Orientalism In Modern-day African Context

Orientalism was an essential part of the imperialist mechanism of control and expansion. Although colonialism is over, the systems of thinking; talking and representing which formed the basis of colonial power relations still persist. A key mechanism in this regard is social media in present day neo-colonialism. It is hereby that Edward Said’s conceptualisation of Orientalism will be explored and applied to the modern-day African context, thus the central point of argument will be that a new ‘Africanised’ Orientalism has come to fruition. From this one will come to see how the West typically represents Africa and why this is so problematic. The implications thereof will come to demonstrate how the media and social conditioning has come to be Africa’s greatest enemy, thus further showing the need for the likes of decolonial theory so that African’s may be able to represent and speak for their own realities. Various illustrative examples will be used to make the argument come to life.

Often when one thinks of the Orient or Orientalism, associations with the Middle East in particular come to mind. However, the concept of Orientalism goes much deeper and wider than this. This concept came to include the likes of Asia, North Africa as well as the Middle East. Based on the fundamental premises of Orientalism, it can be even more widely applied to the African continent in its entirety, especially when one makes reference to the role of Western social media and social conditioning. According to Edward Said (1978) one may discern the four dogmas of Orientalism; these being as following. The absolute and scientific difference between the West, which is seen as rational, developed, humane, superior and the Orient, which is seen as aberrant, undeveloped as well as inferior. The Orient is best understood through texts representing ‘classical’ Oriental civilisation, rather than from direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities. The Orient is eternal, uniform and incapable of defining itself. The Orient is at the bottom, something either to be feared or to be controlled. These dogmas are all in stark contrast to how the Occident is perceived and characterised. The Occident here being those within Western powers.

Upon analysis of these four dogmas one comes to see how these are in fact still very much prevalent in typical Western representations of Africa today. One need not consult academic texts necessarily in order to discern this, but at a bare minimum make reference to social or personal experience. This can take form in relatives who have moved overseas and their encounters with locals in the West. In the American context particularly one can see the widescale ignorance which can be linked to social conditioning and typical portrayal of Africa in social media, media as well as movies like documentaries which falsely depict an African reality. The same can be said of a British context as well as that of other European countries. Upon consulting this as a bare minimum one can already come to see how deeply entrenched these false depictions are and that interactions with Africans is not made since the representations which come to the fore are based fundamentally on carefully constructed stereotypes.

The tragedy that the African continent finds itself within is one of dependence rather than that of independence even though for most African countries it has been many years since the chains of colonialism were broken and ‘independence’ was gained. The world has thus, entered into the neo-colonial era in which Africa is predominantly dependent on Western powers in many regards, but particularly to view their own realities. So, to, Africans find themselves stuck within the colonial matrix of power. Furthermore, it can be seen that it is the imposition of Orientalism and the maintenance of the Orientalist mindset which has been vital in this regard. Which in some respects can be seen as fundamentally racist and aids in the continuance of racism today. It is this that allows the West to maintain its global hegemony. The key mechanism of the media must hereby be further explored.

The media is something that we as members in society encounter on a daily basis and thus it accounts for much of how we come to perceive the world as well was form our views on key social issues. Thus, the media comes to play a role in the construction of reality and speak to power relations within world politics. This is very much the case in the construction of the African reality. How Africa is defined has been a product of its interactions with other civilisations over time, hence the Africanization and homogenisation of Africa.

When one thinks of the African reality in today’s modern context, automatically images of darkness; chaos; hopelessness and inadequacy come to mind. These images are in stark contrast to that of the Western reality and should ultimately be seen as a form of othering. When one begins to think of examples, the realisation is met that there are so many examples of these representations or images that it becomes in a sense extremely overwhelming and problematic for African’s as well as their reality. Since it is by no means that these images and representations present an accurate depiction of this reality. Reference will be made to a few key examples via in depth analysis since the examples are far too numerous for the purpose of this paper.

The image of hopelessness in Africa speaks largely to that of poverty, famine, starvation and the seemingly evident recurrence of natural disasters. This seems to elicit the wide spread pity and sympathy of those from the West, for Africa is seen to be the very antithesis of Western countries. Africa is then seen to be in a position of constant need for foreign aid and foreign intervention. It is these very images which draw on the heart strings of those who can be said to be living in excess of wealth such as actors in Hollywood, a key example of this would be Angelina Jolie and the numerous children which she has adopted from supposedly dire situations. One must also make reference to the images of starving children in Ethiopia and how an image like this essentially aids the West in the homogenisation of Africa. Those who do not live within Africa or have some experience of an African reality take in such images and come to assume that Africa as a whole is a place of hopelessness. This is an inaccurate representation of Africa for one cannot assume or generalise the social conditions of several countries into one homogenous entity. So, while it may represent the imminent reality of some African nations it is by no means accurate to describe the whole of Africa in this way.

Darkness and what can be termed as the civilising mission go hand in hand. It is this civilising mission which can be linked to the imposition of the colonial matrix of power. African ways of being and cultural practice have come to be seen as inherently evil, thus being categorised into ‘witchcraft’ and voodoo. African traditional practices throughout world history have been misunderstood. It is due to these predominating perceptions that Africans are seen as uncivilised savages who need to be saved from their evil ways and realties. This is particularly evident in the vast number of Christian missionaries who set out to ‘save’ Africans through the word of God. Of course, this mission at its heart has good intentions, however it still points to the overarching homogenising view of Africans as being evil and barbaric. While the topic of religion is at hand, one must look to particularly North Africa, in which a large amount of the population is in fact Muslim. The issue of religion is key in formation of the Orientalist mindset and Islam has come to be an overarching feature within this. Interlinked with Islam would be terrorism, while this was not part of the original conceptualisation of Orientalism, it has come to be a very prominent association with Islam today especially in the Middle East and so to North Africa. A key example of this would be the kidnapping of 200 hundred girls in Nigeria which came to be associated with the well-known terrorist group Boko Haram. This what one would define as a grave act of terrorism from the perspective of the Western eye.

The word chaos automatically brings to mind issues around politics, political unrest and war. This is applicable when one visualises the predominant political situation within the African continent today, this causes great unease for the Western powers of the world. In the neo-colonial era of today African nations have so-called independence, however this can be seen as somewhat of an illusion and remains to be that way unless the likes of decolonial theory are employed. Communism, socialism or any form of dictatorship is sure to be frowned upon by Western powers since this will ultimately limit or curtail any power, they would like to impose on such a country. Therefore, democracy is pushed because it will benefit the Western powers. However, democracy is not a guaranteed plug of power and it has been seen over time that Western sponsorship of rival political groups has been used so as to seize power. In retrospect, these sorts of situations may have satisfied Western powers for a time, however for the most part they have led to fundamental destabilisation of many African countries. Reference must be made to Libya and its infamous dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. This calls into question the role of the media within his reign, for again there was widespread speculation, theories and half-truths, pointing to the fact that again no accurate representation of the man himself or his country was ever shown through the Western eye and media.


  1. Andreasson, Stefan. 2005. 'Orientalism and African Development Studies: the 'reductive repetition' motif in theories of African underdevelopment.' Third World Quarterly (Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group) 26 (6): 971-986.
  2. Mazuri, Ali A. 2005. 'The Re-invention of Africa: Edward Said, V.Y. Mudimbe and Beyond.' Research in African Literatures (Indiana University Press) 36 (3): 68-82.
  3. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. 2013. 'In the Snare of Colonial Matrix of Power .' Chap. 2 in Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa Myths of Decolonization, 37-63.
14 May 2021
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