The white view of Africa is not the right one

'The daily business of survival demands endless ingenuity and resourcefulness'

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It hasn't been the best of weeks for the battered image of Africa. Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment kidnapped in Sierra Leone, Channel 4 journalists kidnapped and abused by the government of the warlord Charles Taylor in neighbouring Liberia, and down in the heart of Africa in Burundi a peace agreement negotiated by Nelson Mandela is left hanging by the most slender of threads. Anarchic militias, a ruthless warlord and the politics of ethnic hatred.
Plus ça change?

It hasn't been the best of weeks for the battered image of Africa. Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment kidnapped in Sierra Leone, Channel 4 journalists kidnapped and abused by the government of the warlord Charles Taylor in neighbouring Liberia, and down in the heart of Africa in Burundi a peace agreement negotiated by Nelson Mandela is left hanging by the most slender of threads. Anarchic militias, a ruthless warlord and the politics of ethnic hatred. Plus ça change?

The opponents of western involvement, particularly the British commitment to Sierra Leone, have already seized the initiative. They warn of being sucked into an African morass. The media that once hero-worshipped the British paratroops on the streets of Freetown now seize on the kidnapping of the Royal Irish as a symbol of a mission gone disastrously wrong. The simplistic determination to portray situations as either completely triumphant or uniquely terrible is once again on display.

This tired tendency is not confined to Africa; witness much of the coverage of the Northern Irish troubles down the years. From triumph to tragedy and back again. Often in the same day. And so when Sierra Leone turns out to be a dangerous place for our troops (whoever imagined it might be otherwise?) there is a symphony of whining from the "Little Englanders". I suspect these chaps would in other times have been enthusiastic supporters of the imperial idea. Now that Britain is being asked to help clear up some of the mess created in the name of empire, they suffer from a convenient amnesia.

We ignore the basic truth that conflict resolution is a long, messy business, a road littered with unpalatable compromises and the bones of sacred cows. This is as true of Freetown as it is of Belfast. The problem for Africa is that the continent's claim on our attention is nothing like as pressing as the Ulster troubles. Beyond the NGOs, churches and a small band of specialists, there is no constituency for engagement. Africa has become a theme park with separate entrances: the "Safari and Sundowner" gate, a world of wildlife and luscious sunsets, and the "Heart of Darkness" gate, through which enter the camera crews and aid workers.

There are sporadic outpourings of public sympathy, invariably linked to some famine or civil war. We hand over our cash for Sudan and Somalia and allow ourselves to feel good for a while. And then our attention wanders. We demand fresh horrors before being roused to compassion once more.

This is more than just a problem of the fickleness of the public imagination. Western policy in Africa has for decades been driven by three primary imperatives: the dynamics of Cold War alliances; the power of television in harnessing public opinion; the unending pressure on aid budgets. Now the cold war is out of the way, it is television and budgets which largely condition our political responses to African crises.

To her credit, Clare Short has attempted to forge a more long-minded approach to foreign policy in the developing world. But Africa's troubles appear so relentless that for the majority of the public, the mere mention of the word is an instant turn-off.

The African "reality" presented in much of the media is mediated largely through western eyes and voices. When we report African tragedies it is the white aid worker who is repeatedly held up as the saviour of the benighted blacks. A white western reporter (and, yes, I've been that reporter on many occasions) interviews the white aid worker about the plight of the suffering non-whites staggering around in front of the camera. The other variation on this theme is the white reporter talking to the white army officer about the chaos in the non-white world around them.

The argument I've heard advanced by a number of aid agencies is that the "folks back home" want to see their volunteers in action, as if to justify the donations they've received. I can understand that, but the consequence is that an image of dependent and anarchic Africa is relentlessly reinforced. Are there really no Africans who can be found to speak for Africa? I am not talking about the "victims" of conflict who are regularly interviewed, but about the kind of African figures who can give overview and context. They are out there, but our white world-view gets in the way of finding them.

This has damaging results not simply in the way in which we see Africa, but more importantly in the way Africans are encouraged to see themselves. I reject the idea that there is an endemic dependency culture in Africa. The daily business of survival in many states demands endless ingenuity and resourcefulness. But a developed world that treats - however benign the intent - the people of Africa as a forlorn mass inevitably elevates its own pro-consuls to the status of deities. In the global village you can only look at images of your own victimhood for so long before you lose faith in yourself.

The aid agencies can justifiably counter that most of the work they do is centred on promoting long-term development. The conventional media analysis is that this work is unglamorous and lacks drama, and is not the stuff to capture the imagination of the western public. The result is an agenda dominated by a very particular view of African affairs.

I disagree with the proposition that the only "good" (that is, interesting or stimulating) news out of Africa is famine and slaughter at one end of the scale, and wildlife at the other. Is this an argument for "good" news out of Africa? No, not "good" news, just a much broader agenda, a greater willingness to explain the "why" of African problems and to recognise that Africans too are attempting to find solutions.

In Britain there are positive signs. Recently the BBC appointed my old colleague Milton Nkosi as its Africa Bureau editor; he won the job because he knew more about Africa and how it is covered - and should be covered - than anybody else I know. Milton is of the same African generation as Sorious Samura, the Sierra Leone journalist who was recently arrested in Liberia along with a Channel 4 team. As if to confirm every western suspicion about Africa, the Liberian despot Charles Taylor locked up Samura and the rest of his team soon after they arrived in the country. They were accused - ludicrously - of spying.

Both Samura and Nkosi grew up in countries tormented by violence; they have both seen the worst of what Africa can deliver. But neither are they blind to the formidable strengths of African societies - the resourcefulness I mentioned earlier, and the capacity for regeneration and recovery.

I am reminded of a particular period in recent South African history, when I found myself driving into the townships in the early mornings to count the dead from the previous night's violence. After several weeks of body counting I noticed a phenomenon: small children dressed in uniforms walking along the roads, out of the chaos towards the school day. Somewhere in the madness, parents had got out of bed and made these children ready for the day. They were small figures against that landscape of chaos, but they told a story about big courage. I wish back then I'd paid them more attention.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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