Madonna’s Pictures Of Kibera Play To A Stereotypical Image Of Africa!


Wake Up and Smell The Coffee: Africa has Changed Madonna!

Singer and Songwriter Madonna was in Kenya recently and starred controversy with her Instagram post that inaccurately claimed that people in Kibera slums drink sewage water. In her update to her fans and to the world, Madonna the multi-award winning singer who has been in the country for a while for a series of projects, posts various ‘African Identifiers’ such as bead-wearing dancers (or is it singers?), dirty semi-clothed children and shanties/huts on her social media pages. The interesting bit about Madonna’s story is that despite visiting towns in Kenya, she does not post any images she took from these towns. I would have been willing to listen to her experience about Africa but I cannot because it already hits me that she is only interested in the one sided narratives of Africa – people dying of poverty and disease and living with lions.

But why do people insist on misunderstanding Africa? Why must Africa be misrepresented? What is wrong with a foreigner coming to a beautiful country like Kenya and admitting to have enjoyed their stay in spite of an incident of blackout? Why must a five minute of blackout overshadow 24 hours of enjoyment? And by the way, does anyone know the name of the plush hotel where Madonna checked in? I can guarantee you she did not sleep in any of those places she took photographs of.

So back to what I was saying; why is it so hard to move past the stereotypical image of Africa? Having just one story about something is dangerous. What if Madonna had told us that Kibera is the largest slum in Africa and despite all the challenges that the residents continue to deal with, the slum has managed to produce very talented young people? Could it be that negative stories about Africa increase the world’s GDP? Or why must they be peddled so hard?

Here are a few insights about why it seems very easy to stereotype; to peddle that one story about Africa which is done without realizing that this singular story slipped through the sands of time ages ago. But more importantly, here are a few pointers of how ridiculous it is to cling to one story of Africa and insist on perpetuating it. See also: Louise Linton.

  1. Operating from comfort zones

It seems easier for human beings to operate deductively, you know like inference in which the conclusion follows from a general foundation. This therefore means that,  a visitor coming to the African continent for the first time only needs to whip out the narrative he has heard from his great grandfather and then begins to build on this – look for ways to confirm these tales while all the time, missing out on all the other stories available about Africa.

This article on debunking common myths and stereotypes about Africa documents that these singular stories (stereotypes) that are inherited from one generation to the next are oversimplified, fixed assumptions about groups of people and are often justified within social systems, causing myth that come with widespread belief. Put simply, when people sit together and continuously tell each other that in Africa everyone is dying of hunger and then fail to follow this up with proper research and true knowledge, it becomes justified within the social group. Eventually, a person from this social group will come to Africa to look for someone who has no food and chances are that they will get. In this world, in whatever corner you search, there is always someone who cannot adequately feed themselves. But in working from a wrong premise, myths and stereotypes of everyone dying of hunger in Africa begin to be perpetuated.

2. Desperate desire to cling on an image of Africa that is familiar?

Ever keenly looked at covers of novels by African writers? I thought that I was seeing shapes in the clouds until I came across this article by Michael Silverberg that actually confirmed to me that those acacia trees I was seeing on the covers of African novels published in the West were not a creation of my mind. Please note that it does not matter what the author is writing about; as long as s/he is African, there will be an acacia tree on the cover.  There seems to be a desperate desire to continue holding on to an image of Africa that no longer fits the bill. In 2014, a US airline while congratulating a US World cup team which had won over Ghana, the airline used a giraffe to symbolize Ghana. But there are no giraffes in Ghana so that image was completely misleading. I am thinking of two things now: whoever came up with that idea of a giraffe was informed by the stereotype that Africa is a jungle filled with wild animals and these animals can thrive anywhere regardless of the climatic conditions because again, this climatic condition is expected to be just one across the continent. Yes, and the landscape as well. The other thought I have is that whoever came up with that image has a problem believing that Africa is not bare land with animals roaming freely and this is a story from a great grandfather which he did not bother to verify until s/he was busted by the Ghana twiterrati.

3. Lethargy

I have to state immediately that for me, the difference between laziness and lethargy is very clear. Laziness is born out of idleness. Lethargy is born out of indifference. Indifference to facts. Indifference to wanting to go out there and look for true knowledge even when you know that you can get it and preferring instead to just use the bitten path even when you know that the path is hazy and cannot be trusted. Apparently, most of the available images of Africa have their roots in colonial times/ancient Africa where people lived in huts and walked mostly naked. Now, we have lethargic people in this day and age who come to Africa to look for these images instead of actually looking at Africa and being awake to the present Africa.

I think the African continent has had enough of the dangerous, misleading stereotypes. Is it possible to have a shift of attitude towards the continent and hence see clearly?

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