Why we need to team with anthropology to get Africa’s story right.
How many times have you seen Africa depicted in some sort of publication with the picture of a child with a fly on their face? Too often, I bet. And there’s even a running meme on the Internet about it. But those of us who live on this beautiful continent know that the child with a fly on their face is not the face of Africa. While the story the picture conveys is true, the question is: what is the story? “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a popular English language adage. But there is a story behind the picture – and too often we never hear the story.
Anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures and their development, tells that story. But too often we don’t rely on anthropologists to tell us what’s really going on. Instead, we rely on non-profit organisations and journalists – both of whom have a bias (good or bad).
Most people who actually travel into rural Africa usually do not encounter sad looking kids with flies on their faces. Instead, they often encounter happy, exuberant kids who just want to hang out with them. People will often comment about how ‘happy’ the kids are despite how ‘little’ they have. We hear statistics such as the World Bank tell us that more than half of the extremely poor in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 413 million people living on less than US$1.90 a day (2015). So many people think that if they send $40 a month to a charity who will administer the money, they are taking care of someone’s needs. But there’s a story behind these numbers as well.
One of the things we have to ask is: who is taking the photo? There’s a story there too. This person usually arrives in the country via its international airport, such as O.R. Tambo in Johannesburg. From there they might be picked up by an organisation or call an Uber to their hotel. They’ll overnight at a luxurious or middle-class hotel found in the airport and surrounds, or, if it’s South Africa, for example, they’ll be taking the Gautrain to a hotel in Sandton (usually the case). They’ll enjoy a good dinner, a good breakfast – perhaps with imported strawberries – and then drive out to their destination. When they get there they’ll probably stay at a game farm or a lodge in the bush, before heading out for a day of photographs at some rural village. Here they will encounter tons of kids, and at some stage, they will spot a kid with a fly on their face (even in the first world, flies to land on faces, by the way) and take a quick shot. This will become the story of their trip to Africa that will get posted on their magazine’s front cover. But you and I both know that this was not the whole story, right? What about the hotel? What about the lodge? What about the airport and the Uber ride and the Gautrain? Were all these places not in Africa?
What is the real story in the rural village the photo was taken? While it may be that a person is living on US$1.90 a day, the fact is that they also might own their land, their cattle, and their hut. They’re not paying a mortgage and they’re not in debt. Why don’t we hear about those stories?
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture is also not objective. Photojournalists do an amazing job and have their place, but unless we couple the photos with something tangible, something objective, we’re letting the wrong story about Africa be told. This is why we need to partner with anthropologists and the amazing work they do to tell our African story and to tell it in a fresh new way – in a way that describes what is really going on, objectively. We’ll find that there is more than just sending a person $40 a day. We’ll find there is more going on than kids with flies on their faces. We’ll discover that Africans are thinking differently about themselves, are making a change for their continent, and innovating like never before. And we need to be telling their stories.
Nnamdi Oranye is an author and the CEO of Disrupting Africa, a research think-tank dedicated to moving African innovation forward. He is the author of “Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation” and “Taking on Silicon Valley: How Africa’s Innovators Will Shape its Future”.