Africa’s Image Problem: Larger than Ebola

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Africa has an image problem that has been staring us all in the face lately. Africans living in the U.S. are used to grimacing over the narrow images they see of the continent, presented daily on the evening news, in TV shows and movies, and most media outlets. Africa is mostly presented as a place graced with poverty, political instability, no democracy, natural disasters, droughts, environmental degradation, limited education, and disease. A distant, wild, and unpredictable place. So it is ironic, and seemingly fruitless, that the same media that bombards us with such images of the continent is now trying to calm the American public’s irrational fear over Ebola in the US.

Daily we see faceless victims of a world gone wrong who despite their circumstances and corrupt rulers find the strength—when not suffering helplessly—to have faith, smile beautifully, sing and dance, and share appreciation for aid. Missing are the relatable humanizing stories. Like the 22 year old Liberian nurse who successfully treated and saved members of her family with makeshift protection or the countless others who are risking their lives. Or, the Nigerian doctor who helped contain the disease there then died from the illness herself, and not to forget Nigeria’s and Senegal’s success stories. They seem to get some but little air time. Missing are the images of the continent’s bustling cities, technology hubs, young successful entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, academics, and others. I suppose it is not consistent with the generic image of the country of Africa—yes, country—we are presented with in the news.

The limited presentation of Africa are not just in the news; they seem to be in all media. We’ve all seen the Hollywood movies with the harsh untraceable or misplaced African accent. You are sometimes left scratching your head when a movie set in Southern Africa features locals with Nigerian accent—try imagining a movie set in an England where the locals all speak with French accents. Takes something away doesn’t it? Lately, prime time TV has left me scratching my head and wondering how I can help TV script writers and TV directors get it right.

Seriously, I am available to serve as an Africa consultant for any script writer or director. Accurate portrayals are important. Take a recent episode of Modern Family for example, a popular show I love and enjoy for its clever writing and diverse characters. I applauded their inclusion of a Nigerian family—yes, they weren’t just from the country of Africa—but was left wondering why, among many other things, the family spoke in an unrecognizable accent and simple English phrases. Let’s not overlook the fact that Nigeria was for years colonized by the British and English is the country’s official language now. This isn’t to single out this show, because the list of examples could go on and on. But perhaps what we need is a wall of shame that outs each whack portrayal, because each instance adds to the negative associations that many here have with anything related to Africa. It leads to and explains the situation we are facing with Ebola.

The heightened fear of Ebola reflects what the public has for years seen and heard about Africa and internalized. Ebola, like Africa, is wild, distant, unpredictable, and to be feared, no matter what science says. So how can the news media successfully calm public fear and hysteria when at the same time they, the majority of the media (news, TV shows, movies etc.), and American society in general continues to present the same one dimensional portrayal of the continent? Africa’s image problem is larger than what we are seeing with the current Ebola crisis.

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