David Lammy, Comic Relief, and the Need for a New African Narrative

Labour MP, David Lammy

If you are reading this article, you have almost certainly see the media outcry around David Lammy’s criticisms of Comic Relief for using ‘white saviour’ tropes in their fundraising campaigns. In case you missed it, the Labour MP sparked outrage when he called Stacey Dooley a ‘white saviour’ and criticised Comic Relief for perpetuating ‘tired and unhelpful stereotypes’

While Lammy could have possibly worded his criticism in a more helpful way, his point undoubtedly still stands. Lammy, and those who agree with him, aren’t disputing the brilliant work that charities like Comic Relief do both across Africa and here in the UK. Nor is he arguing that white celebrities like Stacey Dooley should be replaced with Black ones.

What David Lammy is highlighting is the need to move away from only showing Africa in one way. For years, Comic Relief and other charity campaigns that show impoverished children drinking dirty water have been the only glimpses of the diverse continent most of us in the UK have seen. Allowing one narrative of dry deserts, dirty water, and starving babies to steamroll over the complex variety and beautiful diversity within Africa leads to a Western society in people people truly believe that the only life Africans leave is one of poverty. While charities like Comic Relief undoubtedly want to highlight the challenges and struggles happening in the continent in order to drive fundraising, there must be a way to portray the struggles many face in Africa while also highlighting the beauty, diversity, and joy that exists there.

Africa is the world’s largest continent by far (West Africa alone is almost as large as the US), and yet if you talk to the average person they will not be able to tell you the difference between one country and the next. Which is absurd. Africa has always been presented to us as one amalgamation of lives and experiences, when it is anything but. The fact that we have grown up seeing only African poverty has led to people genuinely believing the ridiculousness that are the lyrics of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. (While we’re on the topic, a few small corrections: the majority of the continent is grassland, not desert; Christianity is the largest religion in East, Central and Southern Africa; and water definitely does flow. Africa is home to four main rivers and hundreds of smaller ones.)

“Let the people that live in Africa tell us their stories and show us that the vast and amazing continent cannot be boiled down into one narrative.”

Recently, we are seeing a move away from this and towards a more detailed view of Africa. With programmes like Africa with Ade Adepitan and The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, which explicitly explore the way Africa is presented to the Western audience, we are being exposed to the fact that one size certainly does not fit all in Africa. Hopefully, one day we will know as much about the innovative and ingenious work on the continent (such as the sustainable power projects, the cardiopad, shoes that can charge your phone, and even the origins of vaccination) as we do about the poverty.

So how does this lead back to Lammy’s white saviour comments? Well, the stories that we see feedback in to a narrative that fundamentally disrespects black bodies and minds. We see Africa as fundamentally corrupt and impoverished, with Africans incapable of looking after themselves. This leads to people in Britain genuinely thinking that the only way to help is to intervene and do it ourselves.

But what we really need are more grassroots and ingenious solutions that are already happening in order to ensure people in Britain understand that the African experience is more than one of suffering and waiting for help to come along. Let the people that live in Africa tell us their stories and show us that the vast and amazing continent cannot be boiled down into one narrative

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