Outside Edge: Let's stop patronising Africa

Africa is a hugely diverse continent that cannot be conveyed by a single, simple template, writes Tash Shifrin.

Africa is a big place, with a population of around 700 million people and an image problem: people keep trying to pin an image on it.

As the Africa Commission delivered its report this month, a couple of images came to mind. They are worth closer consideration.

The first is a group portrait of the Africa Commission itself. Guess who is in the centre? Yes, it's Tony Blair. Everyone else is lined up around the great leader, the man who will save Africa. What is the message here? Blair's commission, Blair's continent, perhaps?

The snap is reminiscent of the notorious 'Blair's babes' photo in which women MPs were pictured clustering devotedly round Tony. It wasn't a good look. The Africa Commission's portrait doesn't do much for the continent either.

Saint Bob does adorn the commission picture, however, although Geldof could usefully think about his own use of imagery. Consider the cover artwork of the re-released Band Aid single. This features stuffed Bambis and slightly more realistic polar bears in a weird winter wonderland.

It is not clear which bit of Africa this is supposed to represent. In the middle is a stereotypical naked African child.

See, the image declares, they're so innocent/primitive/childlike over there. Ah, the African is almost as cuddly as the Bambis. Perhaps some enlightened Brit will clothe the child and lead it to the bizarre chalet in the top left corner.

This kind of imagery is worse than tasteless - it's straight out of the 19th century. Where did Geldof and co acquire this peculiar vision, in which Africa is symbolised by a child, naked even in the snow? From the Missionary's Guide to Patronising Others, perhaps?

Such rubbish misjudges the British public too. There is an increasingly sophisticated understanding of international politics, imperialism, trade and debt, reflected in campaigns such as Make Poverty History. We can surely grasp the idea that 700 million people have lives, histories, politics and opinions that don't conform to a single, simple template.

It doesn't have to be like this. Christian Aid, for example, is using interviews, illustrated by straightforward photographs, with people from a number of African countries who speak articulately for themselves.

The World Development Movement is promoting a statement by UK-based Africans and diaspora groups that condemns the Africa Commission report as colonialist.

They too speak for themselves and are aiming to challenge negative portrayals of Africa.

Good. Let's have no more look-at-Tony publicity, no more patronising kitsch. Africa offers a huge diversity of thinkers, writers, workers, parents, farmers, organisers, artists, campaigners and more. It's time that was reflected in our images of Africa.

- Tash Shifrin is a specialist social affairs writer.

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