Africa Through Western Eyes – The World’s Dark Continent or Capitalism’s Shining Light?
By Robert Bates
Once ‘hopeless’ and now ‘rising’, Western narratives around Africa may tell us as much about what’s going in the West as in Africa itself.
The Euro Crisis, double-dip recessions, ‘Occupy’ protests and LIBOR corruption scandals aside, it seems that capitalism is alive and well – at least in Africa. Africa is ‘Rising’, Westerners are often told these days, after decades of economic ruin, civil war and governmental mismanagement. Impressive economic growth statistics, the “burgeoning African middle class”, mushrooming mobile phone and Internet use – these things are all proudly trumpeted, “remind[ing] the world of the capitalist way”. But why all this ‘good news’ now?
The seemingly obvious answer is that things are indeed improving in Africa and the West’s commentariat are now, quite simply, reporting what is happening. But to properly understand the ‘Africa Rising’ narratives, we also need to look at what they are a response to – the much older, and much more negative, ‘Dark Continent’ narratives that have dominated Western discourses on Africa for centuries.
The bad: the creation of a Dark Continent
Tellingly, we can trace these negative narratives to the beginnings of ‘Western Civilization’ itself. In Histories, Herodotus (aka The Father of History) relates a cautionary tale about what happens in Africa. Five Nasamonians – “enterprising youths of the highest rank” – were off exploring southern Libya. After several days of wandering, they found some fruit trees and started helping themselves. Then, several “men of small stature”, “all of them skilled in magic”, seized and captured them, taking them for inscrutable and dastardly magic-dwarf purposes.
In this way, Herodotus suggested that Africa was not only different, but also more threatening, sinister and dangerous than Greece. Subsequent generations of European writers followed suit, substituting fantasy for fact in markedly antagonistic ways.
Europeans created an image of Africa that was the perverse opposite of Europe’s – its mirror image. Europe’s general superiority would, by comparison with and in contrast to this image, be self-evident. Europe’s own idea of itself was thus predicated on its image of Africa (and other ‘backward’ regions).
From the 17th century on-wards, debates over the slave trade, racism, and colonialism helped crystallize these negative narratives in Western discourses. Abolitionists argued that Africa was a place of suffering because the slave trade provoked war, disease, famine and poverty; anti-Abolitionists said Africa was so forbidding as to make slavery in foreign countries a positive escape. Either way, Africa was full of ‘savagery’ and constant war.