Challenging Misrepresentations
An Interview with Local Pan African Activists Part I

Interview by Aly Wane and Christina Kaiser

On November 11 the PNL sat down with members of the Pan African Community of Central New York (PACCNY) for a discussion about the stereotypes and misrepresentations of Africa that exist in our community. This is the first segment of our three-part conversation.

PACCNY seeks to foster unity among people of African descent, "provide space that promotes and celebrates the efforts of people of African origin towards self-assertion, human dignity and self-determination" and "promote understanding among all global communities, especially those who suffer from oppressive structures and systems."

Micere Githae Mu˜go
is the president of PACCNY and Professor and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University. Dr. Mugo is Kenyan by birth and upbringing, Zimbabwean by citizenship and a long time resident of CNY.

Kwame Otieku is the secretary of PACCNY and the Ghana Society of Central New York (GSCNY). He is a Ghanaian and a Central New Yorker since 1982.

Emmanuel Awuah is the president of GSCNY. He is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Multicultural and International Services at Onondaga Community College. Dr. Awuah is a Ghanaian and long time member of the CNY community.

PNL: One of the ways that Central New Yorkers get information about Africa is through the media. Often media sources misrepresent African people by reinforcing stereotypical images of insurmountable poverty, disease and corruption and neglecting to portray the depth and complexity of African issues. What is the impact of these misrepresentations on our local and global community?

MM: The impact is obvious. It's demeaning. It's insulting. It misleads, specifically, people who don't know much about the continent. But even more than that, for me, it is a very arrogant way of dealing with diversity and dealing with a culture that one doesn't know. And by arrogance I mean that even sometimes people who haven't traveled to Africa or who have just gone there for a few months give themselves the liberty to make it look as if they are the Ms. or Mr. "Know-All."

Just the dehumanizing aspect of the stereotypes is really disgusting and the reason it's disgusting is that every day of our lives we know African people are struggling to respond to these adversities but we don't get that resistance. We don't get that active aspect of African people responding to their own problems. It looks as if they're sitting there helpless, waiting to be struck by disaster. This depiction of people who look so hopeless as if they need salvation from outside is also very worrying, but I think that the other part of it is that these kinds of depictions do not give voice to African people to speak for themselves. This is why, for instance, I appreciate the fact that you're speaking with us.

It is very important for African people to have voice to speak for themselves, name their reality and explain what is going on. That is the only thing that can bring understanding and create a conversation - not when people are speaking for you and depicting you in their own terms.


KO: For me it is very annoying when you just go into a country and come back like you're a master and you write books after being there a very short duration. A good example is recently when one of the reporters from here [The Post-Standard] went to Ghana and became a "master of all."

I don't fault the Americans being ignorant because they have never gone anyplace before. You go to work and your co-workers show you pictures and ask you questions, very elementary and stupid questions, but sometimes you sit back and ask, "Are they stupid questions?" Or are they because of ignorance? Confucius has said that the realization of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. It's up to us to educate such folks because they ask questions from nowhere, reading what has been presented to them.

We, as Africans who have crossed both fences coming from Africa and being here, have a lot of work to do. The fact that these folks are asking stupid questions - it may be genuine that they don't know, but we have to be the voice to turn things around and let them understand what Africa is. More importantly, we need to focus on reporters, or people who claim to be masters, and let them understand that their reporting should be a little bit different.

I can go to Africa and paint a bad picture of America. I can go to a ghetto area, and we have a lot of ghettos here in America and present that as what America is. There are more important things in Africa to report on. If you want to measure the economy of Ghana in high rises and things like that, no, we're not there. But, you can measure the economy of Ghana on something that is very tangible and that has a very positive impact on the people in Ghana.

EA: The fears I have are that Africa is seen as the repository of all the fears we have as human beings. That is, it looks like Africa has reached a point which we call "arrested development," that we cannot go beyond a certain point in terms of our development, that we are stationary.

I think that this is a feed-off from colonial representation and anthropological work that was done. In the 21st century when we have an instant advantage to see what is really going on in Africa - I think we in the West are rather in an arrested development stage of not changing our positions, views and perceptions of Africa. My main worry is the next generation of Americans who are still going to feed on the media representations which are very negative. We need to deal with the textbooks that teachers are using in our schools because these are the kids who are going to become policy makers, who are going to relate to Africa. And if this continues in the 21st century, I think America may not fully benefit from the actual development that is going on in Africa. Therefore, they might fall behind.

If you get to know that Africa is not in a stage of arrested development - that it has made great progress - that will enhance American foreign policy, that will enhance economic relationships between the US and Africans - that will bode well for all of us because it will be a win-win situation, not only in terms of economic reasons, but also culturally and socially. We could then continue to maintain relationships with the United States in a positive way in the sense that the relationship is based on the realities that exist on the ground rather than based on deceptions which are not supported by the evidence. It's something that we need to work on through the education institutions that we have.

Binyavanga Wainaina

1. Always treat Africa as if it were one country. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, nine hundred million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.

2. Adopt a sad, I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and how much you love Africa. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

3. Always include a Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Moans are good.

4. Use broad brushstrokes throughout. But describe in detail naked breasts or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies.

5. Treat animals as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. Elephants may attack people's property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant.

Binyavanga Wainaina lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine, Kwani? and won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. This piece was excerpted from a longer piece in Granta.

It's amazing that those images, those wrong perceptions, still continue in our schools. I don't know whether there's an agenda because those who are responsible for holding teachers accountable for teaching students what Africa is really about - I think they are compromising by maintaining standards that are not consistent with the realities in Africa.

MM: The people who hear us must understand that we are not denying that, like any other part of the world, there are problems in Africa. There is illness, there is disease, there is poverty and so on and so forth. That is not what we are saying; what we are saying is that a very balanced view is absolutely necessary in order not to stereotype Africa as this pathological place where nothing else happens other than ailment. More importantly, we object to journalists and scholars who go to Africa in order to make a name for themselves, in order to get promotions and make it in their career by giving this very, very superficial depiction. It really is criminal professionalism.

Look for part II next month

Aly, a native Senegal, is an SPC intern.

Christiana studied International Relations at the University of Ghana at Legon and Syracuse University.