Africa, according to Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, speaking at a recent literary event, is usually seen in the West as a “headless beast that needs to be spoken at.” In the Obama era, Wainaina said he was hopeful that Africa and the U.S., in particular, could change this and be “brains that can talk to each other…with brains here and brains there.” It was a set of striking images – and relevant. The representation of Africa in the Western media and consciousness remains problematic. Too often “Africa” is portrayed as helpless, desperate and feckless, and Africans as passive, disinterested or incapable. By contrast, “The West” is viewed as essential to Africa’s salvation, a critical dispenser of rescue, aid, empathy, and, at times, some necessary tough love. New examples appear regularly. Among those most recently is Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece in the New York Times,
“Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya’s Hopes.
The article covers drought, hunger, poor governance and climate change, all extremely important to Kenya’s present and future. Four million Kenyans may require food after after the rains failed – again – devastating harvests. But the way the piece is reported conjures Wainaina’s headless beast. We hear from a government functionary in denial about the mortal toll of the drought and a representative of an international aid agency. Not one of the many Kenyans working within civil society to improve their country’s policies and politics, and to forestall the catastrophe gripping Kenya, is quoted. Why? It’s not that they don’t exist. They do. To name just two: Nobel laureate and Brighter Green colleague Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and author, most recently, of The Challenge for Africa. For years, she’s warned about dire consequences, like drought, if Kenya continued to destroy its forests, which regulate rainfall and protect soil.
Then there’s Maina Kiai, former chairperson of the non-governmental Kenya National Commission for Human Rights, now a journalist working to hold Kenya’s leaders accountable for their performance or lack of it. There are many others, in Kenya and across Africa, building civil society despite serious obstacles, including harassment by their own governments. It’s not that these people need attention from the international media (although that wouldn’t hurt their organizations’profile and capacity to attract funding). But readers of Times content (and that in other major media outlets) ought to know they exist – and that Africans are not mere bystanders to the drama of their continent. There’s plenty of agency to see here, plenty of brains. It’s brainy to see it.