Images of Africa – Elephant in the room

Take a moment to close your eyes; think of Africa; form an image.  What comes to mind?

In all likelihood the image is of a lion…or a Maasai warrior dressed in red, adorned with beads and carrying a spear…or of an emaciated child struggling for life in the arms of her distressed mother.

Although these images are all legitimate, they represent only a small portion of the cultural depth and diversity in sub-saharan Africa.  They are icons.  Is Canada thoroughly represented by a photograph of a  Mountie on a horse in a red tunic? Niagara Falls? A beaver? A big bull moose with horns like a hat rack?  Chances are that a large portion of the Canadian population has never come across a moose in the wild.  And the reality is that the majority of Africans have never seen a lion.

One of Heather Haynes paintings depicting the characteristic image visitors to East Africa retain forever.

The images we get are iconic and restrictive.  Charities often show pictures of starving kids to tug at heartstrings and garner donations. But these sad images do not reflect what one sees when visiting Africa. Instead the majority of people you meet there are polite and open and generous. They smile and are often immaculately dressed, no matter where they come from.  They are friendly and outgoing and eager to interact.  They know what they need to help their communities…they just don’t have the resources to put their ideas and dreams into action.

At the CanAssist African Relief Trust we try to present an accurate description of the needs of the communities we support without indulging in what has been called “the pornography of poverty”.  Some African people may be very needy by our standards but they are still proud and deserve not to be exploited with images of their poverty being the primary focus.

Heather Haynes, a Kingston artist, has travelled in East Africa and has found beauty and colour in the villages she has visited.  Her safaris in Africa have transformed her as an artist. She paints remarkably stunning life-sized portraits of African women and children and gives part of the profits from selling them back to charities working in Africa.  Heather has become immersed in this work and along with her sister, Whitney, who makes jewellery with an African theme, has opened the Heather Haynes Gallery in Kingston, Ontario at 318 King Street – across from the market. 

I recommend a visit to the Heather Haynes gallery, if only to see an accurate portrayal of the colourful, resilient people one meets every day while traveling in Africa. It would be wonderful if these were the images that pop into your mind when the word Africa is mentioned.