Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Enjoy Africa: But Please Remember It's Fiction.

If you are in the UK you will probably have watched the BBC's latest wildlife extravaganza, 'Africa'. The BBC Wildlife Unit is based in Bristol, where I live. Generally, they make excellent programs, but I feel a bit uncomfortable about this particular series.

First of all, the title. Let's get this straight: 'Africa' is not a wildlife reserve. Neither is it, as a BBC announcer commented, 'the world's largest wilderness'. It is a continent of 1 billion human beings, 57 countries, and countless cities, towns and villages. There are roads and railways. There are ports and supermarkets and TV stations and football teams and nightclubs and all the things that happen where there are human beings.

Throughout the nineteenth century, when Africa was being colonised, there was an idea of it as 'the dark continent'. It was an empty space, populated by wildlife and – depending on your preference – either degraded, semi-human populations, or by noble savages. It was a blank canvas, on which the Europeans could draw their fantasies.

A series like 'Africa' seems to me a very modern, beautifully shot version of those fantasies. A pristine, mysterious landscape, full of nature, red in tooth and claw. In the first episode, Kalahari, there was not one sign of a human in the landscape. 

 Fig 1. What wildlife filmmakers think Africa looks like.

Now, I am lucky and privileged enough to have been to Africa. I can tell you from my own experience that this is not the normal condition. Vast tracts of Africa are farmed, either locally, by subsistence farmers, or intensely. Even in those areas which are unfarmed, you will not go far without running into humans or their activities: beehives made out of hollow logs, hung in the trees; people herding cows or fishing or gathering wood, selling grilled corn by the roadside, or simply walking from A to B, to visit relatives, or to the church or pub.

This is not a tragedy. It is simply reality. In some places this is a beautiful, peaceful thing, in others people look worn and angry. But in very few places, is the continent naturally empty. Those shots you see in wildlife films are taken in wildlife reserves and game parks. These are largely areas from which the people have been moved out. Not recently (that's now frowned upon) but in decades past. This is not to say that Africans resent the game parks. On the contrary, many earn their living from them. But what you are looking at is not the 'natural state' of Africa.

These humanless, pristine spaces are maintained by humans who carefully count and preserve the populations of 'megafauna' (lions, giraffes, rhino, etc) which attract tourists and yes, wildlife crews. They do this, because rich westerners who want to see a pristine wilderness pay nicely for it.

The first episode of the Africa series, Kalahari, was shot in Botswana. Botswana is lucky to be able to maintain some of the largest nature reserves in Africa for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are geographically a sizeable country, with a tiny population (2m). Secondly they have the good fortune to be sitting on the worlds largest diamond fields, the profits of which, due to the good sense of some president gone-by, are partly nationalised. It is a quiet, well-run democracy with peaceful elections and a decent standard of living.

All the same, the nature reserves of Botswana do not simply sit there. They are run by a wildlife service which maintains and guards and manages these areas. Their personnel will include civil servants and ecologists and vets and scientists and ex-military personnel who combat poachers. Most of these professionals are African. You will probably never see them in a wildlife documentary.

Other countries which maintain large nature reserves are not as lucky as Botswana. Tanzania, for example, which has huge grassland reserves, is peaceful but extremely poor, while Congo, which houses the mountain gorillas, is possessed of ample resources but plagued by warfare. Tanzania, which relies on aid for much of its income, is under intense pressure to preserve its wildlife, which wanders across vast open tracts of country ideal for poaching. I'm not saying they shouldn't. I'm just saying that I've been in a primary school in Tanzania, and there were no chairs or tables for the children to sit at, just stones on the floor. Every time you decide to spend money on one thing, you're not spending it on another.

I'm not saying these parks shouldn't be there, or that we shouldn't make wildlife programs in them. Of course these ecosystems should be preserved: they are world-class heritage sites. What concerns me is that they are presented to us, removed from the real context and place which they are in. There seems to be an unlimited appetite for wildlife footage, yet no-one  considers the daily life of the continent to be of any interest whatsoever.

The crazy thing is that Africa is one of the most fascinating places I've ever been to. It is full of little-known history, fantastic culture, food, art and music. It is full of contradiction and uncertainty, and after decades of decay and stagnation, is, in many places, bursting into life again.

Personally I'd like to challenge the BBC to make an expensive, breathlessly narrated series showing the trials and travails of Africa's most interesting species: I mean, homo sapiens. Not holding my breath for that one, though.

Fig 2: What I think Africa looks like.

1 comment:

  1. A valid point, Ursula. I've been to Africa as a visitor and to be honest, enjoyed the wildlife parks and other *touristy* things. But I found Cape Town, with its diverse ethnic mix, amazing. You are absolutely right - there's much more to Africa than wildlife.