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Images of Africa and Africans

Africa is often seen as little more than barren waste and arid desert – this image shows the glorious verdure of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains National Park (Photo: By Damien Halleux Radermecker CC-BY-SA 2.0)
Africa is often seen as little more than barren waste and arid desert – this image shows the glorious verdure of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains National Park (Photo: By Damien Halleux Radermecker CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Marilyn Herman reflects on how her research in Ethiopia has shown her an often neglected side of African life. She shares her experience of the diversity and cultural richness of a continent often in the public consciousness for the wrong reasons.

A number of Somali and Ethiopian people living in Britain have stated to me: when people here think of Africa, all they think about is poverty, drought and starvation. But in fact, Ethiopians from the Gondar region of Ethiopia told me, where they lived, it was beautiful! The air was clean and fresh, the weather was always comfortable: not too hot, not too cold…

Food, life and strength

In 1990 to 1992, I conducted fieldwork among Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, who emphasised to me their great respect for food. Food gives us health, life and strength. Such knowledge goes amiss among much of the US’s and UK’s population of girls and women with eating disorders, to whom food is an enemy which makes us unaesthetically heavier than a stick insect! I myself did not make the connection between food, life and strength, when at the age of 13, I decided to almost entirely forego food for a number of months. To my astonishment and dismay, I found myself without the strength to sprint, and sadly had to abandon my school athletics team.

To the Ethiopians among whom I conducted my research, food is associated with honour. The mother who prepares food, and the farmer who produces food in its raw state, derive honour from their labour through their provision of health, strength and life. Ethiopian Jews attributed to their traditional food their tendency to be thin but strong, and to have good blood. Since food is treated with respect, Ethiopian Jews would eat mindfully, in silence. They would not accompany eating with talking, working, reading, or watching TV, which characterises many of us raised in Western societies. Israelis, some would comment, talk, work and do all manner of things over meals. How, they asked, can they taste what they’re eating?

A little girl playing hide and seek in the market at Gode, Ethiopia
Hide and seek at the market – having fun in the Gode region of Ethiopia

Negative portrayal

When I described this respect for food on the part of Ethiopian Jews to non-Ethiopians, the response would invariably be: “Oh yes – because they didn’t have any in Ethiopia!” This is, of course, untrue, and missing the point entirely! On the contrary, Ethiopian Jewish women would take pride in relating to me how they would prepare food from its whole, completely fresh state. Spices would be freshly ground at home. Meat would be particularly fresh, as it would be eaten immediately after slaughtering the animal. This contrasts with Israeli and Western stores, where the animal may have been slaughtered weeks ago, in an unknown place an unknown distance away, by an unknown person.

The predominant image of Africa as a continent racked with famine, drought and starvation, is unsurprising given the cataclysmic scale and frequency of catastrophes. The famines in Ethiopia alone have been plentiful and devastating, with colossal losses of life. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Ethiopia has suffered 17 famines. In the most severe famine in 1984-1985, an estimated one million people died.

Scenes of famine and hunger in Africa conveyed through the media are so shocking that they are bound to have a profound and lasting impact on the Western psyche. Charities, with the purpose of saving lives and alleviating suffering, are the source of much of this negative portrayal of Africa. The intention is to alert the charitable public to the extent of the crisis, in order to draw in aid. Most charities may not have the means to direct their resources towards balancing out the image of Africa.

Broader implications

But to return to the plethora of overwhelmingly negative images of Africa, what are the broader implications? One implication might be the perpetuation of a colonial type of attitude on the part of the previously colonial west towards Africa and Africans. According to such an attitude, Africans are viewed as people in need, in association with whom the West is viewed as charitable benefactor. This view ignores the extent to which wealth was “diverted” from the colonies to the colonising countries! It also overlooks the fact that, as recent analyses by Ghanaian academic, Adams Bodomo, have shown, remittances to Africa from African people in the diaspora significantly exceed aid from traditional Western donors (Official Development Assistance).

A stream near Wolleqa, Ethiopia
A stream winds through the Ethiopian countryside near Wolleqa

Another implication of the negative depiction of Africa is that various African countries are ruled out of many westerners’ lists of places to visit before they die. Certainly, safari vacations in Kenya are in demand. In addition, many young people are going out to African countries as volunteers, and doing wonderful and difficult work in orphanages and other areas of need. Then there are the visitors who travel to Ethiopia to collect the babies they are adopting. And the diaspora who return for the holidays to visit their families. But Ethiopia, for example, has vast areas of great natural beauty, presenting possibilities for many other kinds of tourism. When I traveled from Addis Abeba to Arba Minch in 1992, I was struck by the beauty of the country. We stayed overnight en route in a breathtakingly beautiful spot by Lake Abaye. Tourism has certainly picked up since I was one of the very few “farangoch” there in 1992. But if Ethiopia could really develop its tourism industry, this could help to make a significant impact on the situation of its inhabitants, of whom almost 30% – 27.5 million people – live below the poverty line.

Attributing responsibility

Whose responsibility, therefore, is it to balance out the picture of Africa? Since it is through the media that charities are putting out these images of desperate African people in nightmarish circumstances, I believe it is up to the media to broadcast and publish more positive images. Bruce Parry, in Going Tribal, did a wonderful job of bringing us closer to some of Ethiopia’s more remote ethnic groups. The BBC series Long Way Down, with Charley Boorman on his motorbike, drew attention to the beauty and diversity found in various parts of Africa. What is needed, in my opinion, are more programmes such as these, and documentaries, covering a wider spectrum of African society. We would all benefit from being enlightened by more exposure to African art and music, tradition and innovation, philosophy and knowledge. Potential documentary-makers need to come forward, and find openness on the part of broadcasters to powerful positive portrayal of Africa.

If you would like to see Africa from the point of view of the people who live there, visit “Our Africa”, an eye-opening and mind-expanding website created by SOS Children. In it, African children capture many different aspects of their lives on films. Visit the Our Africa site.