In recent years, two main schools of thought have emerged about how to lift Africa out of its seemingly bottomless descent into war, poverty, and disease. To borrow labels used by the reporter Andrew Rice in an insightful review for the Nation two years ago, two predominant arguments are being advanced: the “governance-first” camp “holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way,” and the “poverty-first” camp “believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor.”
Each argument contains its own implicit demand: one puts the onus on Africans to throw out their more-often-than-not corrupt and kleptocratic leaders and find a way to take advantage of the rich resources of the continent to make it prosper. The other looks to the Western world to fulfill a moral responsibility to provide billions of dollars in aid to Africans so that an improved standard of living will lead to stronger and more stable countries.
With the exception of angry and often cruelly written op-eds by one-time Peace Corps volunteer and travel writer Paul Theroux, not much time and space is ever given here in the West to the “governance-first” argument. Mostly, there is one, overwhelming attitude that dominates the way we write and think about Africa in the West: we are the only possible saviors, obligated by our humanity to donate money and urge our government to both increase spending on aid and cancel any debts owned by these poor countries.
This “poverty-first” attitude also fits in nicely with the role that certain celebrities – i.e., Bono — have carved out as representatives of the continent, hoping to prick the conscience of Western leaders. It makes sense. When the guilt for Africa’s many problems lands totally on the West and not on Africa itself, an opportunity opens up for those with money and star power to set themselves up as spokespeople for hundreds of millions of Africans. It’s a precarious role, one that can easily tip over into a paternalistic and condescending tone that’s not that far away from the worldview of colonial powers who saw themselves as engaged in a civilizing mission.
All this as introduction to a look at the current issue of Vanity Fair, its “Africa Issue.”
First — it must be said — good intentions should never be undervalued. When you have a glossy magazine like Vanity Fair, whose existence depends on revenue from ads for expensive products — like the diamond-encrusted Dior watch that appears on the wrist of Sharon Stone on page twenty-five of the “Africa Issue” — it is always a risk to focus on subject matter that is not quite as sexy as, say, a photo shoot that features Scarlett Johansson’s bare bum. When you set yourself the task of capturing the essence of the continent in an issue, you can’t avoid AIDS, you can’t avoid disease, and you can’t avoid child soldiers. None of these are easy sells to the designers and car companies that pay for the magazine’s big bucks production costs.
That caveat out of the way, it’s worth examining how Graydon Carter and his guest editor for the issue – yes, none other than Bono – went about bridging this divide between the style of Vanity Fair and the substance of Africa. It turns out that the “poverty-first” view of Africa’s problems suits their purposes perfectly. With the emphasis on the West’s obligation — on Bono’s role in changing things, and not on some unknown African activist or opposition politician — than the issue can have all the glamour of every other Vanity Fair and still be ostensibly about Africa.
The cover, in a way, tells the story. Together with photographer-to-the-stars, Annie Liebovitz, Carter and Bono conceived of twenty different portraits that would appear on twenty different versions of the cover. According to Liebovitz, the concept was to present a group of people having a “conversation” about Africa. “It’s a visual chain letter,” she said in a note in the issue, “spreading the message from person to person to person.” The people having this conversation include, conveniently, Brad Pitt and Madonna, Oprah and Barack Obama. It’s not clear exactly what the connection of any of these people is to the continent. And, by my count, only three of them are actually from Africa – Desmond Tutu, Djimoun Honsou, and Iman. But the key indicator of what the issue’s character will be is that this a conversation about Africa by a group of well-known celebrities. They are the ones here with agency to tell the story of Africa in Vanity Fair.