robin-rhode-RR_Typing_Steps_05_small_hr0

Africa is the only continent bothered about being perceived as poor. There is a historical reason for this.

The idea of Africa as the poor continent is as old as the 17th and 18th centuries—those heady days of European optimism when philosophers squandered precious ink drafting the stories that will define the project of modernity. Every story of triumph needs a sad, pathetic loser. It just so happened that Africa was on hand to play this role.

That’s why at the turn of the 19th century, someone like Hegel could speak so movingly of Africa as a place of poverty, lacking everything—poor in reasoning, poor in imagination, poor in humanity, poor in morality, poor in political ideals, poor in godliness, and so on. In summary, when people first began to talk about Africa in the modern world, they could only imagine Africa in relation to poverty.

So, yeah, when Helon Habila accuses NoViolet Bulawayo of making a spectacle of Africa’s poverty, he proves that after over 200 years, we, as a continent, still bear the mark of poverty. In the now popular review of Bulawayo’s debut novel, Habila criticizes novels centered around the idea of Africa as the world of “child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers, dead bodies on the roadside.” There is such a thing, observes Habila, as portraying poverty, suffering, and death in a “poverty-porn sense.” In the last few years, so much has been said about contemporary African writing and representations of poverty and suffering that “poverty porn” deserves to be a literary genre in its own right. 

Poverty porn, though? What the hell is that? Pornography, in its latin roots, means the writing or image of prostitution. This would mean that novels accused of being poverty porn prostitute the image of Africa as the poor continent. They allegedly offer Africa’s poor form up to a global literary market dominated by western buyers who orgasm from ogling the abjection of African life. 

But all these accusations and counter accusations among African critics and novelists about pornifying the poverty of the continent betray a deeper anxiety. Probe deeper into the link between writing and prostitution inherent in the concept of poverty porn and you’ll understand the nature of this anxiety. 

Prostituere is the latin for “set up in public,” “to expose,” “to dishonor.” The problem with prostituting the continent is not that it is morally wrong. Selling the African continent in the global literary market place is not the crime here. After all, there is no novel that isn’t trying to sell one form of pleasure or another. The problem is that prostitution comes with the risk of exposure and the fear that some unworthy truth about the body or the self could be revealed. In the African literary community, the unspoken rule, therefore, is: prostitute any other aspect of African life—its middle class life, for example—but not its poverty.

Why? Because Hegel may turn out to be right. The possibility that Africa is constituted by its poverty might actually be true. We might actually realize that not even Habila—as his novels prove only too well— knows what it means to imagine an Africa that is not poor. The truth might dawn on us that there has never been a time when we ourselves—Africans— haven’t thought of the continent as poor. Even when we say positive things about Africa, it is always conditioned by the knowledge of her perceived poverty. So, it turns out, even though Habila harangues Bulawayo, he is actually haunted by Hegel. 

Crucifying African novelists for writing about violence and poverty will not lay Hegel’s ghost to rest. Interrogating the history that constructs our world as poor would.

***

The image in the post is the work of South African artist, Robin Rhode. See more of his work HERE

You should follow Brittle Paper on Twitter HERE. 

Tags: , , , , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

7 Responses to “Why Only Africans Worry About Poverty Porn” Subscribe

  1. Chielozona Eze 2014/03/31 at 20:20 #

    Sound thoughts. I love the Hegelian touch there. African intellectuals are frightened by the thought that Hegel might be correct after all. Call it that they are spooked by the Specters of Hegel – apologies to Derrida.
    I get some chills when I consider that my Igbo ancestors lived their whole donkey years without writing anything down. Compare it to the Jewish people who began to write down everything about three thousand years ago. Wasn’t Hegel right to claim that my ancestors had no history? It hurts, yet…

  2. Ainehi Edoro 2014/04/01 at 16:02 #

    Haha. Derrida certainly won’t mind. Hegel is a difficult ghost to kill. We’d have to unthink so much about the discourse of modernity he helped inaugurate to rid ourselves of him. The mistake many African thinkers make is that they think it’s enough to denounce him. I almost think that to dispose of Hegel you have to acknowledge how powerful an enemy he is, how deeply his idea of the world structures modern thinking–ours inclusive.

  3. Uzodinma 2014/04/07 at 13:22 #

    Dear Chielozona, just to point out a small thing; Igbo people did write. Ever heard of Nsibidi? Yes; that secret Igbo language writing that partly its secrecy , and years of colonial infiltration squashed. Please, me sure before you exhibit lack of knowledge. I don’t understand why you think your ancestors had no history, but mine did. Being from Owerri, I’m interested in Mbari art. Ever heard of that part of Igbo history. You should read some more, and widely too.

  4. Ireti Oluwagbemi 2014/04/19 at 02:26 #

    Herein is my inherent fault with ur argument. Its twisted. And rather than come back to the issue to make a complete circle of logic, twists off to its own conclusion. History or Helen habilas reason for being upset. You cannot feign ignorance of the effect these portrayals have . This is why my friend wld be chatting on Facebook with an American and he’s asking is she’s in a tree or a hut. We already have a deluge of these potrayals from western media. When one of ours validates it….
    You have to accept the fact that this perception IS a problem. I think that your knowledge of history often hampers you from assessing a situation astutely. Yes we aree affected by yesterday but we need to start making a new history today. Which is perhaps what Helen was trying o do.

  5. Rawlings Nim Rufus 2014/05/01 at 03:42 #

    This a wonderful piece.
    I have nothing to say.other than that, i want to link up with my african sister studying african nov overt there in us.
    Am a graduate of english and literary studies.i want to do my masters over there.
    I will be grateful if you communicate me.
    +2348138272478

  6. Obinna Udenwe 2014/05/02 at 17:06 #

    Nice piece. I think Helon tried to argue that we should de-emphasize much attention on writings that focus mainly on poverty stricken Africa – that by continuously writing about Africa’s poverty we solidify the perceptions and stereotypes of the West on Africa as people who reside only in caves. But like this article clearly explains; it is difficult to run away from your features – it is false to say that there is no poverty in Africa: poverty of the mind, poverty in leadership and economic poverty, but then our focus as writers should be to use our works to tell tales that highlight also the good in us – our middle class and our upper class while bringing to the fore the richness in the simplicity of the lives of our lower class and plebeians. While our leaders work to transform Africa, we should be the voice of change, the promoters of goodwill, praising what is good and exposing the ills to entrench change. We should also not be ashamed of what we are – if your father lives in a hut and you have internet access in the hut and can connect with your friends on Facebook, go to school, read books, listen to folktales, and chase masquerades about in ecstasy, should you be ashamed to say that you live in a hut?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Edwige-Renée DRO: I am an African Writer! | Africa 39 - 2015/10/23

    […] perhaps as African writers we complain about the whole tag of being African writers, or the whole ‘poverty porn’ issue because we don’t have a lot of vibrant publishing houses on the continent. We have […]

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Archives

The Night My Dead Girlfriend Called | Episode 4: Confronting the ‘Devil’ | by Feyisayo Anjorin

tnmdgc-header

The only thing of iron, plastic, or leather-padding matter in the well-lit shrine of Pa Fakunle was the treadmill for […]

Apes and Satellites | by Mame Bougouma Diene | African Sci-fi

untitled-design29

The ChinaCorp mining-satellite shifted across the planetary terminator, separating from its twin in stationary orbit over the Eastern Chinese Republic’s […]

Is the Ake Festival a Bubble? | Okechukwu Ofili Calls for a Reality Check

untitled-design28

The Ake Arts and Book Festival is an amazing event. It assembles some of the best minds in literature and […]

Zadie Smith and Namwali Serpell on Femininity and Writing

zadie-3

Zadie Smith has an uncommon ability to tell stories that capture our hearts. But she’s also shown herself to be […]

My Feminism | Remembering to Scream | By Wana Udobang

untitled-design27

I don’t remember the first time my father hit my mother. But I often remember my brother’s hands muzzling my […]

Greg Ruth Does Something Amazing with Okorafor’s Female Characters

untitled-design-60

Nnedi Okorafor’s novels are universally loved. She builds her fictional worlds and fashions her characters from the most unusual elements. […]