Cellphones in Africa (New York Times article)

There’s an article in the Times about the amazing popularity of cellphones in Africa. Factually, the data is quite amazing: between 1999 and 2004, the number of subscribers to mobile phone services increased at an annual rate averaging 58 percent. There are now nearly 77 million cellphone subscribers in Africa, up from just 7.5 million a few years ago.

As I said, the data is amazing.

But the article itself and the presentation of the numbers is shockingly full of a number of egregious American stereotypes about Africa. A generous reading of the article would be that the reporter, Sharon LaFraniere, is attempting to show how Africa is so not like what we think it is. But in doing so, she replays and builds upon a dozen different negative images of Africa. The title itself–“Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century”–presumes that all of rural Africa is exactly the same, and that this gigantic generalized Africa has been, prior to the appearance of the cellphone, stuck in a backwards, even primitive era. It reminds me of The Gods Must Be Crazy, except substitute a Coke bottle with a Nokia. In either case, Africans are primitive people “rescued” by Western culture and technology.

But wait, there’s more.

In the following lines from the article, I don’t know who should be more offended, Africans or Mongolians:

Africa’s cellphone boom has taken the industry by surprise. Africans have never been rabid telephone users; even Mongolians have twice as many land lines per person.

Perhaps the most offensive stereotype evoked in the article is this description of Africa that would fit better in a Tarzan movie:

On a continent where some remote villages still communicate by beating drums, cellphones are a technological revolution akin to television in the 1940’s in the United States.

Did I really just read that? “Beating drums”?

Even if it’s true (and I’m not saying it is), the image of the black African beating a drum is so loaded with cultural stereotypes and assumptions that it really shouldn’t be the basis of a metaphor in a serious journalistic piece. The image speaks volumes about power, control, language, and technology, and in every way positions Europe and North America as superior to Africa.

I think it’s time to go read some Edgar Rice Burroughs.