Ethiopia is in the grip of a famine once again, bringing to mind the shameful images of hunger splashed around the world by western media in 1984. But Ethiopians are not helpless. They have the power to act: not only to end hunger but also to give the world dignified representations of their own crisis.
Sitting miles away from where Ethiopia’s present-day drought and food insecurities due to lack of rain are unraveling, the political city of Africa, Addis Ababa, is calm inside its usual day-to-day hectic tone. Some, caught up in the urban routine life are unaware of what’s happening in the country, particularly in the south and east. Others who are aware are gripped with the historically shameful representation of the 1984 drought that Ethiopia was synonymous with, even years later. The mood seems careful and anxious not to be pulled back to a seemingly fading stigmatizing single story representation.
SELLING SENSATIONALIZED STORIES
The legacy of the ‘old relic’, the single story narrative of Ethiopia that emanated from and around the 1984 tragic drought became a slogan for celebrities, NGOs and an opportunity for western media to sensationalize stories that inspired headlines. And even if well-meaning, consciously or unconsciously, the portrayal backed by powerful celebrities with a savior-like complex lacked dignity; the reporting was not short of failing to visualize beyond the historico-racial schema that is deep-rooted in social consciousness.
Telling of a common representational style, the Ethiopian was classically stigmatized, portrayed as ‘helpless’ and in dire need of being saved by the west, while affording dominant groups to take on the role of defining the Ethiopian identity. The definition of helpless and constantly looking to foreigners for help went beyond the Ethiopian border; it left a deep scar on the continent.
In particular, the shameful image of a dying child with a bloated belly that circulated ceaselessly for years without much context became a rewarding space for most that could capitalize on such stereotypes that influence ideological perception. The meaning behind the image became a commonplace for western media; this type of knowledge production aided the popular imagination inherited during the colonial era of mass idea dissemination.
Evermore, the inundation of sensationalized features that objectified the Ethiopian body, much for the benefit of western readers, was consistently troublesome but not surprising. Bleakly evident was how human beings, especially women and children, were being portrayed in an undignified way. For some of us, especially those of us residing in the diaspora, the reductive visual and written language of a famine stricken population was more than uncomfortable, it was personal; shamefully mutilating. More often than not, with the ubiquity of whiteness narrating the tragedy, the single story became a demand that aided the popular imagination and shamed Ethiopians for years to come.
EMPOWERING ETHIOPIAN AGENCY
‘The victim stays up at night licking his wounds fabricating stories from the web of denial to soothe and explain away their plight. In doing so, they fail to look into a mirror which reflects their own agency. And because of this denial they will never seek steps to solve it, because the road to a solution first means coming to terms with the cancer within’ Alik Shahadah
Now, with the world’s economic eye on Ethiopia, and the recent western media insistently praising Ethiopia under the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, this was not to be expected. Or perhaps it was but the extent of the condition on the ground undermined the existing structures and emergency preparation. And now history repeats itself in a different time when Ethiopia finds itself at a crossroad; when its priority emphasis is to retain the title it has been awarded: ‘Africa’s fastest growing economy’.
Ethiopia is now in a precarious position of avoiding to slide back to shame by the same media that has recently found space to praise it and lift it out of the classic American household phrases like ‘finish your meal, remember the starving Ethiopian’ and the culturally misappropriated and famously patronizing Bob Geldof’s song titled ‘Do they know it’s Christmas yet’.
But how can it be guaranteed that the dominant western style of imagery/story angles which create and reinforce assumptions and structures of subjugation that promote the colonial ideologies of the African ‘other’ will not repeat?
Certainly, even if not fully guaranteed, to a large extent it will depend on how Ethiopia regards the economic and social factors of negative and reductive style representation. And rather than acting as bystanders in our own affairs, it will depend on how all concerned Ethiopian agents are empowered and given space to act. With the understanding that the fundamental problem is how ‘the ‘saving’ Africa posture is that it is predicated on the notion that Africa/Africans are agency-less, which for me is problematic because it is the continuation of never-ending paternalistic tendencies towards Africa. And though crisis appeals may be necessary, it can’t be at the cost of undermining local agency.
The power of agency determines much of the patterns of dominance; many of the issues affecting Africans in a European dominated world are related to the de facto racism that says Africans are not allowed to construct paradigms outside of European agency. Thus, resisting the historical pattern, strong agency will better enable survival in this world. Further, agency also makes us Africans accountable for our destiny. There is no way we can blame or externalize every disaster affecting African people globally. Because if we do not like to write— we will be written about.
Therefore, perceptive local Ethiopian agents with fitting political knowledge, who have not inculcated the western popular imagination of Africa and stereotypical style of representation, but rather those who can frame the issue contextually should be trusted and given appropriate resources, space and freedom to narrate. They should be well equipped to be able to consider how the particularities and insight, the structural causes and long-term historical factors on the ground will matter in the language and image that gets conveyed of the crises.
Accordingly, the idea is that all concerned local agents, if empowered and their voices are amplified can repair the historically monotone styled representation. Local agents have an opportunity, in good conscience, to represent the current Ethiopian crisis narrative with integrity while dignifying human tragedy, and banishing the historical representational reputation through its success.
But until that happens, until Ethiopians are able to be agents of their future, we will continue to see the business of western representation dominate us for years to come.
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