Human rights activist, best-selling author and expert on Africa, John Prendergast, had some good news to share – and a few ingrained illusions to shatter – during his presentation at the Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum last week, co-sponsored by the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights.
In a world beset by wars and instability, Prendergast visited CMC to tell some uplifting news about the Africa, a continent that often seems to be shrouded in tragedy, especially when filtered through what Prendergast considers to be the dubious lens of Hollywood movies and the international media.
The default image of Africa is of a largely helpless continent and a population ensconced in victimhood. These impressions are reinforced by the media, especially big-budget motion pictures that portray Africans as helpless or inherently violent. However, Prendergast painted a reality that is far different.
He began his presentation with a quote from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
“Let’s confront for a minute the totality of the ‘winter of despair,’” he said. “Indeed, there is endemic war. There are episodic famines. There is mass corruption. There are devastating genocides enfolding parts of the African continent.
“Take the countries I’ve spend the last 30 years of my life living in or working on, primarily Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, The Congo,” he continued. “In those four countries alone, 10 million lives have been extinguished due to violence. Millions more uprooted from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of survivors of sexual violence and mass rape and hundreds of thousands of survivors of child-soldier recruitment.”
But, Prendergast explained, as a result of these crises and the focus of the mass media on the “gloom and doom of Africa,” the continent is widely perceived as somewhat hopeless; afflicted by wars that are only explained through tribal or other racist, oversimplified identifiers.
“This image of a hopeless continent reinforces a belief that not much really can be done and that these problems are largely unmovable which in turn, then reinforces a global policy response from the international community that is – in my view – stunning in its lack of creativity, energy and innovativeness,” Prendergast said.
By Prendergast’s reckoning, when people don’t believe something can be fixed or changed, few resources are invested in building a solution. “So, given the messaging that we’re all exposed to about this hopelessness, I have trouble blaming anyone for believing this dire narrative,” he said.
“I would argue that there are two variables in moving from hopelessness to hope,” Prendergast said. “The first is to tell the complicated truth of Africa; the good, the bad and the ugly, the full reality. Because it is often not in anyone’s interest to tell the good news emanating from Africa. The second is to understand the global progressive reform movements that partner with Africans on the ground, which hold the key to a different future for that continent and the broader human community.”
In Prendergast’s view, two inadvertent contributors to the “avalanche” of hopelessness that confronts Africa can be laid at the feet of Hollywood films and the media. He identified four movies (“Blood Diamond,” “The Lord of War,” “The Last King of Scotland” and “Rwanda”) as painting a picture of the continent that is at odds with current-day reality.
The Leo DiCaprio starring vehicle, “Blood Diamond,” depicted Sierra Leone as a hell on earth with drug crazed child soldiers who hacked off people’s limbs.
Although some of those atrocities happened, Prendergast said he wished a sequel could be made that showed the post-war reality of a country that’s been at peace for 15 years with strong economic growth rates and Democratic elections.
“The sequel could focus on some of the rebel leaders who press-ganged kids into military service and forced them to commit some of the most terrible atrocities that made Sierra Leona infamous at the time,” he said. “Many of them are now facing justice for their crimes. The sequel could have focused on the ‘clean diamond’ trade that peacefully supports thousands of livelihoods. The country has faced Ebola and deep and endemic corruption issues, but Sierra Leone’s transformation in the last dozen years has been nothing short of remarkable.”
But Hollywood isn’t the only culprit for representing Africa in hopeless terms. Prendergast said that the mass media’s mantra (“If it bleeds, it leads”) is a bias overwhelmingly skewed towards crisis, tragedy and bloodshed: essentially the more tragic the occurrence, the more coverage it’s going to get.
He cited a recent article in the “Columbia Journalism Review,” that in one five-month period, the 10 most-read newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles about poverty in Africa but only five mentioned economic growth at a time when Africa had the highest growth rate of any continent in the world.
“NGOs and UN agencies often contribute to this,” Prendergast said. “They often focus not on what has been accomplished but rather what they need to raise money for. Understandably, they need to attract funding to carry out the extraordinarily important, life-saving programs that they are undertaking. So, the incentives are built in to present gloom and doom. There is a tremendous competition for scarce funds amongst these U.N. agencies and NGOs.”
Prendergast said that Africa is experiencing a rapidly growing middle class which is fueling an economic growth that is historically unprecedented. “Democratic elections are being held in a number of countries across the continent,” he said. “In Nigeria, for example, the incumbent president lost the election and to everyone’s surprise (especially the experts in the media), he peacefully turned over power and left.”
In addition, civil society is rapidly growing, organizing and challenging the status quo while building a better future.
“During the first decade of the 21st century, six out of the world’s 10 fastest growing countries were in Africa,” Prendergast said. “Poverty rates are falling in many of these countries and death rates for families with under five kids are dropping even faster. There is a real, measurable progress in many parts of the continent which just isn’t seen as newsworthy.”
According to Prendergast, one way to counter negative stereotypes is to acknowledge the centrality of the leadership of the people that are on the ground. “I think the stereotype remains prevalent that Africans somehow need to be saved from themselves. But in most emergencies, anyone who takes a closer look will find that that stereotype is detonated by the reality of African leadership on the ground.”
Africans are on the front lines of all the humanitarian efforts, distributing lifesaving aid in dangerous environments at great risk to themselves. Africans comprise the vast majority of peacekeepers across the continent, putting themselves often in harm’s way. African’s are the park rangers putting their lives at risk, protecting the elephants and rhinos from poachers. Africans are the healthcare workers caring for those stricken with epidemic diseases.
“I would argue this as a central point,” Prendergast said. “Africa isn’t really all that different from the rest of the world in its history which, by contrast, did not have the 24-hour news coverage we have now of the crises that the continent has experienced. And those countries on other continents did not have Russia, China and the U.S. pouring military aid.”
Most African countries have only been independent from European colonial rule for around 60 years. Europe, by contrast, fought wars of state for centuries to determine their current borders.
“Africa is just now going through its wars of governance, state formation and border creation,” Prendergast said. “It’s just a later period of history than other continents because of the interruption of its own historical cycle and path by the violent proponents of colonialism and slavery.”
For Prendergast, understanding is just one part of the change agenda, another part is what actually drives the change. “I think the most powerful driver of change in Africa is the reform efforts of Africans themselves on the front lines of the battles for human rights, democracy, peace; against corruption and for equal opportunity,” he said.
Prendergast believes that if we can assist in amplifying and telling the story that Africa is much more than the worst things that are happening there; that Africa is not a hopeless place; that Africans are leading the efforts for change in their own continent; that Africa is not that different from the rest of the world; and that Africa is full of transformative examples of hope, then he thinks that the global effort required to support Africa’s struggles for peace and human rights become more viable.
“This then is our challenge,” he said. “To help tell the whole truth about the African continent and its people, believing there is hope based on that truth and demanding from our political leaders that change is possible and that we should partner with Africans as equals in an interconnected world and be a part of that change that’s happening.”
In addition to helping to facilitate the end of the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict in the late ‘90s, Prendergast is the founding director of the Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity. He is also the co-founder of the Sentry, a new investigative initiative focused on dismantling the networks financing conflict and atrocities.
He is the author or co-author of 10 books. His latest, Unlikely Brothers, is a dual memoir co-authored with his first little brother in the Big Brother program—a program in which he has been involved for over 25 years. His previous two books were co-authored with actor Don Cheadle, Not On Our Watch, a New York Times bestseller and NAACP non-fiction book of the year, and The Enough Moment: Fighting to End Africa's Worst Human Rights Crimes.