Songs of ignorance

Public discourse surrounding the Ebola outbreak is infected by older narratives that seek to stereotype Africa and Africans. The Band Aid initiatives are typical of this: Africa as a country, a place where there is no space for Christmas joy, and a place that needs the west.

Robert J. Pijpers
24 November 2014
Bob Geldof. Demotix/David Ferenczy. All rights reserved.

Bob Geldof. Demotix/David Ferenczy. All rights reserved.The recent Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has spurred a range of responses from all over the world. Some of these responses exemplify the ongoing stereotyping of Africa and Africans. Public discourse, unfortunately, still has the tendency of addressing Africa as a country, a war-ridden space full of sadness and its inhabitants as savage and helpless. But stereotypes are not limited to these images of misery.

Other stereotypes romanticize Africa and Africans, they convey an image of the exotic and unspoiled continent. Moreover, various perspectives convey an image of poor people as a noble poor. These images may be highlighted in the context of Ebola, but they are always present. They are part of many people’s understanding of Africa, part of ignorant perspectives on the continent and the people.  

Africa is a country

Of course we all know that Africa is not a country, yet the idea of Africa as a country is continuously reinforced in a variety of public platforms. For example, as a response to the Ebola crisis, a variety of countries implemented strict visa regulations for people coming from all over Africa. Whereas I understand that health controls are intensified when it concerns people (black and white) coming from the three Ebola-hit countries, it is shameful that travelling becomes harder and harder even for people coming from other African countries.

In Norway, people in a plane with a Kenyan with fever on board were not allowed to disembark due to fear of Ebola. Yet, Kenya is quite far from the three Ebola hit countries. The HvA, a tertiary educational institute in Amsterdam, has even prohibited its students from travelling to the continent for internships or study. In so many cases, references to Africa are frequently inappropriate.

Due to the Ebola outbreak, there is currently increased attention to the continent: attention that is highly needed, but that also exemplifies an omnipresent stereotyping. The various Band Aid initiatives are the best examples of this. The songs convey images that might prove useful to the cause of raising money, but also maintain stereotypical views on the continent. The Dutch Band Aid’s Ebola song, for example, tell us that “It’s not a white Christmas that Africa is missing this year, their gift is who survives”, whereas Bob Geldof's Band Aid laments: “No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa. The only hope they'll have is being alive”. As many critics have argued, these texts exemplify an ignorance of Africa and reinforce a white saviour narrative. Meanwhile, local initiatives are ignored.

Moreover, although Ebola clearly intensifies these narratives, they are always present: Africa as a country, a place of poverty and sadness, a place where there is no space for happiness and thus no Christmas joy, and a place that needs the west.

A noble poor?

Life entails more than sadness, even in the poorest African countries. Africa is not simply an arena of sadness, war, hunger, corrupt governments and development organizations. Yet, stereotyping does not only occur in the domain of misery. Some stereotypes apply a good dose of romanticism, a discourse that situates Africans as a ‘noble poor’.

The noble poor can be seen as a discourse that often portrays poor people as victims of uncontrollable, regularly external, forces that hinder their development. Of course this is part of the story: many people in the world fight for survival on a daily basis and are victims of powerful systems of inequality. Yet, it is problematic to overemphasize this part of the story and romanticize poor people and their struggle, thereby ignoring internal issues that might be counterproductive in their daily struggle and that might even reinforce the unjust system.

Such romantic views are found in expressions that celebrate poor people’s strong will to use the few possibilities they have, despite the unfair obstacles they face. It celebrates people as survivors who are, despite their poverty, living a life close to nature, without the burdens of modernity.  The noble poor might be poor, but are morally superior.

Often, these ideas are associated with different forms of community romanticism: the idea that life in small communities is peaceful, where people solve internal issues quickly, where the little they have is shared among the many that need. Commonly, these views celebrate the ‘local’ and are geared towards conserving it, while addressing development challenges. An example is the focus on African people as natural (small-scale) farmers often based on figures regarding the percentage of people that are engaged in farming or an idea of farming as a traditional lifestyle. However, just because people are engaged in farming does not mean that they like to farm: in many cases, people have always been farming because there is simply no alternative.

Other examples celebrate local knowledge as superior to external knowledge. Of course, local knowledge is highly important, yet societies continuously change and always find their worldviews and knowledge challenged by a world outside the local community. This is a very normal process. Moreover, during the Ebola outbreak, for example, it was obvious that certain types of knowledge and practices, such as funeral rituals, were not suitable to combat the outbreak. A conversation emerged from this that has proven to be constructive.

Unsatisfactory ends

Despite a series of outcries, ranging from the celebrated essay by Binyavanga Wainaina, "How to write about Africa", to the website www.africasacountry.com, popular discourse on Africa finds itself on two unsatisfactory ends. One is a view depicting Africa as a place inhabited by helpless people that long for salvation; the other one a view that romanticizes communities and people and establishes an idea of a noble poor. The ongoing confirmation of a paternal and ignorant perspective, be it the helpless savage or the noble poor, will not lead to satisfactory contributions of any kind in the long run.

Ebola reveals that we still have not moved away from stereotypes. It is time to put into practice the knowledge that Africa is a continent consisting of distinct countries. All of these are inhabited by normal people: people that can be honest and deceptive, knowledgeable and ignorant. The continent’s specific problems need to be addressed in a respectful, realistic way that does not draw upon simple stereotypes, but seeks to eliminate ignorant views on Africa.

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