For many people in the Western world, the mention of the word Africa conjures up images of starvation, poverty, corruption and environmental degradation – images popularised by today’s media. This is illustrated by the above quotation, depicting a continent peopled by the sick and famished, living in technologically-backward conditions and still at the mercy of their environment, in a form of stone-age environmental determinism. So how has this image managed to become so firmly established in people’s minds? Is it because it represents the real conditions of modern Africa or, as this question suggests, is it a throwback to the imagery of Africa’s colonial past?
In this essay, I would like to propose that neither of these hypotheses provide a full solution to this question (although many common features can be found between contemporary African imagery and that of its colonial past), but instead a number of other issues must also be raised. I will put forward this argument by firstly, outlining some of the historical perceptions of Africa and then comparing these with present day imagery. (When considering African communities I have confined myself to black communities, as the white communities of northern Africa rarely form part of most Westerners’ perceptions of “Africa”.)
Some of the first imagery of Africa which has been found dates back to 2500 BC and represents images of Blacks in Ancient Egypt. At this time, it seems that black was seen as a colour of beauty (possibly because of connections with the fertility of black Nile silt) and so black Africans were well-integrated into Egyptian society. By 2200 BC however, Blacks were being depicted largely as warriors; then after the defeat of the Nubians in the Eleventh Dynasty, the imagery changed profoundly as Blacks began to be depicted as servants and entertainers. Between 800 BC and 300 AD, the images changed again as Blacks were once again seen as powerful (even as Pharaohs), as a result of the Kush conquering of Egypt.
The emergence of the Christian Church with its associations between black and evil, again ostracized Blacks however. The fortunes of Blacks continued to change however, with the politics of Europe and North Africa. At one stage, for instance, Blacks were again viewed favourably in Northern Europe, as Ethiopian Christians became allies against the spread of Islam. By the Fifteenth Century however, the fortunes of Blacks had again reversed, as the concept of slavery began to gain ground.
Ever since Ancient Egyptian times therefore, the imagery of black Africans has been constantly changing. The images created have however almost always created by communities outside Africa – usually the most powerful one of the period. The changing image of Africa therefore reflects changes in the thinking of this other society. This is still apparent today, although most contemporary imagery is created in Europe or North America – the regions of power which control much of today’s global thinking.
The images of colonial Africa are still well-known, as most Westerners alive today, lived through part of Africa’s colonial period (some African states only gained independence very recently Zimbabwe in 1981, for instance). Furthermore, numerous texts are available detailing colonial views of Africa. These views were propagated by a very limited number of people however, since until recently the inability of most people to undertake long-distance travel, meant that few had first-hand knowledge of Africa; while the restricted methods for the dissemination of information, meant that even those with the most limited experience of Africa became instant experts. A large proportion of the information which found its way back to Europe was therefore biassed, or had been filtered so that it represented Africa in a way desirable to its source. In this way, the negative aspects of Africa were usually those receiving most attention, so that Europeans could find moral justification for administering areas of Africa and thereby “improving” conditions.
Several sources of information existed, each biassing the information it reported in a slightly different way. Most of the information reported to Europe had one thing in common however – the aim of justifying imperialism to Europeans, who provided the financial and moral support to continue the colonization of Africa. The first Europeans to reach Africa were explorers, who frequently described Africa as a continent fraught with danger, in order to increase their own personal esteem. Missionaries usually followed close behind, telling of “savages”, in great spiritual need; since their financial support, and indeed their own perceptions of their own spiritual worth, largely depended on the need to have tribes of immoral heathens to convert. Younghusband reported in 1896, for instance:
“Our superiority over them is not due to mere sharpness of intellect, but to the higher moral nature to which we have attained in the development of the human race.”
The research which was carried out in Africa at this time was also grossly-biassed, as its purpose was usually to facilitate the administration of the colonies or to encourage the extraction of resources. According to Mckay (1943):
“…geography was hand-maiden to those whose interests lay in intensifying the use of natural resources and in changing the nature and economies of already familiar territories.”
Most academic theories about Africa were not however based on any empirical evidence from out in the field. Instead, European scientists used a random assortment of data from skull measurements to travel writings, to come to “scientific” conclusions about racial differences. At one stage, for instance, a theory of polygeny was popular. This stated that human races were actually different species. Another popular theory was of human evolution, which saw society moving from primitivism to savagery, then barbarism, and finally civilization. Since these theories were developed by Whites, Whites were automatically put at the top of the social scale. Darker races were therefore seen as inferior and, inevitably therefore, Africans were placed at the bottom of the scale. In this way, Africa was seen as remaining at the stage of savagery or barbarianism. It was claimed that it was Europe’s duty to attempt to civilize the savage world. This pseudo-scientific approach provided colonists with further justifications for their paternalistic activities.
Religious arguments were also used against Blacks. Many Whites claimed that God had made white man in His own image. Blacks were therefore seen as having degenerated from this ideal and so missionaries were sent to try to “save their souls”. In the words of the famous Scottish missionary, David Livingstone (1867):
“We come among them as members of a superior race and servants of a Government that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family.”
The imagery associated with Africa, as distinct from Africans, was far more appealing however. Most of the literature written on the African environment at the time presented largely romanticized illusions, as the source of these writings were mainly travel journals or anthropological texts. The only illustrations available were from explorers’ booty or staged photographs, again biassing people’s impressions of the continent. Furthermore, since most Europeans would never see Africa, the temptation for those returning from Africa to embellish their stories, or at least leave the public to believe in images that appealed to them, must have been great.
“The image of Africa, in short, was largely created in Europe, to suit European needs – sometimes material needs, more often intellectual needs.”
Present-Day Images and Future Research
Since Independence, there has been a common perception that Africa has been going downhill. The colonial emphasis on the negative aspects of Africa continues. Post-colonial states are frequently portrayed as violent, poverty-stricken, mismanaged and corrupt. However, many of the problems of the post-colonial state, have their roots in imperialism. For instance, Crowder (1987) argues that the uprisings of African states can be seen as a response to the violence used to conceive and maintain colonial states; while the frequently-quoted theme of imposed and unsuitable colonial boundaries, can also be used in defence of political upheavals. The fact that the reality of Africa may have been influenced by colonialism does not however mean that perceptions of Africa also have colonial roots.
Even if only subconsciously, many of the old images of Africa and Africans have proved very hard to change however. It has been claimed that many of the old, colonial perceptions of Africa still pervade Western society, even amongst those studying Africa. Indeed, many African authors have suggested that Western researchers are frequently most guilty of perpetuating many of the existing myths in a form of intellectual neo-colonialism (Amadiume, 1987).
As in the colonial period, most of the images which the Western world receives of Africa and Africans, have been collected with a distinct purpose. The most common propaganda to emerge from Africa is probably that designed to encourage people to continue to fund aid projects. In order for charities to continue “development work” (in itself a term with considerable imperialist overtones), they all require voluntary funding which is most easily achieved by appealing to the public’s sense of guilt or pity. In this way, many of the images projected today continue to emphasise the negative aspects of Africa – starving children, land degradation or disease, in just the same way as colonial images did, albeit for a slightly different purpose Bell (1994) has suggested that these images are used by aid donors to justify externally-controlled development, and perpetuate the colonial concept of moral superiority. While I would not wish to malign the well-intentioned work of development agencies quite so forcefully, I think it is all too easy to attempt to introduce misguided projects.
In this way, the trend to present negative images of Africa, for the purpose of propaganda, does indeed seem to have continued from the colonial era. The purpose of these images has changed however, but an aura of well-intentioned paternalism still surrounds these issues and, it can be claimed that colonialism has been exchanged for more palatable forms of domination (the concept of neo-colonialism_).
Another point which has changed little is that Europe is still taken to be the role-model, to which Africa is supposed to aspire. The issue of technology provides one example. As Curtin (1964) pointed out, there remains an idea that European (and American and Asian civilizations) have advanced, whereas African civilizations have stagnated. This draws from the European tendency to emphasise technology as the principal means of advancement of society. If a less eurocentric viewpoint is taken and, for instance, social relations are taken to be the crux of society, then many African peoples could claim to be far more advanced than their Western counterparts, because of closer, better-integrated communities.
Urban studies provide another good example of eurocentrism. Colonial thinking viewed Africa as being largely rural and therefore lacking recognizable patterns of urbanization (Sjoberg, 1965). For the colonists, this was equivalent to saying that Africa was also less civilized as, in Europe, urbanization had accompanied many social advances. This concept continues today. The “normal” rank-size distribution of Western cities, for instance, was seen as the ultimate aim of African urbanization. Many attempts have therefore been made to break down the primate structure of cities in African states, to try to encourage this Western regime. This thinking dominated development programmes from the United States of America in the 1980s, via USAID’s Urban Functions in Rural Development Programme (UFRD). The UFRD programme has now been dismantled owing to its lack of success (Sanders, 1992). It is still a very new and controversial concept that the “normal” rank-size model may be a special case created by free-market capitalism and Western economic planning.
Attempts to impose Western models of economic growth have also occurred, but have experienced similarly low levels of success (Sanders, 1992). Some authors are finally beginning to point out the possibility of other development schemes (eg Bell (1992), Amadiume (1987), Sanders (1992)) but even today, Western models are still widely, and often unquestioningly, accepted.
Another tendency which has been apparent since long before the colonial era, is that of treating Africa as a homogeneous entity. Despite the huge landmass, and numerous states, not to mention tribal groups, there is still a strong tendency to refer simply to “Africa”, without considering the possibility of linguistic, cultural, or even environmental differences. This is, I believe, a reflection of the offhand regard with which many Europeans view African states, not even aware of the diversity of the continent.
The fact that many of the data on Africa have been collected by non-Africans, is perhaps one reason why this eurocentrism continues today. In many cases, this research merely supports old eurocentric paradigms. As Hanlon (1991) states, on discussing Mozambican aid projects:
“It is interesting that when donors actually want answers, for example to help in project design, they tend to hire Mozambican consultants who know the background and language. But when they want reinforcement they hire consultants from their own country.”
Although the contemporary image of Africa shares many characteristics of the colonial imagery however, these concepts have often come about for slightly different reasons. For example, both contemporary and colonial Western communities tend to emphasise the negative aspects of Africa, but in colonial times this was to justify colonization, while today it is largely to justify aid programmes.
Four major trends can still be isolated however, which pervade both colonial and contemporary images of Africa. These trends do seem to have colonial roots, even if their emphasis has changed slightly in the intervening years. The eurocentric bias, particularly of present-day research has been an important issue, since the birth of the colonies. Furthermore, since most images are created by non-Africans, they have an inherent bias and tend to reflect changes in the researchers society, rather than that of the African society. The use of images for propaganda has also biassed western perceptions of Africa for many years, although the purpose of the propaganda has changed.
Finally, the concept of Africa being a homogeneous entity remains, despite the fact that many Westerners have now travelled widely and should have a broader outlook. It seems therefore that these images are so ingrained in people’s minds that, even with the ability to experience Africa firsthand, they are going to be very difficult to change. The this fact that issue is finally being raised however, and that discussion on the topic has begun, is perhaps the first step towards re-education.