In my last paper I spoke of the collective I-function, and how culture is one of the most enduring examples of the collective I-function. This paper is also about the collective I-function, and how it can go horribly wrong. My thoughts are inspired by the discussions we had in class about color, colorblindness, wavelength and perception, and also by a very recent BBC documentary called Welcome to Lagos.
Africans, including myself complain bitterly about the way Africa is portrayed in Western Media. Usually, only stories of poverty war and disease are shown. It is so bad that when I am walking on the streets of America and I tell someone I’m African, they are shocked that I “can speak English so well.” It’s ridiculous for two main reasons.
When Western media portrays Africa as a war-torn place,that is simply untrue. Congo, Sudan, Somalia, and CAR, where most of these wars are concentrated, but 4 out of 53 countries, and together represent less than 5% the population of the continent as a whole. So why is it that these are the only countries that get displayed in Western media when Africa is mentioned? I submit that it is because of force of habit. For as long as the West has encountered Africa, the West has used derogatory terms, and showcased African as a “dark continent”, a place grounded in past history, backward, and Africans as mindless, stupid people, with no agency, content to wallow in disease and backward practices. The classic examples of this are Lord Lugard’s description of Africans, and the book Heart of Darkness….It’s happened for centuries, so now in a sense, the central pattern generators are set: Africa= poverty, death and destruction. REFUSE to see anything else, REFUSE to portray anything else.
So when we (Africans) complain, we are right. Western media portrayal of Africa is ludicrous and shameful, and also quite racist, containing vestiges of racist colonial and pre-colonial preconceptions of Africa. But that is only side of the problem. After I saw Welcome to Lagos, I realized that we Africans are part of the problem too. We have been so caught up in trying to prove that we are just as ‘human’ and advanced as Europeans and Americans, that we are not just poor men and women, but are also doctors, lawyers, engineers, activists, and technicians, that we have lost track of what’s important. We also can’t see the forest for the trees.
The documentary chronicled the lives of three people who lived in extreme (poverty) situations in Lagos. Part one showed the lives of the people who live and work on the Olasosun rubbish dump in Lagos, among other things; Part 2 showed the life of Chubbey, a man who lived in a slum on stilts (the slum is in the water); and Part 3 detailed the life of Esther, a young woman who lives in a slum on a beach in Lagos. The documentary was not all about the usual Western jargon: “oh look at these poor people, who have nothing, who can do nothing, who are waiting for us to come and rescue them.” Instead the documentary showed people who are proud of themselves, who are hardworking and diligent, who are focused, who are unified, who are organized, who are proud of their hard work and their achievements.
But no. Several Africans didn’t get it. Majority of the comments on the BBC site http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2010/04/welcome-to-lagos-itll-defy-you.shtml were written by Africans berating the BBC for not portraying “the nicer parts of Lagos” and for “not representing Lagos properly.” What these Africans miss is the statistics and the stark reality of it all. According to the documentary, Lagos is 75% slums. According to UN statistics, about 70% of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, and the vast majority of the remaining 30% are working poor. So perhaps (this is my estimate) only 8% of Nigerians are middle class (white-collar jobs, own houses and cars) and only 2% are actually part of the wealthy class.
However, none of the ‘upper’ classes really mix with the desititute 70%. The working poor, through striving hard, sometimes can send their children to the same schools as the middle class, and some middle class parents, through striving, can also send their children to the same schools as the wealthy elites. So we mix and mingle with each other. If the top 10% only mix with each other, that’s still about 15 million people (more than the population of some countries) because Nigeria consists of 150 million people. So we have dulled our minds into thinking, Nigeria is ‘not that poor’, that ‘there are more ‘nice’ places in Lagos, than ‘horrible’ places, that there are more doctors and professionals and blue-collar workers and working poor than there are destitute people. It’s easy to convince ourselves, after all, 15 million people is a lot. The only problem is that we don’t see the other 135 million people. It’s akin to being colorblind. Because a colorblind person can’t see past a certain wavelength, all colors above that wavelength do not appear to him/her correctly. Sure they do see something, but it is not the same thing everyone else sees; what they see is not the ‘correct’ color, because they don’t have the ‘correct’ mix.
That’s what we have become today: colorblind. We see a picture of Nigeria, of Ghana, of Africa, that is accurate in some respects. Unlike the western world, we can see that Africa is not all death and destruction and poverty. But just as the western world chooses to ignore the successes of Africa, we, the ‘educated, middle class, wealthy, or working poor’ Africans have chosen to ignore the destitute in our countries. They are invisible to us. We spend so much time among ourselves and ourselves alone that we can’t see what lies in front of us – that the vast majority of us are horribly poor – the extreme poverty rate is at least 70% for both Ghana and Nigeria (United States).
And because we are so used to defending our continent against the injustice of improper representation done us by the West, again, we can’t look past that wavelength. Most of us couldn’t look past to see that, yes, the narrator could at times be condescending, that yes, this is another one of those poverty stories, BUT! We couldn’t look past to see the huge ‘BUT’. Yes, the documentary was all of these, BUT this time, it wasn’t doom and gloom. It was about hardworking men and women who were making their way honestly, and with their heads held up high. It was about men and women who maintained their dignity, their humanity. It was about men and women who weren’t waiting for the government or ‘white people’ to come and save them and make their lives better. It was about men and women who are overlooked everyday by their societies, but who have just as much humanity and dignity as everyone else. It was about men and women who are just as hardworking and resourceful as the 30% of respectable Nigerians. We could not see that, because we were blinded by the vistas of poverty on the screen; we were blinded with indignation over how Lagos was portrayed, never stopping to think that for a great deal of people, this is the Lagos they know, not the respectable Lagos we know. Just like the western media we complain so much about, we also have a central pattern generator that REFUSES to let go of old stereotypes; we are colorblind, we can’t process information that doesn’t have the wavelength of respectability. So much for complaining about western misconceptions about Africa. Pot, meet kettle.
Susan. Weblog post. Welcome to Lagos: it will defy your expectations. BBC, 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 11 May 2010. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2010/04/welcome-to-lagos-itll-defy-you.shtml>.
United States. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook: Nigeria. CIA.gov. USA, 2010. Web. 5 May 2010. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ni.html>.