For years, news outlets in Europe and North America have aimed to cover African places and people in terms familiar to their audiences. Such comparisons are usually well-meaning and may help readers connect with stories. But they can do more harm than good, by suggesting that Africa requires an external—and very often Western—benchmark to be understood.
Al Jazeera called Makoko, Nigeria the “Venice of Africa.”
Nairobi is the “The London of Africa,” according to the Financial Times. The capital of Eritrea, my home country, is famously known as “La Piccola Roma,” or Africa’s “Little Rome”—references to colonial days.
Some publications are still pondering which cities to use as comparisons when writing about places in Africa. DW, a German outlet, has asked whether Johannesburg might be the “Dubai of Africa.” MSN believes that Africa’s Dubai might instead be Addis Ababa. And CNBC thinks Joburg could be the New York of Africa. South Africa, after all, is the “America of Africa.”
Nigeria may have had “Africa’s Berlin Wall moment.” But The Wall Street Journal thinks “Africa‘s Berlin Wall” is the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Before that, the Christian Science Monitor thought it was the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Desmond Tutu called the razor wire around an area in Crossroads town “South Africa’s Berlin Wall,” The Washington Post reported in 1986.
Perhaps no place in Africa has been described in outsiders’ terms more than Eritrea: the “North Korea of Africa.” Forbes, The Economist, The New Statesman, The Standard, The Irish Times, PRI, Axios, the BBC, Newsweek, and The New York Times are just a few of the news organizations that have used that label. (To be fair, the Times has also pointed out, via an op-ed, that Eritrea is NOT the “North Korea of Africa”—evidently, the news and opinion sections have not come to a consensus.)
Cities and countries aren’t the only things that get compared. In 1992, The New York Times deemed the Nubian civilization to be the “Canada of Africa.” Man-made structures, too, get pegged in terms familiar to Western audiences. Senegal has Africa’s Statue of Liberty. The Nelson Mandela Bridge has been called, at least once, “South Africa’s Eiffel Tower.”
African people are also given Western counterparts—various celebrities, singers, and social media stars have, at different points, been called the “Kim Kardashian of Africa,” the “Justin Bieber of Africa,” the “Beyoncé of Africa,” the “Oprah Winfrey of Africa,” and the “Elvis Presley of Africa.” Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, who has a distinctive mustache, has even been called “an African version of Tom Selleck.”
As analogies, these are imperfect. Yes, Eritrea and North Korea are both reclusive nations under sanctions by the United Nations. And yes, Eritrea has ranked near the bottom of press freedom rankings, along with North Korea. But after that, the similarities end.
The comparisons also say something about how we see Africa. They’re often aspirational—a place could become Africa’s version of XYZ, many headlines tout. The implication is that the title hasn’t quite yet been earned, glossing over a deep and varied history of African invention and discovery.
Comparisons often take the place of the details that emerge from rigorous reporting. Eritrea might seem like North Korea from a distance, but people with experience in the countries know how different they are. It’s up to reporters to dig deep enough to provide more than a surface comparison, leaving behind worn out clichés and faulty comparisons. The result will be more accurate and nuanced journalism—and a more informed global populace.