From the Editor’s Keyboard

Angelina Jolie Discovers Africa

18 September 2006 at 03:03 | 934 views

"It is not what Ms. Jolie said or even the manner she said it that I found troubling, but its very banal familiarity, its brazen simplicity, its matter-of-factness. Asked by a fawning Anderson Cooper, who made his fame for his emotional coverage of Hurricane Katrina, to explain why Africa had so many refugees -the interview was to mark world refugee day - why so many conflicts, problems, the great actress opined: `They are a tribal people, you know`, and added for good measure that they had just recently emerged from ņur` colonial rule, but they were trying, really trying, there were pockets of good news in Africa."

By Paul Zeleza, Guest Writer

Last night after spending a long day visiting a couple of towns several hours drive from Caracas, Venezuela, I settled into a common traveler`s routine: switched on the TV to catch up on the day`s news. I would have loved to watch the local channels but my Spanish is virtually non-existent, so I opted for the venerable BBC and its pronouncements on the day`s events always delivered with the self-assured authority of a country on whose flag the sun once never set.

It was the usual litany of the latest carnage in Iraq: the American victims, as always, were named - this time two soldiers - the Iraq ones remained faceless numbers of mindless violence by the terrorists sometimes grudgingly called insurgents, but never dignified as nationalists fighting against foreign occupation. Also depressingly familiar was the story of an Israeli missile that apparently missed its intended targets and killed Palestinian children playing on a street in Gaza, one more incitement in the endless conflagraion in that unfortunate land of competiting nationalisms and victimhood and international cynicism.

Only the story about Charles Taylor, the notorious former Liberian president, arriving in Holland, his face downcast with humiliation, represented a fresh script; well, almost, for the commentary soon reverted to style about Africa`s proverbial genius for producing dictators. The original triumph of Taylor`s arrest several months ago was, in my view, now tarnished by Africa`s inability to try one of its most murderous dictators somewhere on the continent where his heinous crimes were committed in the first place. But this is to digress. It was Angelina Jolie who really caught my attention.

It`s not that I am enamored by Ms. Jolie as such, whose beauty and acting talents that the American star-gazing media love to rave about I cannot vouch for having a different persuasion of female beauty as defined by my wife of course and having only seen one of her movies in which she acted with the inimitable Denzel Washington. But she graces so many gossip magazines that litter the checkout counters of American supermarkets that she is hard to ignore. So I knew she had snatched Brad Pitt, who is adored by those who worship Hollywood`s version of white masculinity, from another reportedly beautiful and talented but less vivacious actress, Jennifer Aniston.

I also knew Ms. Jolie had given birth to her daughter with Mr. Pitt in Namibia, or rather Africa as the geographically challenged media kept repeating as if there are no individual countries on this vast continent. Individuality, the naming of countries and people, in a country that believes it invented or at least perfected individuality seems strangely absent when it comes to Africa. Individual nationhood is apparently an attribute reserved for those living in the blessed parts of the world, sometimes referred to, in bigoted company, as the `civilized`countries, or less offensively as `western`, or as the `global North` in the polite bureaucratic language beloved by the United Nations and politically correct cosmopolitans.

It is certainly not for the benighted masses of the `Third World’, a word that has seen better days, or the `global South`, or let`s just say Africa, the sorriest places of them all. This is also to digress. It was what Angelina Jolie said that got me riled up.

Predictably, she said it on CNN to which I had switched after the BBC for a little comparative sampling of the day`s news coverage. I gave up on CNN for its unabashed jingoism during the first Gulf war fifteen years ago and hardly watch it unless I am traveling and there are no alternatives or I want to catch some `breaking news`. Interestingly, in the United States itself where the CNN that people see is different from CNN International beamed to foreigners abroad - the corporate media`s version of global product differentiation - some see it as `liberal`; it might be in comparison to the proudly rightwing Fox News, but that only confirms how narrow the political space occupied by the mainstream American media is. But this is another digression.

It is not what Ms. Jolie said or even the manner she said it that I found troubling, but its very banal familiarity, its brazen simplicity, its matter-of-factness. Asked by a fawning Anderson Cooper, who made his fame for his emotional coverage of Hurricane Katrina, to explain why Africa had so many refugees -the interview was to mark world refugee day - why so many conflicts, problems, the great actress opined: `They are a tribal people, you know`, and added for good measure that they had just recently emerged from ņur` colonial rule, but they were trying, really trying, there were pockets of good news in Africa.

Tribes, tribal, tribalism: harsh, contemptuous, condemnatory words that evoke nothing but primitivity, savagery, backwardness, primeval communities and conflicts. Words that are reserved for Africans and those `indigenous` peoples in Asia and South America that are periodically discovered in some remote jungle by National Geographic or featured on Discovery Channel. But it is modern Africa that has still tribes everyhwere, a whole continent that is held to ransom by the primordial pathologies of ancient tribal life. Africans are stamped with tribal marks from birth to death. Tribes are beyond history, they have always existed in Africa, they explain everything: the poverty, the civil conflicts, the corruption, the dicatorships. European colonialism failed to stamp out the tribe, postcolonial modernization withers in its glare, contemporary democratization has no chance in its suffocating shadows.

Whereas in other parts of the world issues and conflicts may be named as political, economic, social, environmental, class, gender, religious, or cultural, in Africa they are almost invariably about tribes and tribalism. Nobody of course talks of tribes in Europe, except in reference to the remote past, of contemporary tribal conflicts in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, in Spain. European groupings are defined as `nations` and their conflicts deemed national or nationalist conflicts and accorded specific characteristics, combatants, causes, closures, and consequences. In Asia people are often divided into ethnic or communal groups and their conflicts termed ethnic or communal. Nations for Europe, ethnicities for Asia, tribes for Africa, a sliding scale of civilizational status and possibilities.

Ms. Jolie was obviously in good company despite her limited education and obvious ignorance of African histories, cultures, societies, polities, and economies. She was merely repeating received western wisdom on Africa. Tribes may have long been banished from the academic vocabulary in Africanist discourse, but they are alive and well in the mass media. But even in the academy the term sneaks in from time to time as I discovered at a party when I first arrived at Penn State when a head of a certain otherwise progressive department who had done a little comparative research in Africa asked me: What tribe are from? My shocked gasp said it all, but just to make sure that she got the message, I sent her an e-mail explaining the politics of the term `tribe` to which she responded with a groveling apology.

But many a western journalists assigned to the hardship African beat defend the use of the term `tribe` on account that Africans themselves use it. One student of mine returned from a four week study abroad in Kenya feeling empowered to use the term and challenged my allegedly western liberal antipathy to it. There was a time when African `groupings` were called `nations` before the rise of colonial racism and academic anthropology, and in my language the term used for African and European groupings is the same, `mtundu`. `Tribe` is an acquired term of colonial self-denigration, not self-definition, let alone self-empowerment.

Western reporting on Africa rests on four well-tested mantras: selectivity, sensationalism, stereotyping and special vocabulary. All media has to select the stories deemed worth reporting from the innumerable events that occur across the world every day. This is particularly so for television where in between advertising there is not much time for in-depth coverage of news. It is even more imperative when covering foreign lands. The more sensational a story is the more likely it is to be selected - the man bites dog syndrome; bad stories make good news.

To hold the attention span of the notoriously fickle audience it is important to present foreign news in an easily digestible form. That is where stereotypes come in, they aid consumption of the news, they become the news. They obviate the need for context, for complexity, for thinking. When it comes to Africa everyone knows that it is very hot there, and the animals are great but the people are poor and always dying from endless wars, incurable diseases, biblical famines, and bad governments. In short, they are a tribal people, you know. Tribe is the magical, special word that captures everything that happens in Africa and American audiences need to know about Africa.

At heart, Euroamerican reporting about Africa, Europe`s most intimate other, is less about Africa itself than the Euroamerican imaginary of global hegemony and white racial supremacy. Negative stories of Africa were historically manufactured and deployed as weapons to beat the African diaspora into submission during slavery and after emancipation and integration, to remind them of the primitivity of their ancestral home from which they had been blissfully liberated. As racism or rather racial rhetoric gradually lost respectability in the civil rights and post-civil rights era, Africa bashing became a safe substitute for America`s obsessive denigration of black people. It often works: some African Americans are ashamed of Africa, and many American conservatives are not averse to admonish those who complain about American racism to go back to Africa.

Angelina Jolie`s ill-conceived comments were only extraordinary in their ordinariness. Anderson Cooper beamed in agreement and proceeded to praise her role as a goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR, for caring so much for these people, the wretched of the earth. How did she do it, he wondered, how did she feel? Jolie`s self-indulgent, but carefully modulated answers, befitting the accomplished actress she must be, were interspersed with Cooper`s own empathy for African suffering, his discovery of Africa during the recent famine in Niger, an awakening that was duly sanctified by a dying child in both their cases, for Anderson in a makeshift hospital in Niger and for Jolie in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

Each of them was horribly, indelibly, marked by these deaths. The two of them commiserated on the burden of owning these childrens memories, for they possessed the only available pictures of these unfortunate children, a still photograph for Jolie and video footage for Anderson. These technical reproductions of memory trumped any memories the children`s own poverty-stricken parents might have. Appropriation of memory, homage to the technical artifacts of remembering, to Africans inability to own their own past.

Africa has had an incredible capacity to attract saviors from Euroamerica from the time of the Atlantic slave trade. Missionaries came in droves at the dawn of colonialism, indeed they blessed colonial conquest as a civilizing mission, an opportunity to Christianize these pagan peoples, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity has an older history in some parts of Africa than in Europe. The most conscientious of them would occasionally attack colonial excesses but not the infinite virtues of the colonial project itself.

Africa`s modern missionaries come in all shapes and sizes: some come in impeccable business suits with attache cases full of policy advice for development, others are self-styled statesmen who delight in shoring their humanitarian credentials even as they are waging brutal wars elsewhere, and then there are the assortment of stars and would-be stars from the world of entertainment - music, cinema, television, and even sports. Why do they come like vultures in search of misery, of death?

It is of course difficult to fathom the motivations for such a motley crew. Some undoubtedly find solace in philanthropy, in giving away some of their wealth. In the United States especially philanthropy is a vast enterprise involving individuals, corporations, and all types of institutions that gives America`s ruthless capitalism a benevolent face. Others may be looking to revive stalled careers in the manner of a Bob Geldof who achieved more fame with his `band aid` initiatives than any records he may have released, or to add a gloss of humanitarian gravitas to a successful career as an entertainer in the manner of U2`s Bono. God, gold, glory, gratification, all these are powerful motivations that obviously inspire different stars differently.

What is less difficult to decipher is the methods used by the aspiring and accomplished humanitarian stars. The rules for the discoverers of Africa have not changed much since the days of the Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, and the American adventurer and accomplice of King Leopold of Belgium, the murderous plunderer of the Congo - they of the famous encounter in darkest Africa: `Dr. Livingstone, I presume`. The only difference now is that there is television. Television rules, it is insatiable for images, powerful images that can be beamed on prime time news or infomercials, giving audio-visual proof that the star was actually there, that she really saw those people, even touched them, felt their pain. Great care is therefore made to frame the photo-op. Contemporary discoverers of Africa need to follow ten simple, but crucial, rules.

First, always show that the benighted place is forbiddingly remote, the roads are bad if they can be called roads at all; feign a breakdown of the otherwise hardy four-by-four if possible, that adds authenticity to your strenuous efforts to reach these hapless people. Second, enroute to and from the site, usually a camp, show wild animals galloping or resting in the distance so that the audience back home knows for sure that you were truly in Africa. Third, when being interviewed assume and act as if nobody, least of all the natives themselves, really knew or understood before you arrived the gravity of whatever crisis or tragedy is the flavor of the moment. Fourth, at all costs avoid interviewing local experts and relief workers, but if you must have locals it is recommended that it be some pot-bellied government official who denies there is a crisis and mumbles in such a thick accent that captions are required for the audience back home. Fifth, always appear in front of scrawny, pot-bellied children with running noses and a few flies licking their famished faces, and hug one if possible or at least hold their bony hands.

Sixth, avoid being pictured in the presence of African men, the source of all these troubles and scourges, but include a few white men from any relief agency, and of course lots of listless African women squatting under some leafless tree and staring emptily into the air, or chewing some stick patiently waiting for something to happen. Seventh, choose the landscape carefully, certainly avoid lush vegetation, anything that looks like fresh water; dry, dusty arid and semi-arid areas make the best background for they add ecological drama to Africa’s eternal woes. Eighth, dress modestly, no bling-bling for the rappers among you, preferably in an appropriate safari garb adorned with a hat, it could be a helmet even, especially for those of delicate caucasian skin for protection from the sweltering tropical sun. Ninth, never, ever show the five-star hotel and the city you are actually staying in to which you happily return after the cameras are shut off and before jetting back to the familiar comforts of stardom now immensely enriched by your hard earned humanitarian credentials.

Tenth, when you get back home try to get on Oprah, if that fails one of the TV magazine shows that love stars with a heart will do, or you could go on David Letterman or Jay Leno and show that you still have a sense of humor despite all the agony you have seen; audiences want humanitarian stars with a light touch, not priestly agony and admonition written all over their faces - they want to feel good about themselves, not guilty about the tribulations of tribes and tribal tragedies in far away Africa.

You know you have really arrived as a global African humanitarian when you can talk to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, the champions of democracy, development and peace (don`t believe those malicious stories about Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo) in the same week or in the same venue, say, the G8 Summit, and if you can call yourself, or better still you can be called by your admiring fans, Mr Africa and Ms Africa without blushing. And yes, the ability to organize a global event, a rock concert is best for the depoliticised youth who love music and to dance, without Africans is the ultimate accolade, it’s godly in its intoxicating possibilities to liberate Africa from itself.

Rumor has it that the fading music star, Britney Spears, might be considering going to Namibia, er, Africa, for the birth of her second child. If true, Ms. Jolie has carried the discovery of Africa to a whole new level. Hollywood has found a new script. Forget Tarzan. Star reality TV is so much better. The academic in me only wishes these stars would hire African tutors to teach them a thing or two about Africa`s complexities before they open their mouths. But that would spoil the discover Africa show, which is primarily about entertainment not education, exoticism not enlightenment.

Source: africaresource.

Photo: Angelina Jolie (right) and Brad Pitt.