Teju Cole On How to Do Activism, Journalism—And Art—Better in Africa and Beyond

Novelist Teju Cole* has a fantastic piece up about the Kony2012 campaign, of which he’s been a prominent critic, and what he refers to as the white savior industrial complex, up at The Atlantic. While much of it is about activism and journalism, I also think it’s a critically important piece for anyone thinking about telling stories that are set in regions like Africa, Asia, and South America that were once colonized, or that continue to receive substantial aid and intervention from Western governments and individuals. Specifically, Cole (in this case, talking about news coverage) takes aim at the idea of a “bridge character,” a white person who gives white readers access to a story about non-white readers:

Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. This subsidy was widely seen as one of the few blessings of the country’s otherwise catastrophic oil wealth. But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. The protests went on for days, at considerable personal risk to the protesters. Several young people were shot dead, and the movement was eventually doused when union leaders capitulated and the army deployed on the streets. The movement did not “succeed” in conventional terms. But something important had changed in the political consciousness of the Nigerian populace. For me and for a number of people I know, the protests gave us an opportunity to be proud of Nigeria, many of us for the first time in our lives.

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. After all, there is no simple demand to be made and — since corruption is endemic — no single villain to topple. There is certainly no “bridge character,” Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

I’m as guilty of this as anybody. I loved the movie adaptation of The Constant Gardener. I think Lord of War is a hugely underrated movie. And I was quite pleased to see the Bond franchise turn its attention to Africa, however fleetingly, and even if only for the novelty of the action sequences. Aid workers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, gun runners, and spies all do play a role in African life, and are changed by their time in African countries. And their stories are worth telling.

But they aren’t the only stories worth telling. And it’s a mistake to assume that the only way to get a story to a western audience is to slap a white person on it as a delivery mechanisms. Some of it is simply a failure to promote promising movies about African characters. One of the movies I most would have liked to see last year, Viva Riva, about a gasoline smuggler in Kinshasa, played in a grand total of five theaters, none near me, which is not a recipe for building buzz. I’ve got it in my Netflix queue now that it’s available, but how many people will have the knowledge or motivation to go look for it?

And some of it is just going to be a matter of trying to get folks to write what they don’t know personally, or even harder, to cede ground to let folks who do know what they’re talking about write African, and Asian, and South American stories. I know I’d watch a web series based on Cole’s tweets, which regularly read like lyrical one-line short fiction.

*Open City is very, very good. You should read it.