13 December 2010

Every Journey Began in Africa (or how Bono sells bags)

The following is a crosspost from Africa Works blog. Blog editor and writer G. Pascal Zachary is a journalist, author and teacher. He is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a former Senior Writer at the Wall Street Journal. You can read the original post by going here, read his blog here, and visit his personal website here. I highly suggest taking the time to click around this very interesting blog. (Note: I have added the picture to the post)

The luxury brand, Louis Vuitton, has a new advertising campaign, promoting its line of travels bags in a print ads starring Bono and his wife Ali, who are both seen departing a small plane in the African savannah, an LV bag slung over their shoulders. The slogan of LV the campaign, “Every journey began in Africa,” echoes both a travel-writing cliche and the hoary truth that human beings did make their first journeys in Africa (home of the original humans). But the image of Bono and wife in the bush is contested. As my own wife, Chizo, from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, noticed immediately on examining the advert, Bono and wife are in the middle of nowhere, and yet there’s no one to greet them. “Why can’t there be some Africans in the picture?” Chizo asks. “Isn’t this someone’s land? Shouldn’t someone be there to say hello. At least, the people who take care of this land?”
Removing Africans out of the scene, out of the image of the “natural” African landscape, is an old trope in the exploitation of the image and reality of Africa. The real Africa is so unspoiled, according to this powerful myth, not even the Africans themselves can spoil it with their presence. If you’re wondering why Bono would permit “Africa” to be exploited so obviously, look no further than the small print of the ad, where an anonymous copywriter assets: “Profits from the bag,” as well as Bono’s fee benefit Conservation Cotton Initiative Uganda and his own Edun line of clothing, which he markets as garments and jewelry made in Africa with African materials.

So on the one hand, Bono is secondarily promoting African cotton farming, while on the other hand promoting one of the most significant meta-narratives in the story of Africa: that Africa is the motherland, so that we have all, in some sense, journeyed out of Africa — and, therefore, we all could journey back to Africa, in a redemptive return, just as Bono is doing in the advertisement.

And when we go back to Africa, why not carry our stuff in Louis Vuitton leather?

If we were to ask Bono, the man, what’s really going here, he’d probably not tell us that promoting his own brand, as well as a luxury brand, is essential, if wealthy Westerners are to be persuaded to care about “Africa.” And since he knows that Africa is not a place, but a myth, a complex set of stories that mutate over time, he is not satisfied with merely invoking the myth. So he’s targeted a specific myth, that Africans are despoiling their own land and won’t stop unless Westerners teach them not to.

The role of the cotton initiative is do just that. The initiative, which is more talk than walk, proclaims that African cotton growers could go organic, use less pest-controls, use less fertilizers, manage their resources better. Fair enough. But the initiative’s producers don’t say that small private African farmers, working with cotton buyers around the world, are expanding output, raising income and even, in some cases (as in Uganda), growing relatively large amounts of organic cotton.

Even in the far north of Uganda, in a region recovering for a long civil war, small private farmers are profiting from cotton, with technical help from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the multinational Memphis-based cotton broker, Dunavant. Ugandans themselves are driving the expansion of organic, even in the most marginalized part of their country. None of these achievements, however, are cited in the promotional video produced for the project. Cotton from in Uganda, meanwhile, is not apparently used in Edun’s material. Moreoever, the Ugandan initiative appears to have no links to buyers of African cotton. And after all, buyers are essential to any project to help farmers in Africa (or anywhere else).

Which bring us back to Bono, who embodies the marriage of the consumption of African culture with the consumption of global celebrities, all wrapped in a moral crusade that itself illustrates the protean nature of capitalism: more trade with Africa. Even humanitarians have gone business-mad, but they remain isolated from the heartbeat of business in Africa: Africans themselves, partnering with global corporations in pursuit of new markets and new investment opportunities. Curiously, even as Bono rides the wave of naked capitalism driving African economic growth, he cannot speak the language of capitalism, only the language of charity, and to do so by invoking the myths of the motherland as the justification for linking producers and consumers.

Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz