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.
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).