The Representation Dilemma

September 23, 2014

Hello and thank you for taking the time to check out the first of our major blog posts for the Nyantende Foundation! This entry will be a little different than the ones to follow, as we have agreed to first discuss who we are as bloggers and how we, as the providers of information, and you, as the reader, thereby relate to the information that we are going to share about the Congo.


One of the two of us is named Maggie Tadros (hello!). I am a biracial, middle class, able-bodied female, pursuing higher education at Queen’s University. The other is Heather Donkers (hi there!). I am a white, middle class, able-bodied female, also pursuing higher education. We are finding it necessary to state our positionalities at the outset, as we want our readers to know our background when we try to represent the people of Nyantende as well as other aspects of African cultures in our blog posts.


Now, transport yourself to the other side of the world, where the region of Nyantende is located in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Congo is commonly referred to as the ‘the heart of Africa’ for its centrality on the continent. By and large, it is an impoverished state; this lack of the traditional and largely Western colonial understanding of development can be linked to a lack of economic opportunities, which prevails due to political warfare (remnants of the Second Congo War). We hope to discuss this in length in a later blog post, but our main goal with this post is to discuss the concept of representation, and how it relates to both the DRC and to our position as Canadian bloggers.


While it is true that poverty exists in the Congo, and that it is a tangible issue, what we are concerned about for now is the negative effect that essentializing poverty can have. As most of our readership is probably aware, media has increasingly contributed to a construction of meaning in our society, and the line between producers and consumers of media and culture has become blurred, particularly in Western societies. New media, or this user-generated material (mainly social media), has become a platform through which Canadians can and have discussed issues that have less of a recognized political agenda and more of a human agenda. For example, through what we have seen in various media outlets, whether official or unsanctioned, many of us have become accustomed to the idea of certain issues affecting African nations, so much so that there seems to be a certain narrative at play within the media. ‘Africa’ becomes essentialized in the media in terms of its portrayal as a place that lacks diversity and is all one seemingly hopeless, needy continent. This ‘African narrative’ has reinforced colonial characterizations and stereotypes of African peoples that negatively impact not only the different countries in Africa, but also the continent’s individual citizens and their relations to one another. It is essential, then, that we not overlook the history of western colonization in Africa as a critical factor of the current situation of many African countries, and the way that these countries are being represented. While many of these colonial impacts have been rectified, Africa is still very much portrayed as the ‘other,’ the less civilized society that needs our help.


The photographer of Humans of New York (HONY) is on a world tour with the UN to highlight different global issues, which has helped to challenge assumptions about Africa by featuring the DRC in particular. One post on August 19, 2014 was of a Congolese man who was posing next to a picture of an African boy reaching out his hands with an empty bowl. Here is what the man had this to say about the picture:

“We don't like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don't want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food. Congo has an incredible amount of farmland. An incredible amount of resources. Yes, we have a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.”  


And so this is where the Nyantende Foundation, much like Humans of New York, takes a small step towards giving a voice back to the people who are being too often represented as something that they are not. As a non-profit organization that was created by two Queen’s students and a native Nyantende, it is grassroots in that it is participatory, and asks Congolese people what they see as issues that need rectifying. What we have found, as partners with these locals, is that education is perhaps as important to Congolese people as it has always been in the West, and that maybe the Congo is not quite equipped to provide that service. And so our organization, through donations at fundraisers and events that we hold in Canada, helps to subsidize tuition for over 230 youths in the greater Nyantende area in elementary, secondary, and post secondary academic institutions. As members of this non-profit organization we like to emphasize that we are a partner of the Congolese people, working directly with them to provide any resources that they may require.


Thus, within our blog entries we will relay social issues that are impacting the people of Nyantende and represent them with an awareness of the systems of power that have been built by political and mass media cultural institutions. We will also relay broader issues relating to the continent and cover pan-African news in order to provide up to date occurrences for our readers to follow, while recognizing that we cannot speak on behalf of anyone that lives there. Our goal is to share stories in an innovative way. Our aspirations for these blog entries are to bridge Queen’s students, faculties, staff and the Kingston community to the issues and situations affecting others and to hopefully garner enough interest for you to help our cause. The Nyantende Foundation is always looking to increase its number of students it can enroll and assist in education. As it stands, that’s what this blog, and this organization, is all about.

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