A comparative taxonomy of African cliches

A bit of a rant, so feel free to find the egress if that’s not what you’re here for. But: beyond the standard stereotypes (either “savage tribal wars” or “happy villagers living in harmony with nature”), there are several slightly more complex cliches about Africa that make me want to grind my teeth. In fact, one could create a taxonomy of the African Cliche (genus Africanus) as follows:

  • Africanus stereotypicus: The most common type of cliche, the Africanus stereotypicus typicus feeds off of broad generalizations of African history. It is characterized by its Manichean coloring, varying between the black of moral depravity and ancient ethnic hatreds, and the snowy white of peaceful farmers who live “as nature intended.”  Other subspecies include the Africanus stereotypicus puerilis, known for its grating proclamations that Africans are too childlike to make decisions about their own lives, and the Africanus stereotypicus type-419, which exhibits severe distrust of Africans in the belief that they are all corrupt, dishonest, and/or Nigerian scam artists.
  • Africanus journalisticus: Cliches of the the journalisticus group are most often found lurking in the mediocre Africa coverage of otherwise well-respected news publications.  The Africanus journalisticus natura is frequently sighted in Madagascar, where international coverage of recent coup attempts uniformly begins with glowing descriptions of the country’s vibrant plant and animal life, in the belief that they must suck readers in with images of lush vegetation before seguing into actual African politics.  The Africanus journalisticus spillover, on the other hand, is more often found in Congo and Somalia, where articles on the real suffering of millions of human beings justify the space they take up in Western newspapers either by A) referring to the current conflict as the spillover of a more interesting conflict (e.g. the Rwandese genocide), or B) explaining that the conflict is important because it could create terrorist threats that might spill over into the readers’ comfortable lives.  A final subspecies, the Africanus journalisticus darfurensis, has seen a dramatic fall in its numbers after the population explosion of 2003-2004.  However, the darfurensis still retains its unique ability to reduce the interwoven political, economic, environmental, and social roots of the genocide in Darfur into a simple morality tale of evil Arabs and innocent Africans.
  • Africanus occidentalis: This cliche is at home in a broad variety of habitats, be it among development practitioners or wide-eyed teenagers visiting Africa for the first time.  It can be distinguished by its prominent belief that concerted Western action can solve all of Africa’s problems.  The Africanus occidentalis studentia lives a peaceful life in the dorm rooms of university students, who often react to its presence by talking at length about the spiritual connection and cultural vitality that they experienced while visiting one country in a very large continent for two weeks last summer.  (The tragedy of receiving a university education whilst children in Africa are dying is an alternate topic, although this should not be confused with actual discussions of Rawlsian justice.)  The Africanus occidentalis interventionis, on the other hand, prefers to settle among career development workers who really should know better.  These include advocates of poorly thought-out boycotts that don’t address the roots of the labor issue in question, World Bank officials who support oil pipelines in Chad, and bloggers who duly repeat that the West must pay more attention to Africa’s suffering, as though the Western gaze has always been the missing ingredient for African development.
  • Africanus impecunius: The Africanus impecunius is a specialized breed, whose natural habitats include NGO websites, blogs written by economics professors, and the Twitter streams of thousands of people with a passing interest in African poverty.  Many subspecies in the impecunius group appear outwardly similar, but the practiced African Cliche-ist can easily spot their differences.  For instance, the Africanus impecunius donatio is usually spotted at fundraisers in major Western cities, wooing potential donors with pictures of malnourished African children and practicing its “you have the power to save a life” call.  The donatio‘s primary competitor is the Africanus impecunius entrepreneurius.  The entrepreneurius prefers a stealth attack, often sneaking up behind the donatio at conferences and beating it over the head with large sets of panel data on import substitution policies.  (Meanwhile, the Africanus impecunius polisci avoids these territorial clashes in favor of migrating from think tank to think tank, seeking a credible way to actually implement all of its theoretical insights about the importance of good governance.)

Ok, taxonomic rant finished.  (Although I guess the entrepreneurius and the polisci are more stock characters than cliches.)  The common thread among many of these tropes is my impatience with people who don’t make an effort to move past their Western points of reference when studying/discussing/visiting/speaking with/working with Africans.  And I am saying “Africans” and not “Africa” very intentionally.  There’s a large lexical difference between thinking of a place primarily in terms of the people who live there, and thinking of it almost as an anthropomorphized piece of suffering land.  Consider sentences like, “Africa is unlikely to achieve the MDGs,” or “Africa suffers disproportionately from AIDS.”  They don’t make any sense unless one interpolates some people in there to do the suffering, but this type of statement – endowing the continent as a whole with sentience and linguistically skipping over the people who actually live there – is usually taken at face value.

Anyway, I mention the perils of not questioning Western frames of reference not because I believe Western capitalist culture is evil, but because it’s at the least misguided and at the most dangerous to view everything in the world through the lenses of one’s own national affiliation.  Misguided is assuming that Western actions are the only important actions in the world, as though non-Western political leaders or private individuals can’t impact a situation as well.  (C.f. the movement for American companies to boycott Congolese minerals, which I guarantee will accomplish nothing besides making a bunch of Chinese manufacturers happy about their increased access to the mines.)  Dangerous is failing to move beyond assumptions in situations where one’s actions actually may have a large impact – and where one is working in the midst of great power disparities to boot.  (C.f. the assumption that structural adjustment would provide sufficient trickle-down benefits for the poor to counterbalance the loss of government-funded social services in the short run.)  The fact that cross-cultural work is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. But cross-cultural work in the face of extremely uneven power relations demands that one actually take the time to thoroughly learn the environment in which and the demands of the people with whom one will be working, instead of resting on cliches.

13 Comments

  1. >Consider sentences like, “Africa is unlikely to achieve the MDGs,” or “Africa suffers disproportionately from AIDS.”

    We also write about The West, Europe, and America the same way, not to mention “the OECD” when we mean the people in those countries rather than the organization, or “Donors” to mean anything from charitable givers, field workers, government organization, NGOs, or the IMF President. Then there’s the omnipresent confusion between a country and its government, or its government and its people. There is more to New York state than the city or the inhabitants of the city, but it is remarkably difficult to convince people I live more than 4 hours from Broadway. Yes, we should do better (and who is we?). It’s not just Africa.

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    1. Hi D.,

      You raise a good point – we (as a species) do tend to generalize and essentialize all the time, not just in regard to Africa. It’s the fallacy of assuming that some country/group/etc. is internally undifferentiated, which is never the case!

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  2. I love this post. Kept laughing through most of it because I recognized almost all the species. Living in Nigeria, I see a lot of these species both around me and on the international scene and I just want to reach across to the screen, yank them off their seat in the CNN studio and smack them straight.
    There’s one you should add though; Africanus Maritalus Knowledgus, the one that presumes knowledge of Africans based on marital relations with one African(I’m married to an African, therefore I know enough about them to be condescending. :)

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    1. Hi Ijeoma! Glad you enjoyed it, and your addition about Africanus Maritalus Knowledgus was spot-on as well. : ) Where in Nigeria are you living?

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      1. I can’t believe I never got round to responding to this question. Imagine That I’ve ignored my wordpress account for four years! And tonight I open it and find this; feels like an out of body experience reading what I wrote then and thinking all that has past since.
        Though it probably doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things, I’ll answer the question: I live in Lagos. :D

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  3. Nice post.
    Though almost all of us fall into some cliche or category.
    What made you want to move to Rwanda?
    How long do you plan to stay?
    Keep on blogging.

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    1. Hi Bill! Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the slow response. I ended up in Rwanda mostly by fortunate coincidence – a friend connected me with a job there initially, but the longer I lived there, the more fascinated I was by Central Africa. I was there for 8 months before moving to the DRC (right around the time people started commenting on this blog, even though I rarely have internet access here!). Hopefully blogging will pick up again in a few weeks when I’m back in the US!

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  4. I would say the common threads are 1)human propensity to embrace stereotypes/make generalizations and 2) what I would all the “expert syndrome,” which is the human propensity to talk about something one actually knows very little about and to assume to know the solution to others’ problems.

    I think we would agree that perhaps the biggest tragedy of Africa is that very few people actually take the time to get to know Africans — and I don’t mean working in some development project to help Africans, I mean just spending time to get to know them. This means getting past the sometimes mystifying superficial differences — there’s a need, I think, to “demystify” Africa. Africa of course has many many cultures and I don’t mean to infer a universal homogenous African culture. But in my experience being married to and living with Africans, I find that the more time I spend, the more I see Africans as just another variety of human beings, with all the good and bad potentiality that comes along with human nature — including the innate potential and ability to solve their own political, economic, and social issues. In my experience, this is one generalization that is accurate enough to make.

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    1. I am terribly late in thanking you for this, but I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’ve been totally fascinated by following FORGE’s progress on SocialEdge, as well (and was quite enjoying From Kala before it got password-locked). Just saw your tweet about transitioning to the DRC, as well – where will you be operating? Best of luck!

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