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Africa: the ultimate in non-Western

That Africa is the antithesis of modernity has been a perennial storyline.4 Henry Morton Stanley, the 19th-century Welsh-born journalist and explorer, was especially influential in setting the theme. Following his voyage down the Congo and other central African rivers in the late 1870s, he wrote volumes of narratives on what he called “the dark continent.’’ His theme that Africa is the antithesis of modernity still guides reporting on the continent.

A New York Times (March 16, 2014) article on Gambia as a tourist destination is an example. In it, Judith Dobrzynski, a freelance writer and former reporter for the Times, narrated her tourist experience in the West African country. The essence of the narrative was that Gambia is a place where Westerners may experience “the real Africa” without giving up the comforts of modern (that is, Western) life. “White-sand beaches on its Atlantic coastline are a favorite of Northern European vacationers,” Dobrzynski writes. “After each excursion, we were met by ... crewmen offering cold towels and glasses of iced tea.... And each night, we enjoyed the creature comforts of the West, including five-course dinners.” The reader is left to fill in the blank regarding the rest of the “creature comforts of the West.”

In any case, the white sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast and the creature comforts are not African, Dobrzynski suggests. “[T]o get close to the real Africa, the Gambian people and their way of life,” the tourist has to travel upriver, where there is “such a light tourism infrastructure.”

The idea that the modern is Western (and not African) is also the storyline of a New York Times (January 5,2016) story on malls in Nigeria. The story was pegged on the opening of a new mall in the Midwestern city of Warri. “Delta Mall opened here last spring, bringing to about a dozen the number of Western-style shopping malls catering to 180 million people in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation,” the Times reports.

In the paragraph that follows, the Times indirectly conceded that malls are not so much Western as they are the product of economic forces.5 “The emergence of malls—and mall culture—in Nigeria reflects broad trends on the continent, including a growing middle class with spending power and the rapid expansion of cities like Warri that are little known outside the region,” the Times reported. If this is the case, then the earlier reference to malls as Western could only have resulted from immersion in the cultural ideology that equates the modern with the Western.

Such claims of ownership are not limited to advancements in infrastructure and amenities. Even rationality has been described as an attribute of the West and not Africa. Ordinarily, shortfalls in journalism are blamed on financial imperatives, political bias, or inadequacies in training and experience. In the case of Africa, at least one U.S. scholar has attributed such deficiencies to Africa’s oral tradition and “pre-empirical” thought processes.

“Although the press in Black Africa appears in printed form, it has inherited little of the reasoned discourse associated with the printed tradition of post-Reformation Europe,” writes Louise M. Bourgault, a media scholar and consultant. “Rather, the press in Africa displays preempirical stylistics typical of the oral discourse.” In contrast, Bourgault continues, news and features from Western wire services “inevitably display the marks of the more literate traditions of their originators.”6 By 1995 when Bourgault’s analysis was published, the sub-Saharan African press was at least 136 years old7, many of its journalists held associate or bachelor’s degrees, and some even had doctorates.

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