Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning Nigerian novelist well-known for her books Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, is one of the critics that has publicly spoken about the (mis)framing of the African continent in western media. In her TED talk The Danger of A Single Story, she doesn’t talk particularly about the framing in media, nor about NGOs or aid. Rather, she zooms out on the complex discussion and consequences of stereotypes alive in all kind of sectors within society and shares her personal experience on the matter. She points out that “If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensive people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and aids, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind white foreigner.”
But, Adichie is not the only one warning the world about the misrepresentation of the mighty continent. As mentioned, there are several journalists, writers and economists that criticise this one-eyed view portrayed in NGO campaigns. Among them is Andrew Mwenda. He is a Ugandan journalist and founder of the newspaper The Independent, which motto is: you buy the truth, we pay the price. And that is not just a pay-off. Mwenda has been arrested and accused several times for publishing stories that would contain harmful content in the eyes of the Ugandan government. Besides being a critical journalist, he’s also well known for his critique on foreign aid. During his TED talk, of which the name (Aid for Africa? No thanks) speaks for itself, he not only talked about the danger of aid for building African democracies but also highlighted the consequences of the framing in NGOs media messages. “By displaying despair, helplessness and hopelessness the media is telling the truth about Africa, and nothing but the truth. However, the media is not telling us the whole truth.” According to Mwenda the dominant frame of NGO communication should move from poverty reduction to a frame of wealth creation. Instead of highlighting the rather negative circumstances it should be a challenge of hope.
Speaking of hope, several studies have found that there is an on-going shift amongst NGOs towards the use of more positive and diverse images of the continent. As Dogra points out in her book, NGOs too believe that a positive change has been made in the recent years towards showing a more active attitude of the locals, underlining their initiatives and strength. Yet there remains criticism that these ‘positive’ frames are not always accommodated of enough context. The discussion about telling ‘the whole story’ therefore should maybe not only be about the choice between rather ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ images, but most essentially be about putting them in the bigger picture of current and past global relations.
A step towards regaining a more diverse and comprehensive view of the African continent could be, as Adichie says, “When we realize that there is never a single story about any place” and that like Dogra mentioned, every story is embedded in a larger context. Because when it comes to stories like Jon’s, there is more that connects us than just humanity.