An African's Queen

Observations of an African Man's Western Woman

An Example of the Negative Representation of Africa by Western Media: The BBC2 ‘Welcome to Lagos’ Documentary

The BBC aired a three-part documentary called Welcome to Lagos and from it has spurned an outcry in how the west portrays Nigeria and Africa as a whole. The Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK, Dr. Tafida wrote this scathing letter to the BBC Channel 2 controller, Ms Janice Hadlow. In it he argues:

While not denying that slums and ghettos exist in Lagos, as the documentary shows, it is a global phenomenon, attendant on the development of mega-cities. Even in London, it is not uncommon to see people (not Nigerians) scavenge dustbins in search of food and other ‘valuables’ Certainly, there are other aspects of life in Lagos and other salubrious parts of the city worthy of being shown to your viewers. It is therefore a perverse demonstration of lack of balance and fairness that your crew would focus only on that aspect of life in Lagos, without showing the other side of the city.

Having watched the documentary on youtube, I agree. The title ‘Welcome to Lagos’ suggests we’ll learn of the whole city, learn of a place that perhaps we’d like to visit one day, however the BBC2 producer, Will Anderson, did nothing to portray the entire city in all its facets. We’re introduced to the slums and ghettos, the workers of the saw mill industry and the merciless government clean up crew in a way that suggests that these people are the sum of the whole.

This documentary is exactly why I am writing this blog, so much emphasis is put on the negative aspects of countries in Africa and not enough is being done to show that the people of Africa are not to be pitied. As a westerner I saw both sides of the story. I could see what BBC2 was attempting to do as they say:

All across Lagos you’ll find millions of others like Gabriel. People who have found ingenious ways to make money and who are pursuing it for all they’re worth. A few become wealthy but the vast majority earn just enough to live on, but against the odds they’ve turned Lagos into a city of opportunity full of entrepreneurs, resourceful, energetic and extremely optimistic.” Episode 2

They wanted to portray the people of Lagos as strong and determined to win against adversity, but in turn they’ve suggested it is only the poor, unfortunate people who’ve made Lagos the city it is. What about the millions of others who work just as hard in other sectors but do not need to live below the poverty line? Sanni’s comment summed it up for me: ‘This isn’t the Lagos I grew up in, but it’s the Lagos that the world will see now.’

On the BBC’s Africa Have Your Say they asked their readers, How Would you Like your Country Portrayed on TV? A few of the readers comments illustrate this imbalance:

Israel Ambe Ayongwa: “… At the end of the day, it all has to do with who is telling the story and who is behind the lens of the camera. The state owned media in my country will show you the amazing beauties of fauna, flora and diverse cultures in Cameroon while the ‘foreign’ media will pick on the sordid image of corruption.”

Ruth: “I usually see the worst possible image of my country (Ethiopia) in Western Media unless we won some race. The saddest part is, there is a truth in what they are portraying, so I cannot say it is completely false, however, there is another side of my country which rarely gets portrayed, thus most people think my country is a hell hole, which absolutely is not!!! As everyone has the worst possible image of my country, I would like to see the other side being portrayed for a change.”

Codrin Arsene: “In mainstream media there is only one rule most media houses follow: if it bleeds, it leads. And Africa has been bleeding for more than five decades. The tragedy is that we are not even in the position of asking to have some aspects of African affairs – technology advancement, women empowerment, successful grass roots campaigns – reflected more in Western media. Before we make that step we first need to ask the Western journalists to STOP portraying Africa in racist and simplistic ways.”

Blaise Buma: “… I get most of my news from BBC and CNN and most of the covering on Africa is about negative or bad news, wars, rigged elections, coup d’etat, etc. I do not deny that these events are not worth reporting but there is hardly any positive story about Africa as compared to other regions such as Asia, Europe or the America’s. This definitely hurts Africa’s image abroad and one may argue that to some extent, the negative coverage discourage foreigners from investing in Africa and tourists from going to Africa amongst other things.”

Fred Nwonwu: “I am a Nigerian journalist and can readily tell you that the BBC, like most western media, has an overly negative view of Africa and seeks to portray Africa thus. I am yet to see a balanced report about Africa from the BBC, and I read African and world news on the BBC daily. While I won’t claim that BBC goes out of its way to report falsehood, since the events do actually happen, it is the style of reportage that gnaws at our sensibilities. For example your celebrated ‘Welcome to Lagos’ documentary, whilst actually dealing with real life Lagosians, in real life situations, failed to show any contrast. At least the producer and his team got to stay in hotels where they were served by ordinary Nigerians who do not live on garbage dumps and swampy slums, it would have served for ‘balance’ if they had made some effort to portray their lives as well…”

Accurately portraying the people and the places does not suggest only illustrating the divide between the poor and the mega-wealthy but interviewing people who do have homes and jobs akin a middle income. Balance is showing that that the message of the documentary, that is, that Nigerians have a strong spirit and work extremely hard with pride and honour, is among many in the community of Lagos.

Perhaps a better title for the documentary could’ve been: ‘Lagos: A City of Entrepreneurs’

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11 thoughts on “An Example of the Negative Representation of Africa by Western Media: The BBC2 ‘Welcome to Lagos’ Documentary

  1. I don’t know much of Africa except maybe for how it is portrayed in Discovery Channel and the news you hear; however I am well aware how western media can skew things. For any country that has been classified as “Third World” images of poverty and only poverty and suffering becomes the basis for talking about the country.
    I remember having talked to a foreigner, upon learning where I was from he began to talk about how it must be difficult; that maybe we are always hunger…and all that.He even to a point mentioned how shock he was to discover we had certain items seemingly exclusive to the western world. I scratched my head, slightly insulted and had to explain things to him. It’s the angles media portrays that create this images, and like that of Lagos, the middle income is hidden in the shadow of the great rich and poor divide.
    I think your alternative title is great, it has more hope and more truth. Thanks for sharing.

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    • 83October, thanks for your comment and sharing your experiences. The western media is capable of expanding their vast intellect and imagination to tell stories of all people everywhere but the patronisation of the ‘higher’ society suggests that people would not be interested to learn so-called ‘third world’ countries have middle incomes too. That would make them on the same page and that’s just not interesting enough. What rubbish!

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  2. Pingback: Images the ‘Welcome to Lagos’ Documentary Didn’t Show « An African's Queen

  3. Cities of the Mind on said:

    Having been to Ghana, and done NGO work there, I understand and share the frustration over one-sided portrayals of countries there! It’s all so sensationalized and one-dimensional. No acknowledgement of the deeper challenges, no focus on the people themselves, just plights of the masses.

    They dip in and take a snapshot view of people living in slums without understand how generous and happy many of them are, and don’t bother with pictures of the things they’ve built, and are building.

    It annoys me to no end watching media ignore the many, many, people who are working together to fight the currents of war and poverty and build something great, on laborious step at a time.

    I’m glad there are people like you working to show the other side.

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    • Thanks for your insight and gratitude. It’s really important that we continue to find ways to communicate the truth of how amazing and talented the people in Africa really are. Confronted by hardships doesn’t make me feel sorry for them, but proud because they are stronger and more able to overcome this adversity!

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  4. Thank you for cutting through the rubbish and telling a story that is balanced. Yes, we get the brunt of the west’s selective reporting and dearly need people like you to speak on our behalf. Maybe if westerners like you talk more about it to your peers, the truth will certainly come out. I salute you.

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  5. Stella Matutina on said:

    The study of Africa has really opened my eyes on a lot of things and i am glad. More i am advancing more i am interesting. Thank you guys for this wonderful work. The western media is representing Africa so badly. A cousin of mine came to visit us for the first time in Africa (Ghana) and he told us that he taught we sleep in trees.

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