Growing up in the UK, Edward Ademolu had only seen images of 'Africa' on the television, predominantly via fundraising packages from large international NGOs. It was only when he visited his parents' homeland in Nigeria that he saw the gulf between his learned image of Africa and the fully-rounded reality. That formative realisation is now the foundation of his doctoral research at the University of Manchester's Global Development Institute.
As a young child in the 1990s my introduction to international development was Comic Relief’s biennial telethon Red Nose Day. This televised event, armed with prosthetic noses, contemporary music, and a slew of largely white celebrities fronting carefully-curated episodes of black and brown suffering, opened my eyes to distant poverty. While the programme would always raise millions in sympathy-laden donations from well-entertained audiences, my lasting impression was of shaven-headed, undifferentiated masses smiling and waving enthusiastically at the documentary-maker’s camera. I remember feeling perplexed that there were so many brown children with no shoes and soiled Disney-branded t-shirts, who had seemingly full stomachs held by very slim frames.
On one occasion I asked my mother, who always watched Comic Relief with half frustration and half baffled amusement, whether my older cousin Seyi was among those children. She replied, “Why would you ask that?” and I responded “Well…, because he lives in Africa, doesn’t he?”
You see, televised reporting and representation of poverty and disaster by charities like Comic Relief, shaped my early imaginings of what Africa was like. To me, Africa was this far-away place, a twilight zone, filled with happy-poor children in dusty surroundings with my and Seyi’s skin colour, and who waited enthusiastically to feature in the next instalment of Red Nose Day. Yet while our complexions matched, there was little if any, further connection between these children and me.
This naïve interpretation of Africa was compounded by the proliferation of fundraising advertisements by popular development organisations like Save the Children and Oxfam. These featured sensationalised pictures of unidentified starving and sick children, who were paraded as nothing more than curiosities of flesh for £2 a month. My African peers at primary school would passionately deny their roots, calling all Africans - with great certainty - smelly, unintelligent, equated to wild animals. These televised images and playground conversations fuelled an ideology that being British was more sophisticated, more culturally palatable, which became internalised as some kind of inferiority complex. To admit any association with Africa was to associate with the embarrassingly negative things that these charities, the media and friends portrayed Africans as. One of my aunties, for example, upon returning to London after a short period of boarding school in Nigeria, simply exclaimed: “Back to civilisation …, where there’s 24hr light, orderly queuing and no government-funded thuggery”. While I did not fully understand the particularities of everything she said, it compounded my impression that Nigeria was not a place to celebrate.
For my father, this was the motivation he needed to plan our first family holiday to the West African land of his birth, a necessary re-introduction to our roots. In 1995, we visited Nigeria’s financial capital, Lagos. I remember the usual things that relatives comment on when visiting equatorial African states; the assault of humid air when departing the aeroplane, which I mistook for engine heat, and the confused smell of dried fish and spice. Most significantly for me, however, was seeing that everyone was black. Not just the mahogany-hued black skin that of charity appeals but waffle and honey-coloured too. And not only desperately poor, but wearing official uniforms – immigration officials, custom officers and policemen. I do not think I had comprehended a reality in which black people, especially Africans, could be in positions of respectability, power and authority.
There was a certain kind of retrospectivism in Nigeria, that was symbolically articulated in the ruins of old, soft-clayed Irish Catholic monasteries, whose emptiness was imbued with a colonial past. It was present in the deep grooves of tribal scarring worn defiantly by the old and seemingly wizened youth, with each bodily inscription inviting questions of their beginning. It was demonstrated in the intricately beaded hairstyles adorning women’s heads, and the mosaic cloth wrapped around their bodies, and which held up newborns. So too, the palm wine-induced melodic prayers of patriotism chanted incoherently by Igbo street dwellers.
Yet Nigeria was also contemporary, a place of the ‘here and now’, with its Afro-futuristic pop-up art installation stores, Nokia mobile phones, and heavy-fleshed, plump-cheeked teens wielding Styrofoam cups of fizzy pop. It is clear from my vivid descriptions and poetic recollections as a wide-eyed 6-year-old, that my trip made a lasting impression. This was an Africa hitherto unknown to me; a Nigeria of both spectacle and ordinariness, hidden from the view of British audiences. This was not the Africa that popular charities presented on television, or that my friends mocked and my relatives ridiculed. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi explained this phenomenon in her 2009 TED talk, The danger of a single story:
“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I, too, would think Africa was a place of incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and Aids, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind white foreigner …, this is the consequence of the single story.”
That first trip to my country of origin shaped my future in ways I could never have anticipated. In the two decades that have followed, I have sculpted all educational, social and professional decisions into a form which has allowed me to gain a deeper, more critical understanding of Africa and the communities therein. I am particularly interested in its mediated representation by continental, diaspora African and Western development perspectives. This has led me to post-graduate research which answers the question: “What role, if anything, do representations of Africa by NGOs have on identity and engagement with International Development by African diaspora communities?”
To be continued.
N.B. Edward's PhD research will be available later in the year, at which point we will publish a summary of the findings. The original version of the blogpost above first appeared on the University of Manchester's Global Development Institute blog in August 2018.