Bono’s vanity

This #ThrowbackThursday piece from 2007 on Vanity Fair's famous "Africa" issue, makes for fun, at times depressing, reading of the debates we hopefully left behind.

In 1965, the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene wrote and directed—against the odds, with minimal support from his government and a few French patrons, and as a director with meager cinematic background—the film “Le noir de … (Black Girl)” about a young Senegalese immigrant domestic working for a French family in Antibes.

The film, the first feature directed by a black African, was hailed at the time by New York Times critic A.H. Weiler (in now outdated language) as “put[ing] a sharp, bright focus on an emerging, once dark African area and on a forceful talent with fine potentials.” Sembene died [on June 9, 2007] at 84 after an illustrious career, saluted by another New York Times critic, A.O. Scott, for being as uncompromising in his criticism of Africa’s post-liberation regimes as he had been of French colonial domination. More importantly, Scott pointed out, Sembene was also passionate about celebrating the equality of Africa with the West: “He believed that Africans would experience true liberation when they threw off European models and discovered their own, homegrown versions of modernity.”

One can only wonder what Sembene might have achieved with the resources made available to former rock star Bono in his recent role as guest editor of a special “Africa” issue of the high-end monthly Vanity Fair.

Africa, of course, is now everyone’s pet cause. It offers Euro-American political leaders unpopular at home an opportunity to shine [whenever they go on visits there or through development aid], and for Hollywood actresses and former and current pop stars to be seen doing their bit for humanity by lining up to visit the continent (mainly its children) or pleading its case in Western capitals.

Bono, especially, has built a new career as a savior of Africa and [in the issue] makes much of pulling out all stops to plead the continent’s case—his access to the corridors of power makes him a lot more effective in this role than his pop predecessor [in this line of work], Bob Geldof.

In March this year, the U2 frontman who has accomplished the remarkable feat of being a friend to Nelson Mandela and George W. Bush simultaneously, announced he would guest edit the special Africa issue of Vanity Fair, which would “rebrand Africa” for the magazine’s well-heeled readership and advertisers. His intentions were noble: “When you see people humiliated by extreme poverty and wasting away with flies buzzing around their eyes, it is easy not to believe that they are same as us,” he said.

Capturing the energy of a continent with 890 million and 54 countries in one issue of a magazine was always going to be a tall order, but even then, Bono and his team gets it really wrong. The key personnel included the head of communication of Bono’s RED Campaign as well as the actor Djimon Hounsou, who is credited as a “consultant.” And it shows. At times it looks like another ad for the RED Campaign.

It is never entirely clear whether the purpose of the edition is to showcase Africa — or people who promote Africa in the West, especially within the United States?

Much has been made of the issue’s twenty different covers. Twenty-one “prominent people” photographed by Annie Liebovitz in groups of two and three in a series meant to depict a “conversation” about Africa—she called it a “visual chain letter … spreading the message from person to person.”

The result of all that planning and effort (the real editor Graydon Carter lists Liebovitz’s flight schedule in his “editor’s letter”) is hardly extraordinary—though I was intrigued by, if not sure what to make of, the curious shot of Madonna apparently sniffing Maya Angelou.

Only three of those featured are actual Africans: the actor (and editor’s consultant) Djimon Hounsou, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Iman. (Three and a half, if you count U.S. presidential long shot Barack Obama, another cover model, by virtue of being the son of a Kenyan economist.)

Not exactly a new brand of Africa: Hounsou is largely a product of Hollywood; Tutu, with respect, has retired from his life as an activist cleric; and Iman’s only qualification is that she was a well-known model in 1980s.

As for the non-Africans featured on the cover, if some of these are Africa’s friends, it does not need enemies. President George W. Bush and his Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are a particularly odd choice—incidentally, they are pictured in a strangely intimate moment with Condi seeming to tug at George’s arm, as if the image was designed to provoke titillated speculation in the U.S. media.

Vanity Fair is not a news magazine, and therefore usually avoids putting people it dislikes on its cover. Carter, in his editor’s note, reveals his differences with Bono about including Bush and Rice, but the rock star appears to believe Bush’s Africa policies may be the “silver lining” of the current U.S. administration. But if silver linings were the criteria, then Thabo Mbeki, probably the most recognizable African political leader for his promotion of democracy, good governance and economic development, ought to have been included—perhaps Editor Bono deems Mbeki’s strange politics on HIV/AIDS and his “quiet diplomacy” on the crises in Zimbabwe are somehow worse than the Iraq war.

As for as strange cover choices go, though, Queen Rania of Jordan tops this list. I hope it was not because Bono thought Jordan was an African country.

A group of actual Africans profiled as representing the “spirit” of the continent—“activists, artists, doctors, athletes, entrepreneurs, economists” are given more limited treatment in short paragraph-length descriptions of their achievements.

The feature articles are written by go-to “Africa hands” in the United States, including Christopher Hitchens (offering a rambling stream of consciousness piece of Tunisia that recycles some earlier reporting), Sebastian Junger (a journalist described elsewhere as fascinated with “extreme situations and people at the edges of things”), and Spencer Wells (an “explorer-in-residence at National Geographic”). Only one actual African contributor, Binyavanga Wainaina on contemporary Kenya, made the cut.

Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese singer, is credited as a contributor for a piece on a music festival in Mali written by a former MTV executive, but that appears more like a transparent attempt to counter criticism of the magazine’s editors for the limited African “voice” in the magazine.

The big profiles go to anti-poverty economist Jeffrey Sachs (Bono’s friend) and the late Princess Diana—since the issue appeared, much of the mainstream coverage has been about how this article, and an accompanying book, could resurrect the career of Tina Brown. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton writes on Nelson Mandela and Brad Pitt plays journalist by asking Archbishop Desmond Tutu really silly questions. Having praised South Africa for going the route of “restorative justice”—last time I checked nothing of the sort happened—Pitt has a follow-up question for Tutu: “Then it is worth asking what is the outcome for societies who have rushed toward retributive justice, like the Shia in Iraq?” Huh? Madonna gets to redeem herself after her bungled adoption of a Malawian child: she is doing a documentary on orphans in Malawi now.

Nothing substantial is written about the continent’s most populous and vibrant region, West Africa (except for the article on the music festival in the Malian desert). South Africa, the continent’s richest country (with Johannesburg slowly emerging as the continent’s cultural and media capital as the paragraph-length feature on the Africa Channel and the drooling photograph of actress Terry Pheto of the film Tsotsi suggests) gets short shrift. Apart from the Clinton piece on Mandela (which, typical of the tradition here, reduces the former guerrilla to saintly grandfather) and the Pitt “interview” with Tutu, there is nothing that captures some of the struggles to define this new Africa.

Nevertheless, on the upside, publications like the Cape Town-based literary and politics magazine Chimurenga (full disclosure: I am its online editor) and “new wave” writers such as Wainaina, Orange Prize-winner Chimamanda Adichie, Doreen Baingana and Mohamed Magani, among others, are getting some helpful exposure to new (and well-heeled) audiences and readers. And there’s some well-deserved attention for the AIDS activism of people like Zackie Achmat and the global justice campaigner Archbishop Ndungane (Tutu’s successor as Anglican prelate in South Africa, who would have been a more contemporary choice for the cover image), among others.

Also recognized is the tireless work of New York African Film Festival director Mahen Bonetti, as well as the filmmakers Teddy Mattera, Gaston Kabore, Jean Marie Teno, and Safi Feye who all, unfortunately, are featured only in a group photo, with their work summed up in one paragraph. The coverage of these figures, however, is very minimal.

But even these upsides are spoiled by the sloppiness of the magazine. According to one of my sources, the one substantive article on the actual work of Africans (apart from Wainaina’s piece on Kenya)—an omnibus article on the continent’s “literary renaissance” by Elissa Scappell and Rob Spillmann—contains a lot of untruths and plain invention.

For one, Nadine Gordimer, part of the old guard of African letters is described as a “founder member of the African National Congress” and the “conscience of South Africa.” Uh, the ANC was founded in 1912, 11 years before Gordimer’s birth, and only opened its membership to whites in 1969. As for Gordimer being the “conscience of South Africa,” I’m not sure you’d find many South Africans who would have accorded her such prominence in the national imagination.

It also appears that description of the event at the heart of the article—the SLS Kenya/Kwani? Literary Festival—is a bit off base. According to my source (who like me, is a fan of Adichie’s novels) the descriptions of “standing room only” readings given by her in Nairobi, is more an attempt by the writers of the articles to make the story fit the issue’s hype. On the night she read at the University of Nairobi, most festival visitors opted instead to go listen to the much older Ugandan writer Taban Lo Liyong, who was reading in the room next door.

In the end, reading Bono’s Vanity Fair Africa branding edition leaves me remembering what a friend of mine says when he feels he’s been had: “As Fela would say, this is ‘expensive shit’.”

Further Reading