The 'North Korea of Africa'? Not so fast.
For years, news outlets in Europe and North America have aimed to cover African places and people in terms familiar to their audiences. Such comparisons are usually well-meaning and may help readers connect with stories. But they can do more harm than good, by suggesting that Africa requires an externalâ"and very often Westernâ"benchmark to be understood.
The New York Times called Dakar, in Senegal, the âParis of Africa.â The same label was applied to Abidjan, CÃ´te dâIvoire, by the Christian Science Monitor.
Al Jazeera called Makoko, Nigeria the âVenice of Africa.â
Nairobi is the âThe London of Africa,â according to the Financial Times. The capital of Eritrea, my home country, is famously known as âLa Piccola Roma,â or Africaâs âLittle Romeââ"references to colonial days.
Some publications are still pondering which cities to use as comparisons when writing about places in Africa. DW, a German outlet, has asked whether Johannesburg might be the âDubai of Africa.â MSN believes that Africaâs Dubai might instead be Addis Ababa. And CNBC thinks Joburg could be the New York of Africa. South Africa, after all, is the âAmerica of Africa.â
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This year, Bloomberg declared that Ethiopiaâs economic growth has already made it the âChina of Africa.â Djibouti has been named the âSingapore of Africa.â So has Rwanda, in Foreign Policy.
Nigeria may have had âAfricaâs Berlin Wall moment.â But The Wall Street Journal thinks âAfricaâs Berlin Wallâ is the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Before that, the Christian Science Monitor thought it was the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Desmond Tutu called the razor wire around an area in Crossroads town âSouth Africaâs Berl in Wall,â The Washington Post reported in 1986.
Perhaps no place in Africa has been described in outsidersâ terms more than Eritrea: the âNorth Korea of Africa.â Forbes, The Economist, The New Statesman, The Standard, The Irish Times, PRI, Axios, the BBC, Newsweek, and The New York Times are just a few of the news organizations that have used that label. (To be fair, the Times has also pointed out, via an op-ed, that Eritrea is NOT the âNorth Korea of Africaââ"evidently, the news and opinion sections have not come to a consensus.)
Cities and countries arenât the only things that get compared. In 1992, The New York Times deemed the Nubian civilization to be the âCanada of Africa.â Man-made structures, too, get pegged in terms familiar to Western audiences. Senegal has Africaâs Statue of Liberty. The Nelson Mandela Bridge has been called, at least once, âSouth Africaâs Eiffel Tower.â
African people are also given Western counterpartsâ"v arious celebrities, singers, and social media stars have, at different points, been called the âKim Kardashian of Africa,â the âJustin Bieber of Africa,â the âBeyoncÃ© of Africa,â the âOprah Winfrey of Africa,â and the âElvis Presley of Africa.â Eritreaâs president, Isaias Afwerki, who has a distinctive mustache, has even been called âan African version of Tom Selleck.â
As analogies, these are imperfect. Yes, Eritrea and North Korea are both reclusive nations under sanctions by the United Nations. And yes, Eritrea has ranked near the bottom of press freedom rankings, along with North Korea. But after that, the similarities end.
The comparisons also say something about how we see Africa. Theyâre often aspirationalâ"a place could become Africaâs version of XYZ, many headlines tout. The implication is that the title hasnât quite yet been earned, glossing over a deep and varied history of African invention and discovery.
Comparisons often take the place of the details that emerge from rigorous reporting. Eritrea might seem like North Korea from a distance, but people with experience in the countries know how different they are. Itâs up to reporters to dig deep enough to provide more than a surface comparison, leaving behind worn out clichÃ©s and faulty comparisons. The result will be more accurate and nuanced journalismâ"and a more informed global populace.
ICYMI: The story BuzzFeed, The New York Times and more didnât want to publishHas America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today. Salem Solomon is a multimedia digital journalist with the Voice of Americaâs Africa Division. She covers the latest news from across the continent. She also researches trends in analytics and digital journalism.Source: Google News North Korea | Netizen 24 North Korea