Facial Scarification in Africa in the early 1940s via gbaku @ flickr

When you look at this picture what do you see?  I see a man who is satisfied with his situation.  Sure there are the tribal markings, the blanket over the shoulder, the bleakness of the background and the stuff on the back of the man’s neck.  But what really jumps out, to me at least, is the satisfied look that his eyes and his mouth convey.

Two development pundit bloggers have discussed recently the cultural meme which the photos that are chosen to accompany NGO marketing campaigns, news articles on Africa, etc. convey. Jennifer Lentfer who runs how-matters.org and Glenna Gordon who runs ScarlettLion.com, among other sites, both posted on this issue yesterday.

Am not sure exactly, but seems that the beginning of the conversation was Jennifer finding this posting from Duncan McNicholl.  The premise of Duncan’s posting is that the same subject arranged in two different modes conveys two very different emotional responses.  To take it a step further, the argument goes that the types of images which are chosen to be displayed in NGO marketing items, donor reports, media reports, etc. reflect both the world’s pre-conceived image of Africa as well as furthering the intention of the person or organization which is using the image.

Of course, this makes sense.  Generally most people would prefer to vindicate held opinions rather than challenge them.  But challenging opinions is the only way to change the cultural lens and changing the cultural lens is one of the post powerful enabling mechanisms for solidifying deep changes within societies.  Indeed, the NY Times ran a great article in their weekend magazine about this topic yesterday.

The thing is this (he says as he puts on his lawyer hat) it takes a long time to change the perspectives of people.  It takes words, images, experience, and most of all repetition.  It takes emotional arguments, data-based arguments, and logical arguments.   And it is slow.

Civil rights, suffrage, abolition, etc. did not come about just because someone in a position of authority said, “yeah this is how it is going to happen.”  They happened because first people worked hard to show the problems with the current cultural lens.  This happened through broad-based approaches (which obviously varied considering the different times and persons involved).  After the cultural lens was changed sufficiently, then legal and political mechanisms were triggered which could provide some accountability around the new cultural norm which was developing.  Those legal and political mechanisms have to be triggered *after *there is sufficiency in the base of people who will believe that what you are arguing for makes sense despite the history and the cultural norms of the moment.  Those legal and political mechanisms have to be triggered (usually) in order to bring the “rest” into compliance with the cultural norm; in other words, to provide accountability.

But what in the world does that have to do with pictures in shiny brochures?  First, the analogy very much falls apart when probed in depth, so don’t do that.   I bring it up mainly to show that cultural change takes time and effort along many different tracks.  It seems to me that we’re at the beginning of this process with respect to the “world’s” opinion of “Africa.”  Even for development workers and bloggers I still see all too frequently a headline which says, essentially, “wow there’s some good news from Africa and here is what it is.”  It is of lesser import to me the surprise which is consonant in the headlines.  What is of greater import is that the headlines are running.  They are running more and more, at least across my twitter and rss feeds.

This base hopefully will in due course enable the triggering of some powerful accountability mechanisms.  Although the accountability mechanisms which can solidify the march towards progress which so many in the cheetah generation deserve and crave will not be as strong as a declaration as (say) an amendment to the US Constitution would be, they will be there.  And their presence will help to change the assumptions of the cultural laggards.  Perhaps more importantly, they will allow the next generation of elites within many countries of Africa to make the difficult decisions and to take the difficult steps which will reduce the income gaps and bring the middle class further along.  And after that, things will take care of themselves.

There is great stuff happening throughout Africa all the time.  People are creating beautiful images, beautiful paintings, and beautiful narratives.  It is fantastic to see, and I appreciate that people are pointing these out.  As more and more people hop onto the train the momentum will grow, not slow.  Some recent examples:

  • African Digital Art’s Weekly Inspiration Postings: here.
  • NYTimes Lens Blog on Dakar: here.
  • Peter DiCampo’s Life without Lights series: here.

Sure things are still screwed up in many many ways.  But what is important to me about the meme which is developing is that the baseline assumptions about what the “current state of Africa” is moving.  This will create/has created a base of support among many.  At this point it seems to be coming mainly from development people and Africans themselves who are increasingly using the megaphone of the internet to get their message across.  But it has to begin somewhere.  From this base, a larger base will grow and the meme will extend to laggards within organizations and to laggard organizations.

Of course it will be a long time before the profile of a ground-breaking woman will not begin with the backdrop of devastation, conflict, and decay.  It will be a long time until even those of us that live here in Africa change our assumptions to reflect the progress which is all around us.  And yet, it is happening.  Slowly but surely, like a nomad moving to a new grazing area, the collective cultural lens is shifting.  For me, for now, that is enough.

~ # ~

PS – Some pictures we’ve taken recently of Hargeisa can be found below. [flickr-gallery mode="photoset” photoset="72157625029540307”]