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  • on 09.11.2012
  • at 07:55 PM
  • by admin

How to write about children in Africa 0

In early October this year, PBS released the documentary ‘Half the Sky’, based on the book by frequent AIAC target and New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn (a former Times journalist) focusing on the lot of girls and women in the Global South. As part of Kristof’s mission to replace their oppression by opportunity, he visits a number of sites.

The action usually revolves around Kristof accompanied by a famous American actress. The first stop had to be in Africa, of course. Kristof visits Sierra Leone where he, along with actress Eva Mendes, takes on the case of a 14-year old girl Fulamatu, who has been raped repeatedly by a next door neighbor, passing as a “pastor.” Kristof and Mendes visit the shelter where the girl was taken by her mother. Over the next few minutes, Kristof proceeds to do his own police work, and takes it upon himself to arrest the rapist. He also counsels the young girl. By the end of the segment however, it is unclear whether the rapist will stay in prison and pay for the crime and whether Fulamatu will be safe (her father throws Fulamatu and her mother out of the house because of the “shame” and attention they bring to the family). The whole ends with an odd scene, with Mendes — who looks as she does not want to be there — saying goodbye to Fulamatu, offering her a necklace and hugging her: “You are so beautiful, brave and strong.” Kristof then moves on to Thailand and Mendes goes back to the US.

Kristof has drawn criticism for his storytelling techniques, his tendency to exoticize cultures, his parachute style of engagement, his disregard for the impact of structural forces and power dynamics and ill-suited solutions. But Kristof is not the first and will certainly not be the last Western reporter who, in his conscientising endeavors, locates himself central to the stories of vulnerable children. Neither will he be the last one to steer his parachute towards Africa.

The category “African children” occupies a rather distinct, almost symbolic position in Western media. Stories about African children as victims of hunger, malnutrition, disease and violence attract quite some attention, compassion, aid and increasingly hands-on ‘help’ from visitors from wealthier Western countries. Interest in the lives of these young people and awareness of the challenges they face is important, not lastly because there are so many of them. Around 50% of sub-Saharan Africans are under 25 years old. They’re also Africa’s “future.” They’ll be running the continent at some point. (As we know this is also becoming a cliché and platitude pulled out at every conference or press conference by self-serving politicians and those undermining public education.) A second reason why these young Africans deserve a spotlight is that they carry the brunt of today’s developmental problems. When it comes to hunger, malaria, malnutrition and poverty, it’s often the children who are most vulnerable. Reporting on the challenges this group faces and thinking of ways to protect and empower them is therefore essential to meaningful development initiatives.

Yet the ways in which the media frame and report their lives reveal some fundamental shortcomings that directly relate to the particular position that African children occupy in the collective Western imagination. Here, the child has turned into a ‘type’; a type with a typical and singular story of despair and helplessness. This story started in 1968 with photos of child victims of the Biafran secessionist war and was passionately taken to the global stage by Band Aid’s 1984 ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ campaign which effectively drew global attention and compassion to the victims of the Ethiopian famine. Photographs of perishing children with flies on their faces and desperate stares into the cameras shocked the world, pulling in millions of dollars. The overwhelming momentum of the campaign and its usage of the pictures seem to have set a trend. Having proved their shock — and some would say sensational value — African youth came to serve as the ultimate illustration of disaster and hopelessness.

Thirty years after Band Aid’s Campaign, ideas around the typical ‘African child’ as the ultimate victim of drought, famine, poverty and disease have firmly taken root in the Western imagination. Today, the “remember the children in Africa” guilt-trip seems as effective in pushing obstinate European kids to finish their supper as it was during the campaign.

Similarly, much of disaster reporting (and NGO funding appeals) on Africa have made use of the African child’s compelling victimhood; from nature, disease and geography casualties to mutilation and abduction targets. To argue that these child victims don’t exist or shouldn’t get outside support would be senseless. As real as the Ethiopian famine was in the 1980s, as real are the devastating effects of malaria, HIV/AIDS, famine, wars and displacement today. The problems are real, the children are real and many are in need of real support. The problem, however, is that the ‘African child’ has become a rather static and one dimensional symbol; a symbol that renders all children in Africa into unclothed, dirty, muddy and powerless creatures. It obscures the wide diversity in children and renders those that do not suffer ‘the African way’ invisible.

Continue reading on Africa is a Country

By Maria Hengeveld

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