Magazine article Foreign Policy

The New Missionary Industry

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The New Missionary Industry

Article excerpt

For more than two decades, writer, reporter, and Foreign Policy contributor MICHELA WRONG has covered government corruption, Western aid, and the heroes and villains that created modern Africa. After penning three nonfiction books about the continent, she entered the world of fiction this summer with her first novel, Borderlines, a land-dispute thriller set in a fictionalized Eritrea called North Darrar. This intersection--and, at times, blurring--of fact and fiction in Africa is also the focus of visual artist SAM HOPKINS. Raised in Great Britain and Kenya, Hopkins, named a 2014 Global Thinker, explores in his work the implications of development. At the 2014 Dak Art biennale in Senegal, he exhibited a screen-print collection of logos of both real and invented international aid organizations, challenging viewers' perceptions and understanding of these institutions. Wrong and Hopkins recently connected in Foreign Policy's recording studio in Washington to talk about African aid, art, and literature.

SAM HOPKINS: I'm interested in how [aid and nongovernmental] organizations represent themselves in the visual realm. It seems that if we take their logos, there's sort of a distillation of an ideology: They perpetuate images and notions of suffering and charity, which most people who spend time in any African country know represent only a small part of reality. MICHELA WRONG: Nairobi is a very peculiar city; it's dominated by these large white Land Cruisers with the logos that [you have] dedicated some of [your] art to. I think Nairobi, of all the cities in Africa I've ever visited, is the most affected by this syndrome where it's NGO-ville exemplified. And it's not healthy, in my view, that what we're seeing is this sort of legacy, almost, of the missionaries. This is the new missionary industry. SH: Unless you've been here and you've experienced it--being stuck in traffic jams and seeing Land Cruiser after Land Cruiser go past you with all these logos--then it's difficult to get a sense of how overwhelming it is. For a while, I was running a grassroots media collective in the outskirts of Nairobi. In the editorial meetings, the 16- or 17-year-old guys would say, "I want to make something about water and sanitation" or, "I want to make something about HIV/AIDS." They're not saying, "I'd like to make a film about the river at the end of my garden. …

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