behind the news

The Obscured Continent

It's hard to find Africa in Vanity Fair's new "Africa Issue"
June 26, 2007

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.

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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.

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:

“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 and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.