By Ishmael Beah*
It wasn’t surprising that Western journalists would react with doom-and-gloom when the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa. Or that the crisis would not be treated as a problem confronting all humanity — a force majeure — but as one of “those diseases” that afflict “those people” over there in Africa. Most Western media immediately fell into fear-mongering. Rarely did they tell the stories of Africans who survived Ebola, or meaningfully explore what it means to see your child or parent or other family member or friend be stricken with the disease. Where are the stories of the wrenching decisions of families forced to abandon loved ones or the bravery required to simply live as a human in conditions where everyone walks on the edge of suspicion?
Instead, we have been given news from “the frontlines of Ebola” and “the war on Ebola,” video clips with somber narrators and eerie soundtracks and photographs that capture only sadness and hopelessness, all without the necessary human context. We have seen endless images of Westerners, covered head to toe, amid crowds of healthy-seeming onlookers; given such presentations, it is no surprise that people would begin to think that Ebola is an airborne contagion that might get on a plane and travel around the world, infecting people on its own. Or that all Africans are potential carriers.
Once again, sensationalism and generalization seem to be the only ways that Africa can be presented in the West. Once again, my country, Sierra Leone, along with Liberia, Guinea and, as far as some are concerned, the entire African continent, makes news because of a crisis. Is this the only time we are relevant? Why is it that, once again, even those who have never set foot on our continent seem to think they know all about us?
Given our interconnected world, it’s no longer possible to excuse such treatment as a lack of access to the facts. So what is the explanation? To borrow the words of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, “Quite simply it is the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”
This thinking is so deeply entrenched in the minds of people in the West that it has become a reflex. Still, the ways in which Africans are portrayed as less human have not lost the power to shock. Each new crisis, it seems, offers a platform for some to exercise their prejudices.
Yes, there is an Ebola crisis in West Africa. Yes, some governments, including mine, along with most international organizations whose task it is to assist in dealing with such calamities, haven’t properly dealt with it. But the way Western media framed the crisis to the world hasn’t helped. While of course precautions must be taken, the hysteria and hyperbole have led to an unnecessary isolation that is making the outbreak more difficult to address.
The hysteria is also fueling racism beyond the continent. In Germany, an African woman who recently traveled to Kenya — far from the affected countries — fell ill with a stomach virus at work; the entire building was locked down. In Brussels, an African man had a simple nosebleed at a shopping mall, and the store where it happened was sterilized. In Seoul, a bar put up a sign saying, “We apologize but due to the Ebola Virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment.” Here in the United States, each time I have been to a doctor’s office since the outbreak, I have noticed an anxious look on the faces of the assistants that dissipates only when I say that I haven’t been to my country recently.
For Western media, this is just another one of those stories about the “killer virus” and the “poor Africans” who must once again be saved and spoken for by Westerners. And, always, there is the most important question: Will the virus come to the United States or Europe?
Western survivors of Ebola are given heroic adulation, while Africans who get the disease are spoken off with hopelessness and horror. Where is the reporting we need about why the affected population has, in some cases, not been cooperative with health workers and their governments? The implication has been that they should do so without reservation, again making Africans seem unreasonable, unintelligent and unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
But many West Africans’ experiences with international organizations and governments haven’t been positive; they know firsthand that governments do not always have their interests at heart. Hence the distrust. Likewise, the international agencies that arrived during and after the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia have not significantly improved the lives of the population, and they do not enjoy the faith of the people.
If you are reading this and believe you do not think about us the ways I have described, ask yourself the following questions: When was the last time you saw, and took the time to read, a positive front-page article about an African country? Have you ever met someone from Africa and decided to tell her what you know about her country and her continent, even if you have never been there? Have you ever noticed yourself speaking slowly and using exaggerated gestures while talking to someone from Africa, assuming that he doesn’t understand English well?
Once again, we are a place of fear and misunderstanding. I am not hopeful that Western thinking about Africa will change anytime soon, but it must be challenged. Silence only leads to continued dehumanization and further acceptance by future generations in the West.