Africa’s image split between beauty, despair

April 21, 2006

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – Image sells, even in Africa. And so Nokia’s annual Face of Africa contest, a shameless commercial venture now in full swing, will again make some young African woman very wealthy, at least by her parched continent’s standards.

Having names such as Keamogetse, Vanetia, Doris — and now Munirah, a statuesque, six-foot, 21-year-old Ugandan — a handful of contestants are already picked as semifinalists from thousands of hopefuls across sub-Saharan Africa.

Judges are still crisscrossing the region, looking for pretty faces before this summer’s final hype and judging in Sun City, South Africa. The winner will catwalk to a three-year, $150,000 modelling deal, a decent purse by African standards.

But the real face of Africa is not so soft and sexy. It’s more like that of the unsightly, chicken-chested man in Congo who, in one of my first trips to this corner of the world, looked humorously into my camera, curious, if not dumbfounded by the technology.

Africa’s is the worn face of disease, the weary face of civil war, the cold face of poverty.

Or it’s somewhere between these pictures of beauty and despair. Which is interesting, because despite their daily challenges, folks here really do enjoy presenting a good image.

Ugandan women will easily spend a week’s salary on their hair. And here in the capital region, where power is out up to 12 hours every other day, you might imagine there are more important things to think about than ironing your pants.

But those trousers had better look “smart,” certainly on the university campus where I’ve worked and lived the past six months. Or you’ll get a “Mr. Thom, you can’t go out like that!” from your house-help.

Image. It’s why Uganda recently spent $4 million for CNN ads and other promotions abroad, only to throw out Economist writer Blake Lambert, a Canadian, for his critical reporting. Readers, after all, are from donor countries that provide Uganda with almost half its revenue.

Image is why Uganda’s government is spending more than $35 million, and the private sector much more, preparing for a 2007 visit from Queen Elizabeth and heads of 54 Commonwealth nations.

Meanwhile, 1.6 million northern Ugandans live in squalid, displaced person camps, due to sluggishness, including from outside help, in handling a guerrilla conflict that began two decades ago.

There’s a criticism that the West has not only historically robbed Africa, but is still defining its identity. That’s debatable. What is a certainty is that in the 50 years since colonialists left African states independent, this continent has had 26 major wars, and gone from an enormous food exporter to one that can’t even feed itself.

Twenty-two sub-Saharan countries, the same ones those Nokia judges are touring, are now suffering from severe food shortages. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, in the case of 15 of those countries, it’s not mainly due to a regional drought, but because of the political turmoil that destroys all kinds of infrastructure.

The average person is left with few options to improve their lot. Many will chase, even idolize, education, especially for their children. If nothing else, they’ll strive to keep appearances with an everyday spirit of gentleness, courage and community that would put most westerners to shame.

In many ways, Africans have freedom to create their own reality and present it to others in ways of their choosing. Still, as a global community, we all define and hold mirrors up to each other in some fashion.

And now it’s so painfully clear that, alone, Africa can find neither sustained development nor the deeper healing it so desperately needs. The question is, does the outside world care enough to risk and commit and partner in new ways that move beyond keeping its own appearances?

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April 21, 2006 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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