Africa beyond the stereotypes

2011-06-17 15:29

A grotesquely malnourished child with flies buzzing around him. A woman balancing a bucket of water on her head, walking down a dusty road. A desolate mud hut, baking in the ­unforgiving sun.

These are some of the images that the globe associates with Africa – ­images that we, too, have become ­familiar with from watching foreign documentaries.

Global viewers often forget there are ­bustling cities, the burgeoning tourism, the developing infrastructure and the billionaire businessmen.

According to John Farrar, the channel’s vice-president for Africa and the ­Middle East, BBC is now screening the Amazing Africa series on ­Africa which ­celebrates different aspects of the continent.

He says: “Africa is the most fascinating continent on the planet, and BBC Knowledge wanted to celebrate this by exploring its many facets. This by highlighting its rich history – from the cradle of civilisation to modern politics – its diverse and vibrant people, and its stunning ­geography which provides the backdrop to the most captivating wildlife on Earth.”

The idea is clearly not just to illustrate the rich tapestry of cultures but to present entirely new angles by ­revealing the “lost kingdoms of Africa” through the continent’s history ­before colonialism. There’s An African Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby in which the award-winning journalist reveals “a diverse continent that is vibrant with energy, imagination, innovation and talent”.

But the most prolific of the series has to be Swaziland expatriate Richard E Grant’s The History of ­Safari. Changing yet another perception of Africa that the animals “run free” through the streets, Grant investigates big-game hunters – from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt to the British royals who, for almost a century, travelled to East Africa to hunt.

He explains: “My experiences of filming in Africa were extraordinary. The scale of the landscape and the plethora of wildlife were completely breathtaking.”

Grant follows the controversial history of the safari from its emergence out of Arab slave trade and the decadent world of the big-game ­hunters, to the luxury eco-tour and the ­modern hunting business. “The difficulty of ­conserving vast tracts of land for wildlife and balancing that with the population explosion is one of the ­biggest challenges facing Africa at the ­moment,” Grant says.

Other shows such as Lost Libraries of Timbuktu hope to smash preconceptions of education in Africa. As one website put it: “The worst perception of Africa is that people are not ­educated.”

And in this journey, headed by ­author Aminatta Forna, we discover ­Africa’s oldest literature and the place where three “universities” and huge manuscript libraries were founded some decades before Oxford and Cambridge universities.

These universities were the seat of an African literary tradition that the West didn’t even believe existed until recent times.

New Kings of Nigeria tracks the new wave of elite, young Nigerians ­returning home to a burgeoning ­media world.

Most interesting is the Who Do You Think You Are? series, which is ­produced in South Africa.

It will reveal the family roots of the likes of Nthati Moshesh, Riaan ­Cruywagen, Candice Moodley, Dawn Matthews, Jonathan Shapiro (aka ­Zapiro) and Colin Moss.

It’s certainly refreshing to know that the BBC is at least trying to cast a light on the misguided perceptions that abound about Africa, in so doing illuminating its authentic aspects.

» Amazing Africa runs on BBC Knowledge until July 7.

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