I often joke that the only media attention Mauritania receives is on one of two subjects: 1) bidan (“white,” Arabophone) women who have traditionally strived to attain obese body size as a mark of wealth and beauty (See this BBC radio piece from 2004 or this video for examples); and 2) the persistence of slavery in the country. I’ve been asked innumerable times about these two issues by European and American documentary film-makers, journalists, and curious tourists who use both issues to reflect more on their own cultural norms and history than they do to think about the historical basis, changing nature, or realities of beauty or labor in Mauritania itself. (Oprah exclaimed that she’d love to go live in Mauritania where big is beautiful and The Atlantic defined Mauritanian racial politics and slavery in stark terms reflecting America’s history with slavery rather than the specifics of the place itself). Writing about forced feeding in Mauritania makes Americans think critically about the extremes to which they go to lose weight, while writing about slavery somehow allows for Americans to ignore the terrible working conditions of immigrant laborers and the persistence of racial discrimination in the United States.
When I received an email from The New Yorker contributor Alexis Okeowo asking me for a connection to a Mauritanian scholar on an article on slavery in Mauritania, I obliged but also offered unsolicited advice that she might want to avoid the same tropes repeated in the myriad of articles written on the topic. Okeowo’s article, “Freedom Fighter” appeared in the September 8, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. My sustained conversation with Okeowo and a fact-checker at the magazine caused me to reflect at length about the nature of media coverage on this topic, the ability of scholars to influence the conversation, and why I and so many other specialists of the region object to the story often told about slavery in the Sahara. Up front, I want to make clear that my experience with The New Yorker left me impressed with the magazine’s commitment to quality-reporting. The staff contacted the scholars and read the articles I recommended. The fact-checker had an intuitive sense of what might be problematic in the article and reached out to me and more senior scholars for clarification. This magazine, more than any other media source I’ve encountered, wanted to get the story “right.”
Slavery in Mauritania has a long and sad history that is often denied by some parts of the Mauritanian population. And, while the subject of the New Yorker article, Biram ould Abeid, is not the only hratine (considered “black” people of slave origin) activist calling for official government policies that would acknowledge exploitative labor conditions, he has certainly become the most prominent. Around him, there has been a much needed politicization of hratine interests and a growing sense that the socioeconomic inequalities in the country should be addressed openly and politically.
That said, some of the terms and sweeping historical narrative in the article are still problematic. As a staff member from The New Yorker told me, one scholar who has written extensively on the issue in Mauritania ended up vexed and seemed to then avoid further contact with the publication’s staff. I assume that this Mauritania specialist was frustrated with the lack of historical complexity and attention to local nuance she saw in earlier versions of the article. However, non-specialist readers with whom I spoke said they found the article too complicated, walking away confused by the different racial and linguistic groups, unsure of what was what. These deeply divergent views – that the article was simplistic in its reporting or overly detailed – plus my own experience attempting to complicate the usual picture while giving a coherent explanation, left me wondering more broadly about how academics and the media can collaborate productively when it comes to Africa. Journalists, after all, have to tell a clear story which often means leaving out complicated details. It’s now a stale exercise to criticize the Western media for its ignorance about Africa but I think what many of my colleagues and I struggle with is how to constructively engage in a discussion about what should be said about Africa, not just what shouldn’t. Academics like to deconstruct but that becomes unproductive when, for some audiences, ideas are only in the early stages of construction. It doesn’t do much good to harp on what Africa is not if people outside of the continent don’t necessarily have any idea of what it is. Something must be built in order for it to be torn down.
These are the challenges I faced when explaining that the Hassaniya term hratine was not synonymous with “slave,” but rather black, Arabophone people understood to be of slave origin. Or that race was not necessarily an indicator of slave status since “black,” non-Arabic language groups also had slaves who were also black, that issues of social hierarchy based on occupational caste and ideas about genealogy reinforced through interpretations of Islam were much more important. Or that Arabs did not “sweep down” into Mauritania in the third century. Not only were these statements problematic in their historical and terminological inaccuracy but they also reflected a political stance taken by the journalist’s informants who, in protesting the very real and dismally unjust labor relations enduring in Mauritania, also sought to connect their region’s history to one understood by American readers and activists. In such versions, Arabs acted as marauding outsiders who tore down through the Sahara, snatching up any black Africans as slaves, forcing them to convert to Islam, and maintained their present political dominance through overt racism. This story is certainly true in some circumstances but, as I wrote to The New Yorker, we don’t know yet if Arabs swept, trickled, or stumbled and they were certainly not the only groups raiding, buying, selling, and using slaves in the region. Racism is alive and well in Mauritania in multiple directions but it’s not always based on ideas of slavery and it’s not always so, excuse the double entendre, black and white. I could continue with my quibbles with some of the article but the point here is that a magazine with the time and investment to engage in sustained investigative research still has specialists splitting hairs over the content. Since the publication of The New Yorker article, I have seen praise on social media exclaiming that this was so far the best article written for a larger public on the topic. I agree though I can’t help but ask myself if this is as good as it gets. How can we tell a narrative that attends to local context and detail while making it a read-able and relate-able story?
In some respects, beginning this blog with Keren Weitzberg was an effort to start experimenting with how to improve my story-telling abilities, how to think about not just what is factual and what isn’t but how the framing of stories has consequences and what it means to impose certain depictions of Africa’s past and present onto the continent and its people. This space, The Africa Collective, is also a place for a group of engaged scholars to think about how to distill our thoughts for a larger audience – how to take our specialized knowledge and write more succinctly, more clearly, and with more argumentation. As witnessed by the length of our pieces and my fumbles on a recent podcast, some of us are still figuring this out. What I do think our contributors are doing well, however, is talking about what Africa is instead of what it isn’t. The pieces posted so far have addressed specific and relevant topics that range from popular culture to histories of education and war to the realities of government policy and public health interventions. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has famously stated, “the problem with stereotypes is…that they make one story become the only story.”
Some might be familiar with historian of Africa Jan Vansina’s article “Historians, Are Archeologists Your Siblings?” in which Vansina argues for more collaboration between historians and archeologists. Even though their data and modes of interpretation may differ, both could benefit from conversations about their findings. The same could and should be said about academics and journalists who work in Africa. As people whose primary job it is to relay information about Africa and its people to a wider audience, academics often have a difficult time doing so in an efficient way that resonates with their listeners. Journalists, whose job is also to report on events for a public audience, often have a difficult time doing so in a way that respects the complexity of each case. Academics could and should learn from journalists how to streamline their thoughts and explain the complexity. Likewise, journalists need to take the time to consult regional experts to ensure that the story they tell doesn’t become one of tired stereotype. This one story about Africa – one that is always tragic and hopeless – is what we want to avoid.
Erin Pettigrew is Assistant Professor of History and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU- Abu Dhabi.