One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?
a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.
These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:
Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.
To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.
Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.
However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.
It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):
Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination. Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest. The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’
There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.
If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.
Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.
In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.
While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.
This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.