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16 April 2014

Africa in the Eyes of Westerners.

 
Africa is a continent that many people who live outside of fail to truly understand. The foreigner's notions of the continent are plagued by the ideas of AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, poverty and hunger, leaving little room for signs of positivity.

While I'm not denying the impact, size and validity of these problems, there's so much more to Africa that people often forget to acknowledge when the continent comes into conversation.
And it's not necessarily their faults either. The media, which diffuses information and influences thoughts, strategically portrays Africa a certain way. The stories that sell or gain the most attention are ones of poverty and negativity, and they often reflect the agendas of multiple NGO's and nonprofits. 

While NGOs have undeniably great intentions to alleviate the problems of the poor in developing countries, the promotion of their agendas through media only validates imperialistic attitudes of westerners on developing countries.
The media's portrayal of Africa is discriminating because they don't tell the stories of the people. Africans are not less because of the problems they face. 

In Kenya, the Westgate shootings, the fire at the airport and the presidential election are not indicative of daily life in Nairobi, but because these events are the primary sources of our news from Kenya, the westerner's view on how people in Kenya really live is limited.
This isn't just the responsibility and failure of international media though. Local media in Africa is not built on strong enough infrastructure to support the already dying media industry. 

The lack of a strong educational system to support journalists to write stories beyond what is written by international media outlets is nonexistent. The violence perpetuated by media continues and the voiceless remain voiceless.
To be honest, when I first touched down in Kenya, I didn't know what to think. I had done my research on the country and read a number of novels written by African writers.


 While having a macro-level understanding -- from the languages spoken here, the corrupt government, recent terrorist attacks and Nairobi as the tech hub of Eastern African -- I couldn't fathom what I'd be seeing or experiencing. What I did know is that since a young child, I had always been frustrated by the way westerners viewed Africa. The older I grew, the more I realized that the imperialism I learned about in history and literature classes is still as alive today as it ever was. This was an injustice that I always saw and could never live down.
Beyond media, the power and cruelty of communication can be found in our daily conversations as well. I'm starting to understand the malice of some basic phrases we use in America to differentiate ourselves from developing countries. The issue of the phrase 'first world problems' is becoming more apparent as I live here. While we say it casually and in a joking manner, the phrase itself limits the view we have on the third world and make us less relatable to those we perceive as 'others' in the third world. Beyond being unfair to the third world, 'first world problems' also is cruel in that it offers no empathy to those in the first world suffering from problems we deem as 'third world problems.' 

The influence of communication and lack of true understanding is becoming all the more apparent in my days in Kenya. I had the opportunity to go to lunch with a few directors from the Project(RED) campaign and couldn't help but hold my shock when one that them remarked that they were surprised to see people in the slums with mobile phones. How can people who are claiming to solve global health problems like AIDS not understand their constituents? While I understand Project(RED)'s goal is primarily health-related, the prevalence of mobile phones in Kenya is so high (93 percent are mobile phone numbers according to the World Bank) that it's hard to miss when doing research to understand who they're helping. 


The ironic part is that while I'm working for a venture capital firm with a journalism background, I'm once again being fueled by the power of communication. What's promising in Africa is a rising group of Kenyans creating films on the injustices they see, such as this one mockumentary on the 4000 NGOs registered in Kenya. But they're not the only ones responsible to right the wrongs of media and communication injustice.
As millennials grow into an increasingly globalized world, it's our responsibility to communicate through empathy, love and a deep understanding of others, instead of what's easier: to pre-conceived notions derived by the western world. We have the resources -- the Internet, the accessibility to travel, melting pots all around us -- to grow our understanding for others. Yes, it might be scary and yes, it might be hard, but this is an undeniable way to leave the world more beautiful and greater than the one we were handed.


Follow Audrey Cheng on Twitter: www.twitter.com/audreypcheng

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