Jeffrey Gettleman and Western Media’s Narrow View of Africa

Many foreign writers on Africa are guilty of two extremes – condescension and too much praise, with the former being more dominant.

It is easy to see why it is so much simpler to be disdainful. Arrogance does not require mental application. In fact, it shows a certain degree of laziness. All one has to do is follow a narrative that has been fashioned from the time of Africa’s contact with Europe to the present.

The middle ground – presenting Africa as it really is – is less attractive because it is more difficult. It requires patient study, clear analysis, objectivity and better understanding – all of which writers impatient to make headlines in major newspapers and on to quick fame sadly lack.

And so it was that Jeffrey Gettleman published an article in the New York Times purporting to be an authoritative understanding of President Paul Kagame and Rwanda. Gettleman is, of course, no stranger to Rwanda. He has published many articles on the country – many of them so clearly inaccurate and biased that it is difficult to understand how his editors could pass them for publication. But wait. The narrative, of course!

In the strange world of Gettleman and the other occasional visitors, the number of his articles qualifies him to be an expert on Rwanda and East Africa. However, this has not made him more familiar with Rwanda or made it easy for him to accept what he sees as the reality. The reason is simple – it contradicts the laid down narrative.

In his recent article, he acknowledges the progress that Rwanda has made, but is quick to find an explanation for this “rare” occurrence – naturally outside Rwandans’ own efforts.

For instance, Gettleman admires (grudgingly) the cleanliness of Kigali and the absence of plastic bags from the streets. He is quick to notice the absence of beggars and street children and other homeless people. But for him the reasons for this are not because Rwandans value tidiness and have social programmes for the most vulnerable members of society. He sees the heavy hand of government behind this. It has banned plastic bags, dictated that streets must be cleaned and carted off the homeless to a rehabilitation centre (which he doubts).

Gettleman is surprised by how secure Kigali is; he can walk at any time of the night without fear of being mugged. However, he does not see security as something Rwandans desire and deserve, but as an imposition by an authoritarian state.

Ordinarily Gettleman would find little fault with President Kagame’s leadership, which he credits with Rwanda’s progress in the short period following the genocide against the Tutsi. It seems it is too painful for him to accept this fact that goes against the predetermined narrative. It must therefore be tempered with a description of President Kagame as the typical African leader – intolerant, brutal, and oppressive and so on.

The problem is not that Gettleman and other so-called experts do not know what is right or that they are agonising to be fair and give credit where it is due and apportion blame where it is deserved. The issue is that what they see – that an African country and its people and leaders can make progress, however modest – does not fit the chosen narrative of Africans as inherently inept, corrupt and murderous, incapable of determining what is good for them.

To be fair to Gettleman, he did not start this narrative. It is part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

It can be traced back to the earliest European adventurers (sometimes called explorers) who traversed Africa on behalf of various interests. In addition to staking out territory for their masters, they doubled as amateur anthropologists, historians and geographers. From these part time pursuits they passed down prejudices and inaccuracies that have become permanent points of reference, even by Africans.

Adventurers were followed by missionaries.  These stayed longer in one place and some were schooled in anthropology and ethnography and made some systematic observation of the societies among whom they worked. The problem was that they observed Africans through western intellectual lenses and used their own social organisation as a standard. Quite often, their conclusions were wrong and went to reinforce an already formed view of Africans.

They, too, passed down bigotry dressed as scholarship.

And in spite of preaching brotherly equality (they were not yet gender sensitive) the missionaries were also racist. The words of the celebrated medical missionary and philanthropist, Dr Albert Schweitzer, aptly summarise this attitude. He is reported to have remarked, “It is true the African is my brother. But it is also true that I am his elder brother”.

The chosen narrative about Africa was then taken up through literature. Writers like Sir Rider Haggard popularised the notion of the noble savage through his novels set in Africa.

In Mr Johnson, the Irish writer, Joyce Cary, presented the African as little more than a boy, incapable of understanding complex issues, but full of admiration for everything European. Luckily, something good came out of Joyce Cary’s racism. Chinua Achebe (RIP) wrote Things Fall Apart partly in response to the misrepresentation of Africans in Mr Johnson.

Frustrated colonials like Karen Blixen in Kenya carried on the tradition in Out of Africa.

Today, the same narrative has been picked up by new agents.

First, there is the media (Gettleman and co.) whose general characterisation of Africans differs little from that of Rider Haggard or Joyce Cary.

Then there are the NGOs and various international agencies, which, in a bid to justify their chosen role as saviours and benefactors, seek to portray those they want to save as a people with a predilection to violence and self-destruction.

All these are fed by anecdotes of diplomats gained from chance conversations at the numerous diplomatic cocktail parties.

Even with the best of intentions, foreign writers will not be able to present to their audiences the real story of Africa, the struggles of its people and the motives of its leaders until they free themselves from the narrative imposed on them.

They must get rid of the blinkers.

Joseph Rwagatare can be reached at: This originally appeared at The New Times. It was republished with permission. 

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