What follows inside has much of the same tone. An article about all of humanity’s genetic connection to the continent reveals what the editors think of their task: “The world population that was spawned in Africa now has the power to save it. We are all alive today because of what happened to a small group of hungry Africans around 50,000 years ago. As their good sons and daughters, those of us who left, whether long ago or more recently, surely have a moral imperative to use our gifts to support our cousins who stayed.”
Condescension might be too strong a word, but it is shocking to what extent the actual people, the Africans, seem to get totally lost here. They are certainly absent from the big features. Predictably, there is a long, glowing profile of Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia professor who is the darling of the “poverty-first” crowd, uncritically endorsing his ideas about pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into Africa and breathlessly following him as he jets from village to village dispensing advice. Even more predictably, the piece is illustrated by a photo still from his MTV special with Angelina Jolie. The effect of Bono’s own (red) campaign is detailed in another article, self-congratulatingly titled, “The Lazarus Effect.” By getting companies, like the Gap, to promote products whose sales will go toward providing anti-retroviral drugs for free, the campaign has helped many people with HIV to live longer and healthier. All good stuff, but the article reads more like an advertisement for Bono’s good works than about the lives of those affected by the disease. William Langweische, the resident narrative master, turns in an expertly told story about a family of Indians in the Congo that have an airplane transport company. He beautifully describes flying around in planes patched together with duct tape, but here again, the people remain small specks on the ground.
The whole concept of the issue seems to be about Westerners telling other Westerners about Africa (à la the cover). Bill Clinton muses about Nelson Mandela. An interesting music festival in the deserts of northern Mali, is described through the diary entries of an MTV executive. A photo portfolio of mostly Western-educated and urban-based Africans is meant to present a new face of the continent, but they are robbed of their own voices and are instead introduced by prominent Westerners, like Dave Eggers, Harry Belafonte, and Damien Hirst. Early in the issue Desmond Tutu is interviewed by, of all people, Brad Pitt.
In fact, an African is the author of only one single article in the issue. And Binyavanga Wainaina’s rambling and seemingly unedited (in an otherwise heavily edited magazine) memories of a changing Kenya do not do justice to the thousands of African writers who could have written so much more eloquently about their homes and their own people (which, by the way, are so diverse that the idea of a monolithic presentation of Africa seems a little silly to begin with).
I’m being harsh, I know. Maybe Vanity Fair is not the forum for Africans to present themselves on their own terms. But it is frustrating to think that what might be some people’s only exposure to Africa can’t come in a form that allows for some authentic voices to emerge, telling the real story of Africans themselves who are struggling to alter their realities, or even simply describing what those realities are, in their own words. One has to wonder: what an impact it would have had had Vanity Fair decided to put an unknown– or even a relatively known – African on their cover instead?
The issue does have a few bright spots. An excellent story about the intense Chinese influence on Africa told me something I did not know. And an overview of African literary stars also exposed me to some writers I’d like to read. But even these articles were written by Westerners. Why didn’t Carter and Bono allow Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the Nigerian author who’s described here as the new “It girl” of African literature, to tell us about the richness of Nigeria’s literary scene, of the influence of authors such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka on her own work?
I don’t mean to seem naïve by making these suggestions. I know that Graydon Carter, for all his caring for Africa, needs to think about what sells magazines. But it seems to me that it’s not just a market concern that drove the way the issue was put together. It goes back to that particular understanding about how to salvage Africa, and the popular notion that Westerners alone can do it.
Paul Theroux, in one of those angry op-eds, had a word or two for those who believe that: