Opinions & Features July 24, 2021 at 12:00 pm

Ooga-Booga journalism: How not to write about Africa

Milton Allimadi July 24, 2021 at 12:00 pm

July 24, 2021 at 12:00 pm | Opinions & Features

The cover of the book "How Africa Was Demonized In Western Media" by Milton Allimadi. Source: Milton Allimadi

I started reading newspapers and magazines when I was 12 years old when my family lived in Tanzania and even at that age I was appalled by the way Africans were portrayed as “tribal” people in U.S. publications like The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time magazine. Some years later, I vowed that I would one day counter the historical demonization of Africa in Western media after an incident during my freshman year at Syracuse University in 1980.

During English literature class, a professor claimed Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was the greatest book written in the English language. I remember him reading the following passage, ecstatically: “We were wanderers on prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.

“But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grassroofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us–who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.”

I remember sweating in discomfort the more the professor read from Conrad and the more he engaged other eager students in discussion. I felt that what he was reading was offensive and wrong. The worst part of that episode was that I wasn’t intellectually prepared with adequate information to challenge the professor and refute his claims about “Heart of Darkness.” 

It was 12 years later, when I was a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia that I embarked on the research to learn more about the origins of the demonization of Africa in Western writings when I wrote my Master’s thesis. My paper focused on The New York Times coverage of Africa and I read back issues of the newspaper from the 19th to the 20th century. My research allowed me to access the New York Times’ archives, where I unearthed interesting correspondences exchanged between reporters sent to Africa and editors here in New York; I also interviewed several Times reporters and editors.   

The Times’ early coverage of Africa was often racist and offensive. 

Consider how the Times reported on the independence movement in Africa. When the newspaper sent two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Homer Bigart to cover decolonization in late 1959, this is what he said, in part, in a letter to his foreign news editor, Emanuel Freedman: “I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr. Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cork. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.”

Bigart’s contempt for Africa, openly expressed in his letter to Freedman, was conveyed in his articles. On January 31, 1960, The New York Times published an article by Bigart under the headline “Barbarian Cult Feared in Nigeria.” Bigart wrote in his lead sentence that “A pocket of barbarism still exists in eastern Nigeria, despite some success by the regional government in extending a crust of civilization over the tribe of the pagan Izi.”

He added, “A momentary lapse into cannibalism marked the closing days of 1959, when two men killed in a tribal clash were partly consumed by enemies in the Cross River country below Obubra.” Yet, in the same article Bigart contradicts his own claims of alleged cannibalism, when he continues: “Garroting was the society’s favored method of execution. None of the victims was eaten, at least not by society members. Less lurid but equally effective ways were found to dispose of them.” He added, “No trace has been found of these bodies. A few were buried in ant heaps. But most became human fertilizer for the yam crops.” 

Foreign editor Freedman enjoyed and promoted Bigart’s racist caricaturization of Africans. “This is just a note to say hello and to tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public,” Freedman wrote to Bigart, in a letter dated March 4, 1960. “By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa. All this and nationalism too! Where else but in The New York Times can you get all this for a nickel?” 

In May 1960, Bigart arrived in Leopoldville—now Kinshasa—the capital of what was then Belgian Congo, to cover the country’s independence.

“I had hoped to find pygmies voting and interview them on the meaning of independence but they were all in the woods,” Bigart wrote, in a letter to Freedman, dated May 29, 1960. “I did see several lions, however, and from Usumbura I sent a long mailer about the Watutsi giants.” (Usumbura, now Bujumbura, was then the capital of Ruanda-Urundi, another Belgian colony, and now the separate countries of Rwanda and Burundi). 

Under Belgian King Leopold II’s genocidal regime, an estimated 10 million Congolese had been exterminated when they did not produce enough rubber and ivory, or for resisting imperialism. There are chilling photos in history books, showing Africans holding up the fire-cured hands or feet of their compatriots who had failed to meet their assigned production quotas. Even Mark Twain wrote a pamphlet “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (1905) condemning the Belgian monarch’s barbarity.

Finally, in 1960, The New York Times had the opportunity to interview some of the descendants of those massacred by the Belgians, or perhaps to speak with elderly surviving amputees; instead, Bigart was focusing on locating Africans to demonize. Although he’d failed to locate Pygmies, Bigart informed readers how they felt about independence, when his article was published in the Times on June 5, 1960, under the contemptuous headline “Magic of Freedom Enchants Congolese.”

“As the hour of freedom from Belgian rule nears, In-de-pen-dence is being chanted by Congolese all over this immense land, even by pygmies in the forest,” Bigart’s article read. “Independence is an abstraction not easily grasped by Congolese and they are seeking concrete interpretations,” Bigart claimed, “To the forest pygmy independence means a little more salt, a little more beer,” the article stated, and also added, nonsensically, that “Lulua tribesmen” in the Congo asked an American missionary if independence came “’wrapped in paper and do we go to the bank and get it?’” 

My research showed that some New York Times reporters objected to the racist depiction of Africans. “The reference to ‘small pagan tribes dressed in leaves’ is slightly misleading and could, because of its startling quality, give the reader the impression that there are a lot of tribes running around half-naked,” Lloyd Garrison, a Times’ correspondent in Nigeria during the civil war, complained in a letter dated June 5, 1967 to the foreign news editor. The article Garrison complained about had been published on May 31, 1967. Garrison’s original version had no such reference to Nigerian “small pagan tribes dressed in leaves”; that incident had been entirely fabricated and inserted into the article by editors in New York, perhaps to give the story a more “savage” flavor. Garrison also objected to the insertion of the words “tribes” and “tribesmen” by the editors in many of his past articles.

My Master’s thesis was awarded the James A. Wechsler Scholarship for international reporting by the faculty at the Columbia Journalism School. A respected publication, Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), also accepted the paper for publication; however, the editors, perhaps concerned about how the Times would react to an expose about the paper’s racist past, backed off. 

The journalistic cowardice by CJR motivated me to continue my research and to expand its scope over the last three decades, culminating in the publication of my book “Manufacturing Hate: How Africa Was Demonized in Western Media” (Kendall Hunt Publishing Co., June 2021). 

For the book, I also critiqued writings of the so-called “explorers”  who traveled to “discover” Africa between the 17th and the 19th centuries. They were agents of imperialism, mapping out the continent for the European “Scramble for Africa” and the formal partition at the Berlin Conference of November 1884 to February 1885. In order to justify colonization, these “explorers” projected Africa as a continent inhabited by savages in need of European civilization—the White Man’s Burden. In truth, the objective was to profit from the continent’s resources and from African labor. Colonialism was continuation of slavery in a new form. 

One of the most notorious of these “explorers” was Samuel Baker, who authored “Albert Nyanza,” a book about his escapades, in 1866. 

“I wish the black sympathisers in England could see Africa’s inmost heart as I do, much of their sympathy would subside,” Baker wrote in one passage: “Human nature viewed in its crude state as pictured amongst African savages is quite on a level with that of the brute, and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog. There is neither gratitude, pity, love, nor self-denial; no idea of duty; no religion; but covetousness, ingratitude, selfishness, and cruelty.” 

“The negro has been, and still is, thoroughly misunderstood,” Baker also wrote. “However severely we may condemn the horrible system of slavery, the results of emancipation have proved that the negro does not appreciate the blessings of freedom, nor does he show the slightest feeling of gratitude to the hand that broke the rivets of his fetters.”

“England, the great chief of the commercial world, possesses a power that enforces a grave responsibility. She has the force to civilize. She is the natural colonizer of the world,” Baker, the unabashed imperialist, added.

Despite his odious racism toward Africans, today, in the 21st century, there is a school in Uganda named Sir Samuel Baker Secondary, in his honor. A few years ago, the school’s alumni—Africans whom Baker considered to be beneath a dog—organized a global fundraiser and built a statue of Baker on the school grounds. This is a manifestation of ignorance about Baker or deep-seated inferiority complexes.  

The “explorers” created the template for writing about Africa that was later adopted by reporters like Bigart of The New York Times and those with other U.S. publications. National Geographic, for instance, published some of the most bizarre and racists concoctions depicting Africans as ignorant “savages.” One such article appeared under the headline “Transporting a Navy through the Jungles of Africa,” in the October 1922 issue. It included a clearly-staged photo of “terrified” Africans, kneeling, eyes bulging, mouth agape, purportedly in terror when they saw an airplane for the first time and thought it was God descending on earth. 

It was also during this period of my research that I read Chinua Achebe’s critique of Conrad in “Hopes and Impediments.” I agree wholeheartedly with the late Achebe’s observation that “Heart of Darkness,” projects Africa as “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”

My research also documented how Time magazine had ridiculed the notion of independence for African countries. In Kenya, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) who were fighting to recover two million acres of land given to Europeans when Africans were kicked off by colonial authorities, were referred to derogatively as the “Mau Mau” by the British. So, Time magazine went even further and referred to them as the “Meow Meows.” Time claimed these freedom fighters were “savages” under the influence of witchcraft and communism. 

My research also critiqued how The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker Magazine covered the war in Rwanda, which culminated in the genocide of 1994, after it was invaded from Uganda on October 1, 1990.  

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, in an article appearing under the headline “Rwanda’s Aristocratic Guerrillas,” on December 13, 1992, Alex Shoumatoff clearly wanted Americans to take sides, so he adopted the Tutsis who comprised the majority of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) which had invaded from Uganda, as honorable Europeans. Shoumatoff informed his readers that Tutsis were “refined and had European features,” in contrast to Hutus who were “stocky and broad nosed.” 

“In the late 19th Century,” Shoumatoff continued, “early ethnologists were fascinated by these languidly haughty pastoral aristocrats whose high foreheads, aquiline noses and thin lips seemed more Caucasian than Negroid, and they classed them as ‘false negroes.’” 

Hutus, on the other hand, were “the short, stocky, local, Bantu agriculturalists,” Shoumatoff wrote.  

No wonder, in 1994, after the genocidal killings, it was easy to criminalize and blame all Hutus collectively for the genocide even though the RPF also committed gross massacres. 

One of the most revealing characterization of how The New York Times covered Africa was provided to me by Michael Kaufman, who was the paper’s deputy foreign news editor when I interviewed him in 1992, for my research at Columbia University. Kaufman told me that while he was based in Nairobi, Kenya, as the Times correspondent, he favored two types of approaches to writing about Africa: a thematic style, with articles that were relevant across national borders.

Then there was a second approach, and here’s how he described it. 

“When I was growing up and Tarzan was about to attack Africans, they would make him speak his fake African, ‘ooga-booga, ooga-booga,’” Kaufman, who was white, said. “That’s what I call ooga-booga reporting. It is the National Geographic approach. It captures the thing that is unique to the place. Ooga-booga stories are titillating. I enjoyed them, as did the readers too,” he said. 

“Basically, there were two ways of covering Africa,” Kaufman continued: “’Look, they’re just like us,’ or ‘Look, they’re completely different.’ So you waver between the two. When writing about places like Nairobi, with its tall, modern buildings, you can’t forget the Maasai, walking in their robes.”

Today, more than four decades after that incident in my freshman English class at Syracuse, I feel adequately prepared to challenge the historical demonization of Africa in Western media. I believe my book also provides ammunition for others to do the same. 

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