Shameless Self Promotion

Two Africa is a Country contributors–Neelika Jayawardane and Kathryn Mathers–have pieces in the latest issue of Transition, the Harvard creative writing magazine. That’s the cover above with the theme “Blending Borders.” Neelika’s article “Everyone’s got their Indian,” (you need a subscription) is on racial politics in postapartheid South Africa. Though she’s been meaning to write about this topic for a while, I know this visit to South Africa let to the piece. Kathryn’s has a similarly provocative title, “Mr Kristof, I Presume.” (Hers you can read in full. The link takes you a PDF of the article.) Here, before you click away, is the first page of Kathryn’s article:

I do not want to write about Nicholas Kristof. The sheer banality of his representations of Africa paralyses me. His columns and blogs about Africa in the New York Times are repeatedly under fire for their poor research, careless reading of studies on Africa and blatant generalizations. This allows him to repeat troubling and problematic tropes about Africa and about how Africans need foreign help. Yet student bodies across the country culture frequently invite him to speak on their campuses. Saving Africa has become a favorite hobby for celebrities and ordinary Americans alike. And journalists like Nicholas Kristof who write endless stories about Americans doing good in Africa are central to this shift. Kristof even got to bunk down with actor George Clooney in Chad so that they could report back about the conflict in Darfur across the border.

Kristof’s representations of Africa in the New York Times, therefore, seem more in tune with those media outlets not known for good journalism or social critique. Yet my global development classes are full of students who believe that he speaks to their concerns and it is his writing that shapes their goals for doing good in the world. All of the copies of Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky were checked out of the libraries of nearby universities last summer. My students know that there are problems with the development and aid industries and can even offer biting critiques of celebrity interventions in aid programs in Africa. But they believe that they can do it better, that their generation understands the failures and can solve them, and that their intentions are pure enough to overcome the cynics. Their confidence is made possible in part by the examples of individual young Americans just like them establishing and running educational, health and technological programs in Africa trumpeted by a serious journalist like Kristof in a serious newspaper like the New York Times. Kristof’s writing about humanitarianism in Africa makes possible a very limited but accessible form of aid by asking his readers to focus on what they can do and the importance of one individual saving another. So no I do not want to write about Nicolas Kristof. But I must because he has claimed such an authoritative voice in conversations about Americans’ relationship to Africans that he has somehow made the act of writing about them an actual intervention in the lives of poor people in the world …

5 thoughts on “Shameless Self Promotion

  1. Sometimes I find myself pondering what it would be like if Nicholas Kristof were to be devoured by a lion right before the very eyes of one of his lucky “win-a-trip winners”.

    The NY Times could think up a nice, chirpy, grammatically garbled headline, something along the lines of “For humanitarian lion in Africa, fine dining gets personal”.

    Beneath this headline, the “win-a-trip winner” could pen a wrenchingly sentimental report of Kristof’s demise. The “win-a-trip winner” could include exactly zero quotes from anyone of colour and neglect to mention where in the continent the mighty had in fact fallen. They could use words like “chaos” and “dusty”. They could quote some grief-stricken remarks by the actress Mia Farrow for three full paragraphs.

    And of course above the article there would be a gloriously well-lit photograph showing the strangely beautiful horror of it all. The sky would look very big, and Africa would look very dusty, and everyone would win a Pullitzer Prize.

  2. The humanitarian problems are created by greedy, corrupt and dictatorial politicians and more effort needs to be put into solving this underlying cause. The world keeps on treating the symptoms and not the cause and until the cause is eliminated the symptoms will always be present. The worlds politicians need to take a stronger stand and boycott and sanction Africa’s greedy, corrupt and dictatorial politicians. As long as the world keeps giving the politicians are going to keep taking.

  3. I also wish to thank Kathryn Mathers for her lovely article on an unlovely person. Kristof recently came to my campus (Stanford), and of course the hall was filled to capacity. He gave examples of lots of problems, lots of poor people of color and lots of pity. Naturally, every solution came from America. No problems could be solved by Africans themselves. I just don’t understand how a mind like his works. However, sadly, millions do.

    PS. Thanks Elliot for making me laugh really hard!

  4. Reading Nick Kristof is about as exciting as reading the back of a shampoo bottle. “Here I am in a poor country and there are some very poor people here. Here are some anecdotes about how poor they are. Now for an inspirational story about one person who’s Making A Difference.”

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