Pride, Poverty & the Politics of African Imagery

I just saw this piece on Ghanaweb entitled ‘World Bank Paints Ghana Black‘. Give it a read if you can.

Done? Great. I have mixed feelings about the piece. My gut tells me to be annoyed, but my mind…

“My mind’s telling me noooooooo…

My first thought was “great… the US has turned the bank on us for not giving them free and easy access to our oil.” In all honesty, this thought has not completely left my mind. My SOAS roots run deep: it’s as though I’ve been programmed to find the World Bank annoying.

My second thought was “Yet another example of negative depictions of Africans. Mtcheeeeew.” Again, old SOAS rearing its head.

However, my third thought was “… and why not?


Moving continents does not  just result in a change in environment, sunshine where there was once rain. No. It has changed me.

Here, I am no longer black and British. I’m just Ghanaian. Foreign-influenced? Yes. Dadabee? Unashamedly so. A little naive? Probably. But Ghanaian. Period. My nationalism and nationality are rarely questioned here; my rights are the same as any other Ghanaian (ie. occasionally abused by the Ghana Police Service and my fellow citizens). I am not part of a racial minority.

Here, my President is black. The Captains of Industry are black. The wealthy, the poor; the young, the old; the wise, the ignorant… black. Black. Black. Black. Black… and guess what? Black (well… give or take a relative handful of mixed-race, Lebanese, white or other Ghanaians).

This changes things. The chip I had not realized I was carrying on my shoulder became visible. Stripped of purpose, it had to be set down (after all, what use are chips in the land of yam, cassava, plaintain and so many more-interesting tubers?) My defensiveness lost its edge. More importantly, romantic diaspora notions of Africa were quickly shed: this place is both beautiful and hard.

Very hard… and that’s my problem with the piece. This excerpt sums it all up for me:

“A Kenyan journalist, Kelly Mbani, asked: “Why couldn’t the country office of the World Bank in Ghana show pictures of interesting and attractive places such as Trassacco Valley, East Legon, the Accra Shopping Mall, Boti Falls, and Kakum National Park?”


Because Trassacco Valley and the Mall do not represent the reality faced by the vast majority of Ghanaians. We do not live our lives in ‘interesting and attractive‘ environments. Some do. Most don’t. It’s that simple.

Ghanaians hustle.

I used to ask the exact same question when I was in London: why do Western media outlets never ever show cool images of Africa?

Nowadays, however, I question that.

Yes: showing all-negative images of Ghana was what my more expressive American friends might refer to as “a bitch move” on the part of the Bank. Showing exclusive images of wealth, privilege and development though? Just as bad, if you ask me. You can’t just whitewash away reality here to attract foreign investment and aid (the usefulness of which is often in question these days anyway).

Ghana is a lot of things. Cliché though it may sound, it is a bunch of contradictions. Rich and poor. Green and bare. Beautiful and ugly. Hard and soft.

Denial helps nobody.

UPDATE: Apparently the World Bank has explained and apologized for the images, MyJoyOnline reports.

15 thoughts on “Pride, Poverty & the Politics of African Imagery

  1. Well how about a fair representation of both, how about imagery that says Ghana is like most other countries including the UK and the US, there are wealthy people living the highlife and just as many poor people as well. I did some voluntary work with VSO in my youth, spent sometime in Blackburn(lancashire) and Abiriw(Akropong) , only difference: the poor in Blackburn had access to welfare and benefits something the poor in Abiriw didn’t have. My point is this just as there very poor people hustling in Ghana, the same can be said of many western countries. Yet the western media is keen to report only the poor parts of Africa.I recently asked a Nigerian who happens to work for Comic Relief why thw constant bombardment of suffering Africans? Her answer..”Well its the only way we can raise money”


    1. Wow. Tony Burkson. Commenting on something I done wrote. It should rain in Ghana more often (I’m a fan).

      I completely agree with this actually. Puts it all very nicely in context. The poverty gap is not just between North and South but exists everywhere on a country-by-country basis. Thus Africa should not be presented as having a monopoly on poverty, especially by people with poverty on their own doorsteps.

      You’re completely right.


  2. i was just chatting with a colleague on this issue. we as africans like to potray urselves as poor so as to attract sympathy and pity.
    a typical example is when our white folks vist this country ,most ghanaians who they come into contact with would say anything for a few cedis so how wnt a journalist be concerned abt bringing to bear the poor side of african so that we get help.

    i wonder how the govt ministers potray us in order to get grants and at which lenghts they wld go…….just wondering


    1. Well, as Tony put it, NGOs say its the only way they can raise money so I imagine our governments must do similar. Unless they need to show progress in which case they whip out the progress pictures.

      It strikes at a deeper problem though.


  3. Great article and links Kobby…

    i agree with tony’s comments in portraying a fair, balanced perspective of ‘the work done’ vs ‘the work that still needs to be done’:

    NGO’s may contend that the only way to raise funds is to seek – for lack of a better word ‘pity’, this may garner the required economic assistance but what does it do for the attitudes and approach of real investment if with that pity comes low expectations, distrust of financial prudence and contempt towards the receivers of aid? – which is what we seem to have when dealing with foreign aid agencies.

    Wouldn’t it be better to show the positive gains the investments have enabled – which would answer critics of corruption, financial fund-management & real development as well as make those on the receiving end accountable in that they would have to publicly show what they have developed successfully.

    i think tempering real, honest and maybe unsettling ‘truths’ with minor successes – ‘hope’ leads to enthusiasm, trust, open dialogue and hopefully gainful resolution.
    Basically letting people know what still needs to be done and showing them what has been done because of their contribution will galvanize them towards action and focus both sides positively…


    1. Hey Rich. Cool to hear from you. Cool comment too.

      It’s like a chicken and egg thing this ‘need pity to raise funds’ but ‘pity breeds contempt and tight holds on wallets’ thing.

      I agree with you. Long-term, honesty is the best policy.


  4. I loved this because it went against the grain. I think Nietzsche said that pity is the way the weak inflict pain on the strong. The problem is after sustained attack fatigue sets in and it doesn’t work anymore. I think Rich Blk’s suggestion to show how how investments have made a positive impact, whilst continuing to show the areas that still need help, is a solution.

    In reply to Tony Burkson, there is a support system in the UK for the poor, although a mini social security system has now been set up in Ghana. I would argue that what the UK has that you don’t really see in Ghana is despair.

    Kobby – am very interested in how you are having to reinterpret who you are after your move to Ghana. Hope we are going to meet one day?


  5. I think I may oppose the usual bad image of Ghana much as I would be against showing the showy of Ghana ie. Osu, East Legon, Mall etc. But I think what we should be looking out is a perfect representation of what we are. Kobby, I watch a lot of American films, and I see them throwing all the beautiful things at me. But I know, courtesy a friend in New York, that there are huge heap of rubbish in front of the many shops in NYC. The films from there never show it. I hope I made a point here…


    1. Hi Nana Yaw and many thanks for expressing your thoughts here.

      If by “a perfect representation” you mean a realistic representation, then I completely agree with you: show both the good and the bad because both exist here.

      If however you mean show the best and the best alone, then I disagree. Completely. What would be the point of going to ask for aid if you can afford shopping malls and Trasacco houses? The fact is that only a relative few Ghanaians can afford that.

      Show it all. The good AND the bad.

      As for American films, I think Hollywood is in fact very good at showing both America’s good and bad sides, especially in its films. Off the top of my head, I remember Halle Berry’s debut as a crackhead in ‘Jungle Fever’ or recent TV shows like ‘The Wire’ or films set in the ghettos that show and remind everyone about poverty and deprivation on its own doorstep. For every glossy blockbuster, there is a gritty independent film or TV show showing another side. America has very few untold stories. They show all sides. It depends on what you choose to watch.


  6. Am late just found out about kobi graham.
    Have you seen District 9, Yesterday, Faiths Corner…a few films I have been speaking against that South Africa endorses but their depiction of African life is cartoony and uses african characters as helpless with adults whose minds are equal to that of a child.


  7. The issue for me is, what do Ghanaian or Africans in a broader sense think of themselves?

    We seem to have bought this idea that sky scrapers and flashy cars are the paraphernalia for a more fulfilling life. If you ask most of the people that live within and among these contrivances, you will notice just how badly they yearn for simplicity. On the other hand, the poor people that have never tasted this life see it as something to aspire to.

    Fair enough, we need to build more schools, clinics, libraries, roads and so on. For that, we may show baron land and hungry people to “raise funds.” We may also want to show progress in order to be afforded the opportunity to host things like the world cup.

    In our exhibitions though, do we really know what kind of Africa we want to see – or is it an Africa that looks like America and a bit of Europe here and there?

    Thank you for the great post.


  8. A friend enthusiastically – he is African – told me about an easy-money-scheme to get “money for free”: “Just set up a charity!!
    Not only NGO’s, corrupt politicians and ruthless greedy individuals have that mindset, a wide spectrum of culturally diverse and very good-natured people with good intentions would find it perfectly ok to justify their actions and their own little existence that way.
    Today, we all know how the Live Aid generation, NGO’s unilateral AID culture and bad governance has in fact contributed in maintaining Africa in poverty by perpetuating the negative portrayal of the continent. Is it the only way to raise money? No, I vehemently disagree. It is just the easiest, laziest and most convenient way to ease slavery-colonial guilt and still maintain control of African resources which also interfere with the continent destiny. For decades African leaders have pushed new ideas, concept, solutions and ways to turn the continent into a prosperous land that can provide for its own people. These people have been destroyed, terminated, discredited and shut down only to be replaced by manipulable puppets ensuring western interests are protected first and foremost. Today courageous men, creative, smart and talented young African people are constantly trying to work as equal partners with the western institutions and organisations however what need to be understood by most is that, with more that 50% of the global natural resource in its soil, a mass awakening and realisation of the reality of this situation could trigger change and therefore jeopardize the current global equilibrium.
    However noble and sometime efficient these charitable actions are, there is a very real and powerful “Wall Of Resistance” that will use all sorts of means to discredit, distract our mind from any risk or attempts to change this cosy and very profitable relationship the world has with this dark, uncivilised needy continent that is Africa.
    Consider this, Sony couldn’t even pay royalties or give due credits to Emile Kojidie, the author of Zangalewa, which became the massive global hit by Shakira; Waka Waka.
    Totally undermining the artist creativity and missing a massive opportunity for an African artist to shine and benefit from his art.
    Let’s not even mention the worldwide media assassination against the South African cultural practice of the Vuvuzela! “How dare they making noise?” these media were asking….then an English entrepreneur became millionaire in matter of weeks by manufacturing and exporting to SA the noisy plastic horn from his suburban house in the UK.
    It is little details like that we should look at to understand the irony of the bigger picture.
    Shameless altruism is what it is.


  9. Your style is unique compared to other folks I have read stuff from.
    Thank you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just
    book mark this blog.


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