“The New York Times shows how to fail miserably while writing about Africa”

By: Angela Okune

For the second post in this week’s series looking at problematic reporting of Africa, we repost part of a recent piece by Karen Attiah, The Washington Post’s Global Opinions Editor. In her piece, Attiah calls out Harvard Professor, Dr. Maya Jasonoff whose August 18th piece in the New York Times sought to see “what has and hasn’t changed about Africa.” Jasonoff’s article focused on her experience traveling along the Congo River. She closes with: “the more time you spent on it [the river], the more you might feel the deepening warmth of familiarity, and human contact, in place of Conrad’s alienation. That, to me, was progress.” Why is it, I wonder, that a warm human connection that reaches over boundaries of geography / culture / class / race is so important, yet so contested and tricky to identify?

Uduak’s review of Jeffrey Gettleman’s book, which kick-started our series on Monday similarly raised questions of how foreign journalists can/do relate to Africans. Uduak writes: Gettleman “claims to love Africa, but it would seem, not Africans.” Many humanitarians travel the world in serve of such “shared connections” that illustrate our common humanity with others around the world (sidebar: humanitarian practitioners who relate to this description should check out: decolonizing solidarity and idea of feminist “mutuality” via Mohanty (2003)).

Does a shared smile across a cramped matatu (public transport) bus reveal some sort of understanding that cuts across cultural, language, class, racial boundaries… or it is simply one’s own interpretation of that smile? As a student of anthropology, this is particularly interesting to me as it reveals how important long and deep engagement in a context is, especially one outside the one you were raised in. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz noted, there is significant difference between the meaning of a blink and a wink. But to an observer outside the symbolic cultural context, the physical action looks much the same. Therefore, it can only be through long-term engagement with a place and context that one becomes familiar with the interpretive nuances.

The important critiques raised this week by Amimo, Attiah, and Lynch (forthcoming this Friday!)  about fly-in / fly-out journalists and problematic coverage of Africa more broadly highlights to me the importance of investing time and effort in developing deep (and hopefully more open and honest) relationships that connect across social, professional, cultural, linguistic boundaries.

Find an excerpt from Attiah’s piece below and read the full article in the Washington Post here.


The New York Times shows how to fail miserably while writing about Africa

By Karen Attiah

“… I thought … editors [would] think twice about publishing lazy writing about Africa that paints the continent as a dark, primitive and dangerous place. Unfortunately, the New York Times proved me very, very wrong with its Aug. 18 piece “With Conrad on the Congo River,” by Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff. The premise of the piece was to offer a modern-day look at Congo (and, by extension, Africa) through the colonialist gaze of Joseph Conrad, the author of the white-man-in-dark-Africa classic “Heart of Darkness,” published in 1899.

The first paragraph alone was so cringe-worthy, I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a parody:

The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.

The piece only continued to spiral downward.

Jasanoff went on to say that Congolese people were better off under colonialism than they are today, failing to mention that the Congo was the personal piggy bank of the genocidal maniac King Leopold II of Belgium — and that under his rule, millions of Congolese were abducted, slaughtered or mutilated.

The backlash from Africans and Africa watchers on social media was hot, swift and fierce, like the desert winds ripping through the Sahara.

To find out why narratives on Africa like Jasanoff’s are so toxic, watch the TL;DR video above. But long story short, it’s time to leave the white colonial gaze on Africa in the past where it belongs.”

Read the full article in the Washington Post here.