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Media. It comes in many different shapes and sizes from television, to music, to artwork. Nowadays, in a world as modern as ours, many of our thoughts and ideas come from the media we consume, and as a result, the way we perceive things is drastically influenced by it. But how much of the media that we believe to be true is actually true? And as for the people behind the scenes, are they really doing the world a favor or could it be the exact opposite? In an effort to address these questions, a deeply frustrated Binyavanga Wainaina uses his essay “How to Write About Africa,” to not only narrate the countless stereotypes the media has made about his home continent, Africa, but also to make the even bigger point that reporting on Africa in this manner is immoral as it is usually followed by corrupt intentions of capitalization.
Wainaina explicitly discloses the manipulation, exploitation, and abuse that his home goes through, to make clear his main issue: the Western portrayal of Africa is heavily generalized, disrespectful to the native people, and most importantly, the true motive behind this sort of “care” is unethical.
Straightaway, Wainaina satirizes the absurdity of the extent to which Western cultures stereotype Africa to question the true purpose of such actions. He maintains that certain organizations of the Western world are manipulating the continent to look a certain way so that it can do certain things for them, as he so sarcastically says, “Africa is the only continent you can love – take advantage of this” (544).
His interesting use of the word “love” followed by a provocative example of a man taking a woman’s virginity represents exactly what some of these organizations are doing to Africa: while pretending to “love” the exquisite place, they’re actually just there to take what they can and want from it, just as a man objectifies a woman’s body. In this case, these organizations are after profitable advantages as Wainaina declares, “often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales” (545). By introducing this idea of “sales,” Wainaina is, in essence, questioning the true intentions of visiting Africa. Is it really to bring an end to some of the underprivileged conditions or to raise money for individual benefits? How is our media coverage caring for Africa and is it done in an ethical way?
With these questions in mind, Wainaina progresses his stance by advising his audience to exclude all the “deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things” (543) that could be written about, because according to him, “your reader doesn’t care about all that” (543). Wainaina puts all the attention on the audience of the soon-to-be-published book because that is the primary source of financial income which Wainaina suggests, is the most significant asset that an organization cares to obtain throughout this whole process. He continues by satirically adding, “keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular” (543) in order to make the point that certain organizations are only accentuating the parts that they believe to be more impactful, fantastical, and profitable. These organizations may appear to long for an end to the parts of Africa that are in underdeveloped conditions, but with profitable gain on the line, the true motive and its morality remain a mystery.
Additionally, when Wainaina tells writers that they must only speak of Africa’s suffering, helplessness, and desperate need for Western benevolence, he’s once again bringing to attention the unethical way we are caring for Africa by promoting it in this negative light that is only called forth by selfish, commercial desires. Wainaina’s reiteration of the phrase “because you care” in several instances is an overall representation of his main problem: these organization’s that “care,” only do because they are hoping to manipulate and take advantage of the vulnerability that exists in certain places of Africa. Not only is this degrading to Africa as a continent, but it is highly unscrupulous in its intention, action, and result. When any sort of advantage, especially that of monetary value comes into play, these organizations are not caring ethically, because at that point, Africa is no longer the beautiful continent it should be represented as, but rather, a brand that needs to be sold off to the public like any other for business purposes. This phenomenon questions the true morality of media coverage and it can even be debatable that such occurrence is not any form of care, but rather abuse.
In a similar fashion, Teju Cole’s “A Too Perfect Picture” compares the artwork of two different artists, Steven McCurry and Raghubir Singh, to provide context on the difference between aesthetically pleasing but fantastical art and art that is equally charming yet more representative of all of India in its past and present forms. Cole’s biggest issue with McCurry’s work is the fact that “the pictures are staged or shot to look as if they were” (972). Not only does this make room for “vertiginous prices at auctions” (971), but it is also highly unnatural and unauthentic in its depiction. Cole’s text deepens this idea of unethical care by showing that with McCurry’s photography, real people can instantly become characters that we can manipulate to our liking, which is immoral in more ways than one. When describing a picture of two men riding a steam train, Cole writes, “the men are real, of course, but they have also been chosen for how well they work as types” (972). Cole is referencing to the characterization this type of staged photography puts on the subjects which also ties back to this idea of setting certain standards by which the art must follow in order to acquire benefits from it. Cole stresses that creating “images that masquerade as art but fully inhabit the vocabulary of advertising” (973) is one issue, but an even bigger one is that while doing this, we are exploiting one person’s identity, purpose, and meaning in life. What many organizations fail to realize is that this oversimplification is the true unethical part of monetizing art, and the repercussions that follow are validations of this exact corruption.
By disregarding all the other unique facets a place has to offer and solely focusing on a few that we deem rewarding, this form of “care” does not seek to appreciate, but rather appropriate for economic gain, as it is a clear act of shaping a place, a person, and a culture for individual benefits. Wainaina’s remark of the word “character” throughout his essay, tied with Cole’s mention of “types” all go on to show that what certain organizations believe to be caring is actually demeaning, destructive, and stereotypical in reality. Oversimplifying the pain and hurt that people may potentially receive from such actions is what makes all of this so immorally unjust and gives more reason to prevent this type of behavior from happening. It’s essential that we respect everyone, everything, and their life stories, and to be able to do so, is to truly care ethically.
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