Our ‘Africa’ Lenses

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novelist, is the author of «Half of a Yellow Sun» (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/11/06):

Growing up in Nsukka, a small university town in eastern Nigeria, I often had malaria. It was so commonplace that when you went to the medical center, a nurse would say, «Malaria has come again, hasn’t it?» Because I know how easily treatable malaria is, I was surprised to learn that thousands of people die from it each year. People like the relatives of David Banda, Madonna’s adopted son from Malawi.

But of course most American media do not say «Malawi»; they just say «Africa.» I realized that I was African when I came to the United States. Whenever Africa came up in my college classes, everyone turned to me. It didn’t matter whether the subject was Namibia or Egypt; I was expected to know, to explain.

I reject this facile compression of a varied continent into a monolithic country, but I have also come to accept that African nations do have much in common with one another. Most have a history of European colonization. Most also have a failure of leadership, a long line of presidents and prime ministers and heads of state all intent on the plunder of the state.

And so I was wearing my «African» lenses as I watched Madonna on television, cautiously, earnestly explaining the media circus around her adoption. I did not think it my place to wonder what her motivation for adoption was. I did cringe, however, when she said that her greatest disappointment was that the media frenzy would discourage people who wanted to do the same thing that she had done: adopt an African child. She wanted people to go to Africa and see what she had seen; she wanted them, too, to adopt.

Later, watching David Banda’s biological father speak about being grateful that she would give David a «better life,» I could not help but look away. The power differential was so stark, so heartbreakingly sad; there was something about it that made Africa seem terribly dispensable.

Madonna will give David a better life, at least a materially better life: better food, housing, books. Whether this will make him a happier and normatively better human being is open to debate. What really matters is not Madonna’s motivation or her supposed flouting of Malawian adoption laws (as though non-celebrities would not also hasten adoption processes if they could). Rather, it is the underlying notion that she has helped Africa by adopting David Banda, that one helps Africa by adopting Africa’s children.

It is easy to romanticize poverty, to see poor people as inherently lacking agency and will. It is easy to strip them of human dignity, to reduce them to objects of pity. This has never been clearer than in the view of Africa from the American media, in which we are shown poverty and conflicts without any context.

If I were not African, I would, after watching the coverage, think of Africa as a place of magnificent wild animals in which black Africans exist as tour guides, or as a place of desperately poor people who kill or are killed by one another for little or no reason.

I once watched CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who is undoubtedly well-meaning, interview a Belgian (who, we were told, was a «Congo expert») about the conflict in that country, while Congolese people stood in the background and watched. Surely there was a Congolese who was qualified to speak about Congo. Surely there are Congolese who are working just as hard as the foreigners and who don’t fit into the category of either killer or killed. Surely the future for Africa should be one in which Africans are in a position to raise their own children.

Which brings me back to Madonna. I applauded her funding of orphanages in Malawi. I wish, however, that instead of asking television viewers to go to Africa and adopt, she had asked them to send a check to malaria-eradication organizations. I wish she had added, after one of those thoughtfully dramatic pauses, that Africa cannot depend on aid alone, that aid is like salted peanuts: The more failed leaders got, the more they wanted. I wish she had said that she was setting up an organization to use donations as micro-credit and that this organization, by the way, would be run by locals rather than expatriate staff members who would raise rents out of the reach of the people they were supposed to be helping.

I wish she had pointed out, with suitable celebrity-style rage, that Western countries need to stop appeasing and propping up hopeless African leaders, that Western banks must stop enabling and accepting stolen money from these leaders, that Western donors who insist on the free movement of capital across borders must also insist on the free movement of labor. I wish she had then shown, with graphs on the screen, how these things affect the father and relatives of David Banda.

Of course this isn’t really about Madonna. It is about a formula that well-meaning people have adopted in looking at Africa, a surface-only, let’s-ignore-the-real-reasons template that African experiences have all been forced to fit in order to be authentically «African.» If I were not African, I wonder whether it would be clear to me that Africa is a place where the people do not need limp gifts of fish but sturdy fishing rods and fair access to the pond. I wonder whether I would realize that while African nations have a failure of leadership, they also have dynamic people with agency and voices. I wonder whether I would know that Africa has class divisions, that wealthy Africans who have not stolen from their countries actually exist. I wonder whether I would know that corrupt African countries are also full of fiercely honest people and that violent conflicts are about resource control in an environment of (sometimes artificial) scarcity.

Watching David Banda’s father, I imagined a British David visiting him in 2021 and I wondered what they would talk about.