How Do You Challenge a Stereotype?

How do you challenge a stereotype? Let’s start with sarcasm and wit.

This video campaign’s mockery of so many stereotypes is subtly evocative in its attempt to challenge a global perception of Africa. The students that made it (and many other provoking videos and blogs) accompany the clip on their website (www.africafornorway.no) with the question: 

Imagine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about the country. What would they think about Norway? 

Obviously their video has an angle of challenging stereotypes, and their direct mockery of the videos from Band Aid and USA for Africa is being used for a range of effects, but their question above is a good one to ponder.

I recently re-watched, for the first time in a long time, the Band Aid charity single. Before even dissecting the lyrics, was reminded of the controversy of the album cover. I had forgotten just how provocative and somewhat inappropriate the front cover of the original single was...

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I also listened closely to the lyrics for the first time. I had never really listened analytically to the words before (being drowned out, I suppose, by Boy George’s incessant high-pitched wailing and a diatribe of eighties rockers begging me to stop tucking into my Christmas dinner and care about others.) Some of the lines really are unbelievable though.

*NB. Before I begin my dissection of the merits of one of the biggest campaigns in this country’s history, please bear with me: I am not for a second berating the undeniable work that this single achieved in helping to financially support one of the most appalling famines this modern world has ever seen, happening for several years across Ethiopia during the mid eighties. Far from it. As a campaign, it proved unparalleled in the financial aid that was created for one country’s support of another. What I am berating is firstly the stereotype that this single managed to cement in the psyche of our country and secondly the generalised use of the word Africa in the song.) The stereotypes seen here continue to live so freshly in our minds because the song still lives on, every Christmas, for eternity.

Let’s start with these lyrics:

Where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears…
Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow…

There was a famine happening in Ethiopia when this song was released during the winter of 1984. There were also many countries in Africa during that time struggling with the annual effects of the dry season on their crops and harvests. However, the rivers of the Nile, the Congo, the Zambezi, the Niger, the Ubangi, the Senegal (I could go on) were still merrily flowing into1985. And they’re all in Africa. Plus, it rained a heck of a lot in the rainforests of the Congo, Uganda, Gabon and Madagascar to name but a few countries. All of which are countries in Africa. Furthermore, I suspect the majority of other African countries whose climates house a prolonged period of precipitation annually or biannually also grew puddles and crops that Christmas.

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas.

Really? Well, tell that to the ski resorts and the chilly locals of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco; to the climbers on the top of Kilimanjaro; to the snowmen being built in South Africa and the folks in the region of Mount Kenya, or Uganda’s Rwenzori mountains who shivered a wee bit that winter.

Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

Possibly, yes, but why should they care, considering that 35% of Ethiopians are Muslim. And the Orthodox Ethiopians (43% of the country) practise Ganna (Christmas) on the 7th January (not in December) by fasting the night before. Plus, with literally hundreds of religions being practiced across the continent, it is very likely that many people did not know that it’s Christmas time. “At all”. After all, how many of us would know when it’s Eid, or Diwali, or Vesak or Vaisakhi or Passover? I’m just saying…

I know I’m being provocative here in my dissection of this song and that I’m taking some meanings far beyond their intention. But I’m not being fickle when I examine the impact that this charity song and so many other elements of “charity” and “development” are having in reinforcing stereotype.

Having worked with UK Education organisation Bright Green Enterprise on their enterprise challenge days across a large number of British schools, it has been fascinating for me to see what students come up with when considering ways to allow their made-up business to be ethical and have a positive social responsibility angle. Many decide that they are going to donate a percentage of their profits to charity; most of them want to “send money to Africa”. When questioning them on which particular country in Africa they want to donate to, I have often been met with a confused look saying something along the lines of, “What do you mean which country? Africa of course.”

The premise of Africa being a country is not just something that children think (or confuse themselves with); it sadly seems to be a confused thought that a large number of people have; people who should certainly know better. I was recently reading the back of a charity leaflet (sent out by a very large and well known organisation) asking for donations for a project supplying malaria vaccinations to be handed out in, I quote: “India, China, Africa and other similar countries…”

Sadly, the stereotypes surrounding “Africa” continue far beyond this one gross misnomer within our subconscious vernacular. Just recently, when teaching in a school in South London, working with some very bright girls and questioning about the ethical model of their business plan, they told me that they were going to donate some of their profit from their Solar-Headphones company to Africa to buy them shoes. Holding back my irony-filled smirk, I firstly asked whereabouts in Africa (to be met with the usual looks of confusion and consternation) and I secondly asked why. The answer they gave was that none of them (“the Africans”) had shoes and therefore it would help them all to be happier if they were sent shoes using a British company’s financial profit.

“All Africans are poor and needy” somehow seems to be a standardised view that the world is given, namely by the powerful media sources of the West. From documentary, to film, to charity to news, the message is the same: Africa is all the same.  I read an interesting document by The World Bank (called Projection of Development) recently, looking at how films touching on “development issues” are still presenting a neo-colonial Whites in Shining Armour version; often confirming stereotypes that the media flourish with daily; stories told (completely extracted from context) through the eyes of a western outsider. From Blood Diamond to Avatar to The Constant Gardener, the essay dissected the power of the lens to promote stereotype.  

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Think about this for a second: Botswana is one of the top thirteen achievers in the world when it comes to sustained economic growth. It has been democratic and peaceful since its independence. It is an African country. South Africa (which, by the way, is NOT the capital of Africa) houses some of the richest people in the world. It is an African country. Nigeria is on course to becoming one of the twenty largest global economies across the world within the next five years: it is also in Africa. Despite the fact that some of the wealthiest people on the planet are residing across the continent, all fifty four African countries worlds are constantly being tarnished by the same brush painting them as “needy Africans” that need saving. Sadly, stereotypes reign across our global media and disparity or context are simply not part of the story.

Poverty and hunger, natural disasters and disease are real issues affecting millions of lives across the continent and the wider world; they call for action, empathy and support. However, understanding and aid require engagement built on knowledge, understanding and context, not on stereotypes.

How do you challenge a stereotype? By facing them full on for a start. By talking; by dissecting the truth and by taking responsibility for your own thoughts and your individual impact on the world. We are responsible for a great deal more than we know in our words about the world and each other; and can choose to do something right now to challenge the single story of Africa.

 
Rachel Musson