January 20, 2012

'This is Africa'

I recently profiled Oliberté Footwear for GOOD magazine. The company piqued my interest because, although it markets “Africa” in its tagline, it strives to present a nuanced narrative about the continent that doesn’t rely on stereotypes oft-cited in media reports. In doing so, it eschews portrayals of Africans as down-and-outs dependent upon Western aid.

“I’m proud our shoes are made in Africa,” Oliberté founder Tal Dehtiar told me when I interviewed him. “We don’t want pity purchases.”

Like mosquitos to uncovered ankles, Westerners have been drawn to Africa in efforts to help locals since at least the late 15th century, when Portuguese missionaries settled in Mbanza Kongo, near the mouth of the Congo River, in hopes of converting locals. Today, whether through shoe donations or shoe-manufacturing jobs or countless other endeavors, it’s evident that the mystique of “Africa” continues to captivate Westerners.

"Some of the most visible stories about Africa today," says writer G. Pascal Zachary, "are about Americans or Europeans expending a great deal of time and money helping Africans.” In his essay, "Just So Stories: Stories We Tell About Africa (And Those We Don’t)," Zachary documents five “master narratives” often told about the continent. One of the narratives—“stories about Americans and Europeans helping Africans”—he writes, “inevitably carr[ies] echoes of the 19th century notion of ‘the white man’s burden.’”

He continues:

Striking a balance between self-reliance and slavish dependence on others isn’t easy. Yet narratives about Africa are dominated by extremes that overwhelm more nuanced, sophisticated and accurate counter-narratives that emphasize both independence and inter-dependence.

That’s the intrigue. Oliberté does market “Africa” cursorily in its tagline. But the larger, more interesting story—about not only the shoe company but also the continent—is a complex narrative about trade, interdependence without dependency, and esteem.

“What do storytellers mean when they invoke the name ‘Africa’?” Zachary writes. “Do they refer to a race of people? A geography? A brand name?”

'This is Africa.'

Posted on Jan. 20, 2012 at 4:35 pm Link Share Comment

Tate Watkins

Independent Correspondent

Tate Watkins is a freelance writer and coffee guy between Haiti and Nashville, TN.