As many of you know, I recently returned from a humanitarian aid trip to an area in Zimbabwe called Mberengwa. Like most westerners who’ve done the same thing, I was affected in ways I never could have imagined. I saw a proud people, good people, thankful people, joyful people, people who radiate joy despite whatever circumstances in which they may find themselves. Yet in my honest attempt to praise them, I inadvertently reduced them to an insulting stereotype… a stereotype to which people across Africa were justifiably offended. And for that, I am truly sorry.
The irony is that in my effort to applaud a great nation of people, I reduced myself to a stereotype superbly described in an article by Samira Sawlani on Media Diversified…
“What we are discussing here is a very different kind of animal, the neo-colonial kind, that which is now a part of popular culture involving the stars flying first class, armed with a must have kit of anti-bacterial hand lotion, camera-man, sad smile and the anticipation of finally saying the words “All the pain and sadness, yet these people are smiling, it makes me appreciate everything I have, my life will never be the same again.”
Wow, that is exactly what I was. It’s embarrassing to realize that. Now, I'm no celebrity, but I was the stereotypical American "armed with the a must have kit of anti-bacterial hand lotion, camera-man, sad smile and the anticipation of finally saying the words “All the pain and sadness, yet these people are smiling, it makes me appreciate everything I have, my life will never be the same again."
How ignorant could I be? Clearly, quite a bit.
The people I met in Zimbabwe are real people with real hope, real emotion, real love, real needs... what they are not, and never should be, are props for westerners to use to make a point.
Now, I won’t deny that in the area I visited, five hours outside Bulawayo, there are people who live in thatched roof dwellings, have almost no access to clean drinking water, or medical care. It’s a problem, but not one that reflects an entire nation. There are areas in the United States of America where poverty is the norm and yet, how would I feel if a foreign journalist used that micro view to define the entire country?
I’d hoped that a couple of Tweets I posted four days ago (now since deleted) would encourage those in the west to have a greater sense of gratitude, but in using photos of smiling African men that I’d met (such as the one above), rather than eliciting the proper response from the west, I inadvertently turned two good men into caricatures of an entire nation. And for that, I am truly sorry.
I can’t say enough how appreciative I am to those who’ve sent me articles and videos educating me as to how the things I posted could be perceived negatively and just how insulting they were. I’m grateful for the knowledge.
To those who’ve called me names and threatened me, I understand your anger, but going forward, you’ll have a much greater impact on the ignorant by using rational dialogue to educate them.
So, to the scores of people around the world who’ve reacted to what I posted, I thank you. Thank you for opening my eyes.