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:

“Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.”

I tend to agree with Theroux’s idea if not his tone. The Vanity Fair issue was, I’m sure, born out of good intention. But, in the end, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that what it actually achieves in the end is to convince us of those good intentions. Nothing more. And that, for Africans, both those who desire help and those trying to help themselves, is not even close to enough.


Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.