with canvassing the Liberian community in New York City a central part of its work (President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of those Vanity Fair movers and shakers, became Africa’s first female elected head of state in 2005).

Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, threw open the continent’s doors to the African Diaspora on this side of the water. His 27 September invitation in the Boston Globe to the American black middle class conjured memories of the parallels between the African independence movements and the American civil rights movement in the ‘60s, or of African-American involvement in the ‘80s anti-apartheid struggle. “…African-Americans can do more to deepen their personal and economic ties to Africa,” Wade proclaimed. “…Today African-Americans have unprecedented opportunities to buy African products and services, visit the national treasures, cities, beaches, and mountains of their lands of origin, cultivate foreign investment agencies, and tap Africa’s boundless potential to produce green energy and abundant food supplies.”

Wade’s not alone in his optimism, although he might be a little more gung-ho than others. A poll conducted in the spring by the New York Times and Pew Global Attitudes Project in 10 African nations found that while many daunting problems from clean water to clean government were part of their daily lives, more respondents than not said they were better off now than five years ago, and felt good about what they future might bring. No one in the poll shrugged off the litany of issues still plaguing their countries, but the overall tone was of cautious optimism, far from the woe-is-Africa storyline behind so much of the celebrity-driven charity and media attention.

Ousmane Sembène

And when it comes to those storylines, Africans themselves are more than up to the task of telling those stories. Actually, they’ve been telling their own stories for many years, to the admiration and respect of a worldwide audience. New York City’s Film Forum screened a series of major films by the dean of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène, who died at his Senegal home in the spring. Another elder statesman, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, 1958) was recognized with the Man Booker International Prize for his body of work, one of the literature’s most prestigious honors.

Today’s generation has taken up the baton from their elders to write new chapters on African life. Nigeria has become the third largest film industry in the world, and Kenya is trying to catch up despite battling poverty, governmental meddling and piracy. Young musicians from Somalia to South Africa are rapping over fusions of hip-hop beats and their native sounds and rhythms; no one will confuse their production values with, say, 50 Cent, but neither will anyone equate their tales of modern African life with American rap’s tales of drug dealing and bling chasing. On the gallery scene, Simon Njami’s “Africa Remix” exhibit of contemporary African artists finally set foot on the continent in June, taking Johannesburg by storm as it had Germany, England, France, Sweden and Japan.

And then there’s the improbable, feel-good world music story of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars. In 2002, filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White pursued a vision of doing a documentary about refugee musicians. They found a few in Guinea, at a camp hosting residents of Sierra Leone who had fled years of fighting in their homeland. They were musicians back home, and fell back on their musical chops to keep their spirits up, and bring some relief to the uncertainty of life in limbo.

The resulting 2005 documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars, was a hit on the film festival circuit and public television. It unobtrusively brings viewers into a world that, on the face of it, sounds dire and bleak. But the All-Stars’ buoyant optimism in the face of strife and uncertainty defies any impulse to pity them. Instead, we get to know them as individuals, with varying beliefs about faith and justice, and come to admire their triumphant spirit, especially when they finally return home once their country has been stabilized. And while the movie doesn’t delve too deeply into Sierra Leone politics or answer the most burning question – why exactly does this West African band’s music sound so much like Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” and other Jamaican reggae classics? – it’s a wonderful story of people coming together, surviving and overcoming through the power of music.

The DVD from Docurama (2007) adds the requisite extras, including an illuminating short doc. of the band’s first American tour. Clearly, these guys are pros, and were pros before they were refugees. They put on a great live show, complete with some raps from the young folks and high steppin’ guitar players; if you don’t know much about where they came from and what they came through, you’ll have a plenty good time. But their claim to fame, thanks to the movie, will always be the window they opened onto a situation most Westerners will never experience: how to survive a vicious civil war and resume their lives in a nation again at peace.

It’s true that, as remarkable a story as this is, we probably wouldn’t have known about it at all had not two filmmakers from the West found it, told it, and got it out to the rest of the world. But at no point in the movie is there any sense that Niles and White are riding in on a high horse to do the band a favor. We’re attracted to the story and the music on their own merits, without prodding from any brand-name celebrity (indeed, the band itself is the only brand on display). Contrast that with the heavy focus on the celebrity angle in much of what was presented about Africa in the mainstream press, or the Bono-Vanity Fair project.

Of course, people who prefer their news on Africa celebrity-free can find it online from various African news websites, international news bureaus, and those few major daily newspapers that still have a bureau on the ground (the lack of international reportage from most American broadcast news companies is hardly new, and not merely a function of post-Internet shakeouts in the industry). That’s where the stories that dig deeper can be found, that’s where you get the nuance and explanation that simply isn’t going to result from a celebrity photo-op. African progress, or at least the West’s understanding of how much progress Africa is actually making on its own (or not), would be much better served with more coverage like this, and a larger audience for it.

The challenge in 2008 will not be to get the celebrities to stop caring about Africa – to the extent their involvement can attract a few seconds of attention and maybe a donation or two, it can be a useful jumpstart for more substantial efforts. Rather, the challenge will be to get others to look beyond the flashing lights and press releases, to take at least a cursory peek at the real Africa, unadorned by media circuses, in all its ancient beauty and modern complications. And let’s start by remembering that while issues like education, health care and Western aid loom large in every corner, Africa is not a monolithic mass of dark-skinned people, but instead a continent of 53 independent nations, each with varying politics, economics, tribal hierarchies and otherwise unique circumstances. Even the music changes from country to country.

Africa will play an increasingly pivotal role in world affairs this year, and not just because a guy whose dad was Kenyan is running for President of the United States. It will continue to have high-profile turns on the world stage; we’re now two years and change away from the World Cup in South Africa, the first major global sporting event on the continent in the post-colonial era (and don’t think those striking workers there don’t know that). It isn’t just fodder for infomercials trading on unfathomable misery, and it isn’t just a litany of incompetent or indifferent government officials fleecing the local economy. There is all of that to be sure, but there are also examples to nations beginning to turn the corner from those days, of Western investments doing the intended good, and of individuals like the Refugee All-Stars, who manage to make more out of each day than people accustomed to images of Africa as a charity case could ever imagine.

The good will of Bono and his buddies aside, the only way to see or understand any of that is to get it from Africans themselves. When in doubt about Africa, don’t rely on what Oprah has to say – ask an actual African.

Refugee All Stars