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Murphy, Thomas H. (ed.) / Wisconsin alumnus
Volume 77, Number 2 (Jan. 1976)

Wiley, David S.
The African connection,   pp. 7-11


Page 11


of incredible ignorance and myth about Africa.
  The final area of tension between
Americans and Africans is the
stereotypes we hold about Africa. We
are guilty of incredible ignorance and
myth about Africa, even the most
educated and sophisticated of us.
This fall, a Nigerian professor of
English literature who lives in a city
of more than a million reported
that he had been asked by a
college-educated American hostess
if the lions shown on a television film
were similar in size to those he regu-
larly sees in Nigeria. Nigerians
never see lions; the average Ameri-
can youngster has seen far more
wildlife in the flesh than his or her
African counterpart. Nevertheless, the
American media continue to
exaggerate Africa's exotic side.
Through "Animal World," "Wild
Kingdom," "Daktari," Disney specials,
and countless B-movies, animalized
Africa is rehearsed again and again
before the American audience,
to the exclusion of those parts of
Africa which are mechanizing, indus-
trializing and developing. The result is
that while a few facts about this
most rapidly urbanizing Of the
world's continents gradually appear in
classroom social studies texts, a new
national survey shows that the
average American young person at
seventeen holds more stereotypes about
Africa than at thirteen! To most
of the new media generation of this
world's richest educational
system, Africa remains the Masai
warrior, leaning on his spear, idyllically
watching the cattle and the clouds:
the Noble Savage lives. While
the modal African terrain in fact
resembles Wisconsin or Iowa, Africa
lives in the minds of most Americans
as the teeming and impenetrable
jungles, through which Bogart's
African Queen endlessly plods.
The repeated bad jokes about the
missionary and the cannibal, and
the more sophisticated middle-school
texts on the hunting-and-gathering
"Bushmen" (they actually are the San
peoples, called "Bushmen" by the
South African whites who exter-
minated many and drove the rest from
their ancestral lands) add to the myth
of the savagery, the primitiveness,
the voodoo, the irrationality of
African peoples. Indeed, Africa re-
mains "Darkest Africa." When
Africanists protest to the major televi-
sion networks or to the printed media,
we frequently are told that either
"'it's simply a matter of human
interest reporting" or "the program
was just a story, a comedy
which no one takes seriously."
   Such media images could be dis-
regarded if factual reporting on Africa
were more accurate and extensive,
but it is not. The Washington Post,
probably the most important news
source of American political decision-
makers, covers Africa's fifty-two nations
and 700,000,000 people with one
reporter, who, within a few days
last spring, was ordered to cover the
independence of Mozambique, the
coup against the Emperor in Ethiopia,
and the Ali-Frazer fight in Zaire!
(As one Madison newspaper editor
noted, there is more and better report-
ing on Africa in one weekly air-
mail tissue edition of the British
Manchester Guardian than in all the
American national press combined.)
Those of us who know Africa and read
the U. S. press' political reporting
frequently find that stories are
shallow, and stereotypical, over-
emphasizing the importance of
ethnicity and tribe, fixated on the
bizarre and exotic, primarily depend-
ent on white expatriates for infor-
mation, and sometimes covertly
allied with white-racialist interests.
   Africa is an attractive, friendly, and
 incredibly complex range of
 societies and cultures, from which
 we have much to learn. For long
 years, we did not understand that the
 major mode of cultural innova-
 tion and development in Africa
 usually was not one in which
 "'material culture" was primary. When
 we found no pyramids, no Appian
 Way, no grand temples, no Great Wall,
 and no gunpowder, we thought
 Africa was uncivilized. (Indeed, that
 is the continuing message of the
 South Africa Information Service in
 the stories it distributes in Europe
 and North America to justify
 white oligarchy.) But it is not
 uncivilized! Rather, some African
 societies innovated and developed
 in human relations, in building intri-
cately interwoven civilizations,
matrixed through kinship, lineage,
polity, religion, and locality. This
fixation with human inter-relationships
frequently produced great concern
for reduced hostility, inequality,
and dissension in the societies. Impor-
tant ceremonies are traditionally built
around the restoration of friendship
between men or women who had
quarreled. Criminals usually are kept
within the community for their
punishments. Sometimes, even the
injured party and the criminal are
asked to exchange gifts to symbolize
the restoration of the criminal to
normal human relationships with
his neighbor, the exclusion of
alienation from the community,
and the restoration of communal
health. This understanding of crime
more as an expression of the poor
health of a community and less as
a matter of evil individuals is a con-
ception toward which
Americans are slowly moving.
   The United States needs continuing
 access to Africa's minerals and
 commodities for our industry and
 quality of life. Africa needs American
 know-how and technology. Today
 we appropriate little economic
 assistance with which to keep up
 the American side of the exchange,
 and our alliances with minority
 white regimes are serving only our
 very short-term interests in these
 states which shortly will have African
 governments. (As the African
 proverb observes, "When you know
 who his friend is, you know who he
 is.") The result of this unequal
 exchange between Americans and
 Africans may be seen in the recrimi-
 nations which grow in the halls of
 the United Nations, in the growing
 estrangement between Americans
 and those to whom we owe
 so much. We can only hope that
 historians a century hence will look
 back on these few decades as a
 temporary period of short-sightedness.
 David Wiley has lived in Rhodesia,
 and conducts research in Zambia
 concerning education, health, and
 housing of urban populations.
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