From time to time, you hear about big-name celebrities saying goodbye to their pilates routines and diamond-encrusted bathroom faucets to go “rough it” in some poverty-stricken African country that few American middle schoolers will ever even learn about in their social-studies classes. The celebrities may play soccer with starving children, tour devastated residential areas with a distressed mother suffering from a life-threatening illness or teach the natives a few English words so their cameramen can capture the moment and relay it to Oprah. This publicity stunt has increased in popularity among Hollywood VIPs to include A-list stars like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney – all hoping to bring back stories of poverty and genocide to the uneducated American people.
Whether or not their intentions are to promote their next movies, these actors provide one of the only possible ways to get Americans to think about the problems in regions such as the Darfur province of Sudan. They are simply using their status to bring attention to global issues that often go ignored in America – all the while looking like outstanding members of society. Through brief film clips on “20/20” and interviews via satellite with Katie Couric, they hope Americans will respond to their grueling explorations with an increased interest in – and perhaps monetary contributions to – the regions they are campaigning for.
But for some reason, no matter how many beautiful stars live in squalor for months on end or develop catchily named donation funds to bring clean water to needy areas, most Americans still don’t care about Africa. Although happy to see their favorite movie stars championing good causes, most Americans still don’t think twice about the distressed regions or donate to funds once “The Today Show” moves to its next segment.
From the outside, it’s easy to call Americans lazy or ethnocentric, or blame them for not giving a damn about what happens in faraway places. But this name-calling is misguided, because the thing that actually prevents many Americans from caring about Africa is the media. Due to the continent’s lack of media attention, issues such as the genocide in Darfur and human-rights violations in Uganda are absent from the thoughts of most Americans. The media allows its viewers to be ignorant and lazy by only reporting on issues that materially impact America and by failing to stress the importance of caring about long forlorn places like Africa.
The closest news programs come to focusing on Africa is reporting on the latest American doctor who has made strides in finding a cure for AIDS or a rural American family who has kindly taken in Nigerian orphans to save them from the dangers of Africa. It almost seems as if media sources are afraid to directly address the real problems and describe the actual conditions Africans face every day, so they settle by only reporting on America’s involvement with the issues in the continent.
Meanwhile, an entire race of Sudanese people continues to be wiped out by government soldiers, and two million of the country’s people are homeless or have fled to surrounding countries. The situation in Darfur may already have deteriorated to resemble Rwanda, where millions of people were massacred by the government in the early 90’s but America’s attention was limited, even after the powerful account of the genocide in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
Sadly, unless the genocide in Darfur hikes American gas prices or a disease breaks out in that country and threatens America, the media still won’t let its viewers care.
It’s no wonder that only about .003 percent of American college students choose to study abroad in Africa. That part of the world might as well be uncharted to most Americans because nearly everything there is unfamiliar. Many Americans are probably clueless when it comes to locating Darfur on a map. Africa is disconnected from American life and will remain that way until the media faces the truth about situations developing on the continent and makes Americans face them.
Because of this diluted awareness, the need for celebrities to rally support for Africa – especially as America announces it will cut federal aid to the continent by almost half – is becoming more necessary. Demonstrations, like the one last Sunday in Washington led by famous faces like Clooney and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), continue to encourage American interest in African concerns. And these attempts are slowly starting to see a positive response.
So we should be grateful for the growing number of actors who take the initiative to popularize the struggles in foreign lands – even if only to shift attention away from a recent divorce or allegations of drug abuse. Americans must rely on them for sparking interest in African issues, especially since the media continues to ignore urgent situations like Darfur.
For now, the best thing Americans can give Africa is the attention it deserves.
Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.