Bono wants the world to care more about Africa. So do I. After that, it gets a bit harder to see eye to eye.
Bono had a bit of a rough ride at TED Global in Arusha. In the first session of the conference, he found himself heckling Ugandan author Andrew Mwenda. When he took the stage in the next session, to defend the idea that increased aid would benefit Africa, he talked about the benefits of development aid to post-war Germany, an analogy that has some major flaws, as Germany was one of the wealthiest and best educated nations in the world prior to WWII. Most commenters, myself included, saw many of the TED speakers consciously challenging Bono’s idea that increased attention to Africa could lead to increased aid from the G8, and from there to political change. (According to commentator Brendan O’Neill, Bono has now become The People’s Republic of Bono, the ninth member of the G8 – we’ll expect to see his direct aid contributions increasing in the near future. Tip of the hat to Sokari for the link, found in her excellent dissection of Bono’s Africa efforts.)
While I enjoy a bit of Bono-bashing as much as the next guy, it’s worth noting that the rock star’s concern for Africa led directly to the remarkable conference that I and so many others enjoyed. Bono won the inaugural TED prize in 2005, and asked the TED community to help him provide internet connectivity to every school and hospital in Ethiopia. Chris Anderson and the TED staff consulted with a number of tech and development specialists, myself included, before concluding that the task wasn’t possible and was probably politically inappropriate, given Zenawi’s crackdown on political protest after the 2005 parliamentary elections. The TED Global conference focused on Africa in part as a consolation prize for Bono. That the conference had an entirely different flavor than Bono might have organized is a great credit to Chris Anderson, Emeka Okafor and the TED staff – that Bono appeared to have a pretty good time before heading north to yell at G8 leaders is, I think, a credit to him and to his willingness to be challenged by voices from the continent.
I wish the timing had been a bit different, though. It would have been great to see Bono engage with more of the extraordinary Africans who took the stage in Arusha. And I really wish he could have spent time with us before working with Vanity Fair on their July edition – maybe he’d have done things a bit differently. If you want to understand why so many Africans are upset about how they’re portrayed in the northern media, this issue wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Let’s begin with the cover. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, there are 20 different covers. (Collect the whole set!) Each features a pair of celebrities, shot in closeup in some form of interaction. The twenty are as follows: Don Cheadle, Barack Obama, Muhammed Ali, Queen Rania of Jordan, Bono, Condozeela Rice, George W. Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Brad Pitt, Djimon Hounsou, Madonna, Maya Angelou, Chris Rock, Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah, George Clooney, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and Iman Abdulmajid. So… count along with me – that’s three Africans out of twenty cover subjects. Yes, it’s a great representation of African-American influence on American culture, but the actual African participation in the project seem, uh, limited at best.
Jay-Z and George Clooney discuss sustainable farming techniques appropriate for preventing desertification in the Sahel. You’d be surprised – Jay-Z is surprisingly knowledgeable about erosion-resistant ground cover.
In his video interview about the issue, Bono tells us what these twenty people had in common: “They’re passionate about Africa.” And most of them have highly recognizable faces, which never hurts when you’re trying to sell a glossy magazine to society matrons in Iowa. As Bono says, he was trying to “bring some sex appeal to wanting to change the world.” Well, Somali supermodel Iman helps with her attempts to climb out of her dress. And I do suspect that it would have been interesting to listen in on some of the conversations “depicted” on the cover – what do Chris Rock and Warren Buffett say to each other at a joint photo shoot anyway?
The message of the cover is that Africa is important and sexy because important and sexy people care about it and are willing to lend their “talent” and celebrity appeal to the “cause”. This tends to piss off my friends who are begging the world to think of Africa less as a cause and more as a continent, particularly as a continent open for business. How hard would it have been for Vanity Fair to pair some of these well-meaning celebrities with actual Africans working to build businesses, repair hospitals and save forests? Put Corniele Ewango on the cover and let Brad Pitt look up to him, an actual superhero, someone who has risked his life numerous times to preserve the forests of the eastern DRC. Put Madonna on the cover with William Kamkwamba, the remarkable Malawian youth who built a windmill to power his family’s house. (Wait, scratch that – she’d probably adopt him.)
Photo by White African. Don’t sue me, Hash.
Or throw this photo on the cover – here’s Bono talking to some of the young entrepreneurs that George Ayittey terms “the Cheetah Generation”. In the straw hat and badass shirt is Eric Osiakwan, one of the very fastest of the cheetahs, a young innovator who’s worked extremely hard to ensure that the submarine cables that connect the African internet to the North will actually bring down the cost of connectivity on the continent. Vanity Fair isn’t going to make Condoleeza Rice any more famous, but it would probably help Eric get more attention for his work.
But that’s not the point of the issue, as the table of contents makes clear. Genocide in Darfur, AIDS in Rwanda, Jeff Sachs’s attempt to raise $200 billion to transform villages, Madonna in Malawi. The only story in the online table of contents remotely connected to entrepreneurship is a slideshow about the airlines that serve as transport infrastructure for the DRC. It’s possible – and quite likely – that some of these stories are excellent and worth reading. But the overall picture is the one that so many Africans find themselves fighting – Africa as basket case.
Most Americans don’t get it. Howard French, unsurprisingly, does. One of the best journalists of a generation, French knows both Africa and China well enough to see things most people miss. On a flight from Addis Ababa to Beijing, he observes that the vast majority of his passengers are Chinese businessmen, looking for ways to make money on the continent. Flights from America, infrequent as they are, have a different set of passengers:
As I remembered them, the passengers one finds aboard the few existing flights linking the United States to Africa make for an interesting comparison with my Chinese fellow travelers. Yes, there is a smattering of business people and of tourists. But the Americans who travel to Africa tend to be aid workers of one kind or another: officials of the U.S. government and of the international financial institutions, like the World Bank, and the army of well-paid consultants and contractors that they deploy. They are also relief workers and missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers, and academics doing research.
There is much to be gleaned from the contrast here. Chinese people today look at Africa and see opportunity, promise and a fertile field upon which their energies, mercantile and otherwise, can be given full play. Too often, the West looks at Africa and sees a problematic pupil, a sickly patient, and a zone of pestilence, where failure looms in the air like a curse.
As one of those former well-paid contractors, and current researching academic, I can confirm French’s observation. The US businesspeople aren’t getting on the planes yet. Conferences like TED may change the minds of some of the people at Google and AMD, but we’re way behind China, which leads to some of the continent’s more visionary leaders – as well as some of the most repressive – looking eastwards to the future.
If Vanity Fair is on its way to rescue Africa, can you blame Africans for running towards China as fast as they can?
It’s possible to portray Africa in a different light. Ask Emeka Okafor, who put the remarkable speaker list for TED Global together. Flip through the photos on Flickr from the event, including this one, which may be the first example of me being turned into a LOLGeek… Maybe Bono will ask Emeka or some of the other cheetahs for some help the next time someone asks him to represent an entire continent in magazine form.
Update: Several commenters and bloggers have made the point that the contents of the magazine are significantly broader than portrayed on the website, including some of the speakers from the TED Africa conference. Juliana from Afromusing – who’s collected four of the twenty covers – makes this point especially well… With her recommendation, I plan on buying one – though only one – copy of the magazine to see whether I agree with her assessment… :-)