What we talk about when we talk about “Africa”

About a year ago, there was this excellent satirical video that encouraged Africans to send heaters to Norway to help address the cold.

If all you knew about Norway was what you saw in those clips, you would think it was pretty awful, right?

I have been thinking about that video as I read coverage of the unfolding disasters in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The conflicts exemplify the two ways that international media have to report on conflict in sub-Saharan Africa.

First, there’s the Christian-Muslim frame. The violence is seen as the result of hostility between followers of two great faiths. We have seen this in the last month in reporting on the Central African Republic. The archetype for this reporting is the ongoing violence in Nigeria.

Second, there’s the “ancient tribal hatreds” frame. This is the theme that has dominated coverage of the violence in South Sudan. (This Guardian story, for instance.) The Dinka and the Nuer are said to be at each other’s throats as they always have been. There is little analysis of just how “ancient” these “hatreds” are and how real a construct the “tribes” are. The archetype for this reporting is the Rwandan genocide, which usually, before long, gets invoked in this kind of reporting.

There are many problems with these frames. “Tribes,” as is now widely recognized by scholars, were frequently a creation of colonial governments. Prior to the arrival of the British in southern Sudan, for instance, the lines between Dinka and Nuer were permeable and fluid. The British wanted to firm up these boundaries to facilitate their policy of indirect rule. This is not to say that people do not now identify as Dinka or Nuer, but it is to say that the reason for the violence is not lost in some pre-historic “mists of time” but is the result of actual decisions made by outsiders.

The other major problem with both frames is that it encourages the reader to throw up their hands and walk away. If you read the comments after some of these articles, count how many times people say something like, “Well, if they’ve just been killing each other for so long, why should we intervene and risk our own lives in a never-ending conflict?” That would be a good question—if it were based in reality.

Moreover, these frames neglect the actual voices of people on the ground. No reporters that I have seen appear at all interested in interviewing people who do not fit into their “tribal” schema. Yet if you listen to church leaders in South Sudan speaking across the Dinka-Nuer divide or follow the Twitter hashtag #MyTribeIsSouthSudan, you can see that there is a lot more complexity here than gets reported.

What none of this reporting seems to acknowledge is the real reason for these conflicts: leadership. What is happening in South Sudan right now, is in large measure, the result of the inability of the country’s leaders to address their differences without resorting to violence. Time and again in these last days, I have thought back to Chinua Achebe’s famous opening to his book The Trouble with Nigeria: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”

Another way of saying this is that the conflict in South Sudan is a political conflict. And political conflicts between leaders have solutions: create institutions that can credibly address conflict; educate and raise up other leaders; reduce the huge number of weapons that are present in situations like this so that if violence happens it is less destructive; create opportunities for people from different backgrounds to come together in peace. None of these are easy tasks. All of them take huge amounts of energy and time. None are guaranteed to succeed. But that doesn’t mean we should not continue to try them.

The one thing, above all, that would change how we think about “Africa” is if we would simply listen to the voices of Africans. This would challenge our listening abilities in many ways. But there is simply no substitute for listening to how people experience, perceive, and understand what is happening to them.

Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, in which God came to share human existence in a deep, intimate, and loving way. How can we begin to learn about, understand, and share the experiences of our sisters and brothers around the world?

(And, of course, if you haven’t, you should read, “How to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina.)

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