There’s a critical discussion making the rounds about lazy designers who have overused the acacia tree on book covers by African authors or in settings based in Africa. You can see some of the discussions here and here.
The image below, from Simon Stevens, provides the example that no matter the uniqueness of the story or writing style, or the popularity or recognition of the author, African books get the acacia tree treatment. (If you don’t know what an acacia tree is, look for it on each cover below.)
The acacia tree is pretty popular and representative of “Africa” to many Westerners — even if the tree doesn’t even grow in every part of the continent. The same tree appears on the bags, wall hangings, and other items marketed to visitors of Africa (and hanging on my wall and the walls of the flats around our campus).
Good design accomplishes its job
Allow me to digress from my main point to say that I disagree with the bashing of the cover designers and publishers. The problem is not their lack of ability or creativity.
The reality is most consumers– that’s us– have a simplified version of unfamiliar things and the cliched images comfort us (and reinforce our simplified story).
The acacia tree quickly and clearly communicates to American consumers that this book is tied to Africa. Creativity, uniqueness, or the latest trends may be nice and fun (especially to those of us who enjoy such), but that doesn’t necessarily lead to sales.
In marketing, “good design” sells. Bad design doesn’t sell — even when it meets the cool, new, unique, trendy, or beautiful priorities of the design elite. It’s not the designers fault. When consumers are looking for something “African” we know to look for the acacia tree (even though most of us don’t know that it’s called an acacia tree; we call it an “African tree”).
This little digression above about good vs. bad design was free, but let’s move on…
The diversity of culture
Our simplified and limited understanding of others effects our perspectives, expectations, and actions. And, one thing that I spent much of my time doing in presentations about ACC last year in the USA was to help us recognize that Africa is a big, diverse, and changing place. As such, it both reinforces and demolishes our stereotypes.
This challenge arises on campus at African Christian College in many different ways and situations…
Discussions about things happening on campus (especially when about student or staff behaviour) are often given the “but its the African culture” excuse. This statement is made by both non-Africans and Africans. Yet, there is no such thing as an “African culture” — and whatever remnants of any such culture remains today is changing dramatically.
First year students often note the difficulty of getting along with others with statements like, “The So-and-Sos* aren’t polite because they don’t say ‘please’ when they ask for something. It sounds like they are demanding us to give it to them.” Or “The Such-and-Suches* are so rude because they don’t like using cutlery when they eat.” [*Nationalities have been changed to protect the innocent.] Many of the challenges of students getting along on campus are about broken cultural expectations — of which table manners are minor examples. Your country, tribe, location (rural or urban), and church background makes a difference in how we understand and see the world — and our expectations of others. This is true even between Africans.
Some visiting lecturers — especially from the USA — also come with stereotypes that can make it difficult in the classroom. The assumption is that our students will be limited in their academic ability, won’t be dressed “nice”, and won’t be able to understand difficult or advanced things. (And the truth is, some of our students are limited in their academic ability, others don’t dress “nice”, and some struggle with advanced thinking — like students everywhere.) Some visiting lecturers never do understand or get over the stereotype and sometimes unconsciously reinforce it by their own actions and words in class.
The challenge of the visiting lecturer
It’s on the last example I want to dwell a little longer. Our students notice. They notice when lecturers simplify their lessons. They notice when a lecturer gives basic assignments that don’t require critical thinking. They know when lecturers aren’t challenging them to learn, grow, or work hard.
When they notice there are different types of reactions:
- Many are simply relieved to have an easy class that won’t require too much of their time, energy, or thinking.
- Some are offended and turned off because they enroled in college to be challenged, to learn, and to grow in knowledge and ability and feel as if they are being shortchanged by this lecturer.
- A few play into the stereotype and use the opportunity to see how far they can get with the lecturer to do even less work in the class and, if possible, to convince the lecturer to provide them with additional personal, financial, and on-going support for what is too difficult to do “on their own”.
Limited views of Africa
A student last year talked to me specifically about this issue. I explained the challenge we have with visiting lecturers from the USA.
The images we have of African children are almost exclusively poor, hungry, dying, and incapable of solving things without our help. Why? Because that’s the image we get from television ads and the news.
The other images revolve around violence, child soldiers, power and money hungry leaders, genocide, and war. Why? Because that is the Africa we see in movies and the news.
The images of life is mud huts, few clothes, no water, no stores, no electricity, no telecommunications, and few toilets.
These stereotypes are just like the acacia trees on the book covers. It’s the Africa many see. The acacia trees are a part of the African landscape that stand out. And these images of poverty are images that are memorable because they are real, true, representations of what many see.
But they are not the whole story. They don’t stand for an entire continent. And at the same time, the African landscape is dotted with tech stars, high rises, fast-changing mobile technology, talented and creative people, highways, waterways, and so much more.
The important thing is for us to not get stuck in our stereotypes. And when we get over our stereotypes we can begin seeing each other as co-workers, partners, co-creators, friends, and much, much more. And we can begin to imagine a new world in which all people are using their gifts to expand God’s kingdom.