Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010


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by Bronwen

There is a new, serious crisis in East Africa.  I recently saw a facebook meme that expressed what is officially referred to as ‘aid fatigue’ or ‘crisis fatigue’.

BREAKING NEWS: We need to send money to the following country: USA. There are many without food, shelter, and clean drinking water. Residents are going without heat for the winter, no a/c for the summer. Millions are without jobs. Need health care for the sick. Stop sending money overseas. We have people here that lack basic human needs. Do you have the guts to re-post this?? AMERICA FIRST!

In a time when life is uncertain for so many Americans (see Peter’s post on this blog last week), it’s not surprising that this should emerge.  Middle class life is perceived to be (and could very well be) perched on the edge of a steep decline.

So these Americans would probably be delighted to know that they do not have to carry the whole burden by themselves.  The Daily Nation also has an interesting, and a number of letters to the editor that point out a side of the crisis which will probably not make it into the US or UK news:  Kenyan contributions to the relief efforts through a variety of initiatives, like Kenyans for Kenya.

A number of recent projects have been dedicated to stories about the emergence of an African middle class.  This one is particularly good, although its choice of sample countries is perhaps a bit odd.  The blog Africa is a Country focuses on ‘everyday’ Africa.  The FT has also recently started a quarterly magazine, This is Africa, which brings business and investment stories and interviews from the continent to readers in the US and Europe.

However, in general there is both less interest in and a certain discomfort about the African middle class.  Why?  I think there are a couple of important reasons.

1)      The ‘Image of Africa’ problem

As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, Africa has an image problem.  Philip Curtin’s ground-breaking book The Image of Africa documents the history of the imposition of Western ideas of what Africa should represent onto the continent in the period up to the mid-nineteenth century.  Since then, not much has changed, as Chinua Achebe’s An Image of Africa, a few years later, pointed out.  Africa’s relationship with the West remains trapped in a paradigm of humanitarian crises and exploitation.  In other words, everyone is a victim.  Except of course, those ‘Big Men’ who are complicit in the exploitation (see number 3).  Media coverage, linked often with the INGOs who provide their travel and access, report the stories that the agencies need covered.  There is a lot of suffering in Africa, and aid agencies need publicity to raise their funds.  But their relationship with the press (detailed in Linda Polman’s War Games) and the lack of other coverage of Africa in the western media, means that these are often the only stories people read about Africa, contributing to the idea that everyone in Africa (not just those involved with sporadic famines or wars) is living in ‘pre-modern’ conditions.

Which means that people think of this

instead of this

when they think of Africa.

2)      Those who study Africa

This problem is compounded by those of us who study Africa.  Firstly because we tend to be outraged at the general lack of coverage the continent receives, and so jump on every bit of crisis news to highlight how ‘no one cares’ (again see this author, previous blog posts).  But secondly because we tend to come out of a long lineage of famous Africanists (a vague, not necessarily academic title, in the vein of ‘Orientalists’) that include people like Mary Kingsley, Richard Burton (explorer, not actor), Frederick Lugard, and Margery Perham.  These scholars, colonial officials, and travellers all published books in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that celebrated the ‘real’ Africa, and the ‘real’ African.  They all disliked the missionary, ‘civilizing’ approach of colonial expansion for creating ‘Europeanized’ Africans, preferring the warrior ‘chiefs’ and ‘tribal’ traditions of the ‘authentic’ Africa.

While methods and approaches, theories and attitudes, and particularly research ethics, have all improved markedly since these writers were at the peak of their influence, there is still an anthropological bent to all African research that insists that (a) you have to really live with ‘the people’ to understand them, and (b) ‘the people’ who are really interesting to study are those marginalised by modernity; the ‘real people’ are voiceless in modern society, and represented by the academic.  Usually historians have an easier time deflecting the first criticism than they do the second.  Which is absolutely not to say that those left out of the colonial record, the voiceless subaltern, are not worth studying, or in fact, more interesting from both a topical and methodological perspective. As with social histories of America and Britain, it contributes to our understanding of a period.  This is valuable and important research, and current methods and approaches are sophisticated and empathetic. But this approach does create a weird academic space for those studying people who are the vocal middle classes of both the colonial and post-colonial periods. And is also weird, because I live in England and I don’t really notice researchers coming over to study British history who feel obliged to become ‘one’ with ‘the people.’

3)      The legacy of the Big Men

Finally, even if these centuries old biases could be overcome, the more recent past would make us wary.  Researchers, reporters, diplomats, aid workers, businessmen/women, and tourists have been wined and dined by the African upper class for decades, and know enough about the continent’s corruption to worry about who paid for their meals (yes, I’m guilty).  The irony of this approach, I suppose, is that people seem to be less concerned about this in East and Southeast Asia (where corruption is also rampant), or in Europe and America (where institutionalized corruption is also rampant, see Halliburton, Iraq War and; BAE, Tony Blair and) than in Africa or India, where it seems to weigh on people’s souls.  Obviously corruption is bad.  Obviously the ‘Big Men’ like Mobutu Seso Seko, Robert Mugabe, and their ilk are to be despised for fiddling while their countries burn.  But they are not ‘the middle class’.

The reason, I think, that people notice it here rather than in Europe and America at least is that for a lot of expats, moving abroad means suddenly finding yourself in the upper class.  This is a result of generous expat packages, home wages, benefits, and perceived (or real) influence.  Guilt about suddenly having servants and friends in high places, and disorientation about where they’ve found themselves, combined with a first-hand awareness of the excesses of this class (see Norman Mailer’s The Fight for his description of Mobutu’s excesses), means that people who would otherwise not say these kinds of things (guilty) find themselves talking about how ‘when they lived in X country, they felt like they never got to know the real X’.  What is always surprising is that people who say this (again, guilty), is that they (a) are concerned with the ‘representativeness’ of the middle class they do encounter, (as though any class represents the whole country anywhere); and (b) would never think that ‘getting to know the real X’ where they came from meant what they think it means in Africa.  Again, it’s valuable and important to study all aspects of society, in all countries.  But just as I object when Sarah Palin says I’m not a ‘real’ American, I could imagine that the doctors, mechanics, lawyers, students, teachers, bank tellers, electricians, bureaucrats, sales assistants, academics, nurses, administrators, journalists, computer programmers, real estate agents, hairdressers and barbers, contractors, managers, ministers, pilots, and waiters across Africa, who lead really ordinary lives (and give to charity), would object to not being called the ‘real’ Africa.

Just as we have had to confront ‘Orientalism’, there’s a similar exoticization of Africa that ignores the quotidian, and should be confronted.  David Bennun, in his memoir of his childhood in Kenya, writes that ‘more nonsense has been written about Africa than almost any subject under the sun…As an inspiration for solipsistic, cod-mystical blathering, only the Indian subcontinent edges it out’ but ‘what none of these debates and analyses and lectures and raptures acknowledge is the vast ordinariness of Africa. To those who live there, Africa is simply the place where they live.’

Now, as I’ve said, I’ve been guilty of a lot of this.  Which is both why is so funny, and why I’ve decided that a week of my course on African history and politics this year will confront this problem head on, so that hopefully my first years can be at least a bit self-aware when they either leave Uni to join the NGO sector, or are confronted by ‘crisis fatigue’ in their law offices in 15 years.


Written by apini

August 5, 2011 at 07:23

Posted in Academia, Africa, class

5 Responses

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  1. trawling the archives of Aid Watch, I came across this post ( which corroborates what I’m saying here, I think.

    Bronwen Everill

    August 5, 2011 at 14:14

  2. and a further addendum, also from Aid Watch, on why dignity for the middle classes matters:

    Bronwen Everill

    August 5, 2011 at 14:21

  3. […] least West Africa, or where I’ve been in West Africa (I’m sure I’ll venture into Afrientalism more later #thanks, LJ) and I am excited to go to […]

  4. Hello, I am a geography student at the University of Manchester and I am currently researching this topic. As part of my research I am interviewing people who have knowledge of, or who have studied this subject and therefore I would like to ask if you would be available for a brief interview at some point in the future to discuss your views and opinions. I would be very grateful for any help.


    Benjamin Hymans

    February 15, 2012 at 09:29

  5. […] first-hand yesterday in a first year seminar.  In discouraging my students from perpetuating the ‘Image of Africa’ problem, I have apparently made some of them rather despondent: they still see problems and want to help, […]

    Kony2012 « Ph.D. Octopus

    March 7, 2012 at 14:52

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