Does the contemporary image of Africa have its roots in colonial oppression? (short title)
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Does the contemporary image of Africa have its roots in colonial oppression? (short title) For many people in the Western world, the mention of the word Africa conjures up images of starvation, poverty, corruption and environmental degradation - images popularised by today's media. This is illustrated by the above quotation, depicting a continent peopled by the sick and famished, living in technologically-backward conditions and still at the mercy of their environment, in a form of stone-age environmental determinism. So how has this image managed to become so firmly established in people's minds? Is it because it represents the real conditions of modern Africa or, as this question suggests, is it a throwback to the imagery of Africa's colonial past? In this essay, I would like to propose that neither of these hypotheses provide a full solution to this question (although many common features can be found between contemporary African imagery and that of its colonial past), but instead a number of other issues must also be raised. I will put forward this argument by firstly, outlining some of the historical perceptions of Africa and then comparing these with present day imagery. (When considering African communities I have confined myself to black communities, as the white communities of northern Africa rarely form part of most Westerners' perceptions of "Africa".) Pre-Colonial Africa Some of the first imagery of Africa which has been found dates back to 2500 BC and represents images of Blacks in Ancient Egypt.
In the words of the famous Scottish missionary, David Livingstone (1867): "We come among them as members of a superior race and servants of a Government that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family." The imagery associated with Africa, as distinct from Africans, was far more appealing however. Most of the literature written on the African environment at the time presented largely romanticized illusions, as the source of these writings were mainly travel journals or anthropological texts. The only illustrations available were from explorers' booty or staged photographs, again biassing people's impressions of the continent. Furthermore, since most Europeans would never see Africa, the temptation for those returning from Africa to embellish their stories, or at least leave the public to believe in images that appealed to them, must have been great. "The image of Africa, in short, was largely created in Europe, to suit European needs - sometimes material needs, more often intellectual needs." (Curtin, 1964) Present-Day Images and Future Research Since Independence, there has been a common perception that Africa has been going downhill. The colonial emphasis on the negative aspects of Africa continues. Post-colonial states are frequently portrayed as violent, poverty-stricken, mismanaged and corrupt. However, many of the problems of the post-colonial state, have their roots in imperialism. For instance, Crowder (1987) argues that the uprisings of African states can be seen as a response to the violence used to conceive and maintain colonial states; while the frequently-quoted theme of imposed and unsuitable colonial boundaries, can also be used in defence of political upheavals.
But when they want reinforcement they hire consultants from their own country." Although the contemporary image of Africa shares many characteristics of the colonial imagery however, these concepts have often come about for slightly different reasons. For example, both contemporary and colonial Western communities tend to emphasise the negative aspects of Africa, but in colonial times this was to justify colonization, while today it is largely to justify aid programmes. Four major trends can still be isolated however, which pervade both colonial and contemporary images of Africa. These trends do seem to have colonial roots, even if their emphasis has changed slightly in the intervening years. The eurocentric bias, particularly of present-day research has been an important issue, since the birth of the colonies. Furthermore, since most images are created by non-Africans, they have an inherent bias and tend to reflect changes in the researchers society, rather than that of the African society. The use of images for propaganda has also biassed western perceptions of Africa for many years, although the purpose of the propaganda has changed. Finally, the concept of Africa being a homogeneous entity remains, despite the fact that many Westerners have now travelled widely and should have a broader outlook. It seems therefore that these images are so ingrained in people's minds that, even with the ability to experience Africa firsthand, they are going to be very difficult to change. The this fact that issue is finally being raised however, and that discussion on the topic has begun, is perhaps the first step towards re-education.
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