Some glossy magazines are named after the first name of its editor. It is the same, frankly bizarre, mindset that compels people working in your local Starbucks franchise – people you have never seen and are unlikely ever to meet again – to put your name on the plastic mug containing stuff that vaguely resembles coffee. This disease is currently invading railway stations all over The Netherlands.
In the same country we have a glossy called Linda Its editor is, you guessed it, Linda. TV personality De Mol, as it happens. Linda shifts approximately 200,000 items every month, a frighteningly large number if you ask me. Now, for some reason Linda found it necessary to dedicate its September issue to…Africa. Perhaps it’s because it is getting colder in The Netherlands while South Africa is getting warmer and offers holiday packages. Cape Town (Food! Wine! Seals! Penguins! Jazz!) or Jo’burg (Giraffes! Sundowners! Soweto by bike! The Big Five!).
As you can see, the cover sets the tone (Look at Me! With African Animals!). Inside, the need to shoehorn anything about “Africa” into the content is palpable. There is, for instance, a dialogue between a (surprise!) TV personality and a politician. Africa suddenly pops up out of nowhere as a place where, wait for it, there is massive unemployment and violence against women. Clearly not much else. Linda thus treats us to a series of interviews with rape victims in eastern Congo and another one about women from Africa (or African descent) living in The Netherlands, showing their jealousy-inducing curves. At least the editor had the good sense not to print the two series back-to-back.
The centrepiece of the Linda Safari Issue is an essay in which the term “we” is liberally thrown around, a device used to conceal the simple fact that, true to the mag’s formula, the author, Marcia Luyten, is mainly talking about herself. So, Africa is said to have ‘a romantic image’ (Food! Wine! Giraffes! Sundowners!) with a ‘raw backstory’ (Drugged Children! AK47s! Rebel armies! Hunger bellies! Super rich people!). And “we” are supposed to have a hunger for both although Luyten does mention the fact that “we” can no longer use such imagery without receiving a well-deserved clip around the ears, as KLM Royal Dutch found out not so long ago. The website Africaisacountry (which highlighted KLM’s gaffe) gets a mention, as does my former Radio Netherlands colleague Ikenna Azuike who runs a vlog called What’s Up Africa?. Both excel in lampooning the kind of tiresome clichés that “we” supposedly have this hunger for.
In fairness, Luyten argues in favour of better analysis of the many political systems up and down the continent (not that this matters much to Linda’s readers) and she makes an honest attempt to explain the existence of the cliché’d imagery by linking it to Europe’s colonial past. But she then commits the grave error of stating as fact that development aid was driven by collective European shame about a colonial past. Nothing could be further from the truth. The development enterprise arose from an extremely simple practical question that was the result of worldwide decolonization: where in heaven’s name are we going to put all these agriculture experts, irrigation engineers, administrators, plantation owners and so on, for which the mother country has no use? This explains why the development enterprise resembles, at its core, the colonial enterprise. Both are born from the same notion: the Natives must first be studied and then improved. Luyten correctly tells her readers that the lifestyles of the old colonialists and the self-avowedly much more progressive development professionals closely resemble each other.
In essence, the Linda Safari Issue revolves around the intensely dynamic and interesting life and personality of the editor (and by extension: her readers), for whom Africa is a backdrop, a piece of décor for a photoshoot of a model or one of people who have just shot wild animals (Elephant! Zebra! Lion! Leopard!). Both equally outlandish. Linda regrets not being able to go to South Africa herself; she has to be content with a Dutch safari park. Small matter – she is still at the heart of it all.
And by now you will understand why, apart from the NGO-indicated Congolese rape victims and the owners of those mind-boggling curves, Africa has no voice in Linda’s Safari Issue. Photographers from, say, Lagos or Nairobi are absent; nor is there room for a story written by any of the past and present army of immensely talented writers, from Yvonne Vera in Zimbabwe to Véronique Tadjo in Côte d’Ivoire or Ken Bugul in Senegal. Neither did the idea arise of doing a spectacular shoot of one or two among the legion of singing talents, from the Malian jelis to South African jazz divas to pop stars and rap artists who mash things up from Addis Ababa to Abidjan. (Or indeed Rotterdam or Zwolle.) Shall we also mention fashion designers, tourist entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, airline pilots and logistics coordinators? Yes, all women, in case you were wondering. Literally, I can make a list a mile long. But then again, to paraphrase the line ZAM Magazine employs, this Safari Issue was not about Africa. Not at all. Not even close.