In this post, Titilope F. Ajayi from the University of Ghana builds on a recent CIHA Blog series (with posts by Uduak Amimo, Washington Post and Professor Cecelia Lynch) that looked at problematic reporting of Africa by the New York Times.
Guest Post by: Titilope F. Ajayi, University of Ghana – Legon
Rather serendipitously, I happened to watch the late great Komla Dumor’s TEDTalk on telling stories about Africa on what would have been his 47th birthday anniversary. Earlier that day, I had stumbled on a Facebook post about a New York Times piece on obesity in Ghana by two American journalists. I would not be doing justice to Komla’s memory if I did not respond to the latter.
At first glance, the New York Times piece reads like a straightforward commentary on a looming obesity crisis in Ghana. Except there is, like much non-African coverage of Africa, a creepy subtext—at its core, the unsubtle intimation that the average Ghanaian is so impoverished, materially and ideologically, that s/he considers a modern convenience and foreign cultural artifact like KFC a status symbol and a vicarious link to a ‘better life’. It’s not just the quote from Dr. Matilda Laar, nutrition expert at the University of Ghana; it’s the selective interviewees and photos and word strings that paint a distorted picture of modern life in Ghana. ‘Sewer-lined city streets’? A handy but worn stereotype. In like vein, the notion of KFC as Eldorado is convenient and emotive, and yet not true of all nine KFC locations or their patrons in Accra—its Marina Mall, Airport City venue being a case in point.
That KFC’s tactics are underhanded is indisputable. Still, the entire piece would be more believable if it were based on empirical research showing what proportions of and profiles of Ghana’s populace who like KFC, how often they go there, what they eat, and why they do so. In the absence of such data, the allusions in this article are no more than abject speculation about the lifeworlds and lifestyles of over 28 million people—constructed from interviews with a select few.
The NYT piece falls short on at least two other grounds. First, the concept of fast food is way more nuanced than the writers portray in a country where quick local meals are easily available from roadside vendors. These foods are also increasingly available from upscale locally-owned outlets serving traditional fodder to a largely upper class clientele. Kelewele (spiced fried plantains), fried yams, hausa koko (spiced millet or corn porridge), and waakye (rice and bean dish served with spicy sauces) are as much “fast food” as (and in some cases healthier than) pizzas, hamburgers, and any item on KFC’s menu.
Related to this, food choices, including KFC and the like, are an acquired taste and very personal ones at that. For every Ghanaian who enjoys KFC, there are likely many others who don’t—myself included. In any case, given Accra’s rising cosmopolitanism, “Ghanaianness” is no longer an easy distinction.
Finally, it’s not terribly polite to caricature a respected president, or tag a head of state as “overweight” when he has given graciously of his time—a privilege rarely reciprocated to African journalists by American leaders.
About the Author
Titilope F. Ajayi is an independent editor, writer, and civil society and gender and security scholar. Currently a PhD student of international affairs at the Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy, University of Ghana, Legon, Titilope coordinates the portal, http://www.doingaphdinafrica.com/ and writes periodically for the Nonprofit Quarterly and CIHA Blog. She is also a 2017/8 Social Science Research Council Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Doctoral Fellow. For more, follow her on Twitter: @MataLope
Featured image source: KFC via http://kasapafmonline.com/