Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Billion People Plus One Tree

Thanks to Quartz blogger Michael Silverberg for Acacia Fatigue, in which he discusses an article about book covers from Africa is a Country. (That title, of course, is meant satirically; whenever I get students in front of the Africa portion of our EarthView globe, I encourage them to repeat "Africa is NOT a country" because so many people operate as if it is.)
As both blogs make clear, the widespread reluctance to engage the variety and complexity of the second-largest continent is represented by a rather narrow range of design choices, even on the covers of a broad range of books. No matter what the topic, on dozens of books, that one tree appears, rarely with a human in sight, and within a very narrow palette of dusky colors.

These observations remind me of a very useful article I read years ago, as I prepared for my first trip to Africa (and my only one so far). In the deeply satirical How to Write About Africa, Binyavanga Wainaina offers Granta readers a verbal equivalent of the scenery shown above. In his scathing satire, he models the focus on myriad pathologies that travel writers and journalists seem determined to include when writing about Africa.

These covers are from African music collections produced by Putumayo. The label offers several other collections from (North) Africa on its Middle East page. AfroPop Worldwide offers an even greater variety of music from throughout the continent and beyond.

Learning about the cultural, physical, political, and economic geography can help those outside Africa better understand this enormous region that is home to one out of every seven humans, living in rural, urban, and suburban places in places that are dry, wet, flat, hilly in over 50 countries (depending on how one counts island nations such as Cape Verde) and speaking scores of languages.

As an example of what many of us are missing, I provide the results of two Google image searches for a single city representing less than one percent of the continent, but illustrating its diversity. The two groups of images were found by searching on Durban and "Durban people." Durban is an exceptionally diverse city (and the home of the fellow geographer who shared the acacia articles with me), but this random assortment of images is a nonetheless valuable glimpse of the richness of the continent as a whole.

In addition to geography resources, it is useful to seek news from Africa from media outlets that have reporters working throughout the continent. The Africa portal pages at Al-Jazeera, BBC, and NPR are good places to begin explorations.


Power is the ability to tell the story of another person, and to do so in a way that makes it the definitive story of that person -- or people. A key way to exercise that power is to choose the stage at which to begin telling the story.

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