The Poverty Porn Antidote? Reality TV.

This post is by Matt Muspratt, a lawyer and freelance writer based in Ghana. Matt blogs at mmuspratt.com, where an extended version of this piece first appeared.

‘Tis the season of nonprofit solicitations . . . and hand-wringing among smart-aid advocates.

Count me among those cringing at the simplistic imagery clogging mailboxes and inboxes: That barrage of photos of poor/hungry/ill children and slogans assuring that everything in Africa and Haiti is poverty (or worse) — and that “you can save them” with your donation.

But to where, exactly, can the discerning aid watcher turn for proper depictions of poor countries?

The answer is surprising: Reality TV. Specifically, The Amazing Race, that round-the-world game show whose season finale airs Sunday on CBS.

Now you can also count me among those who cringe at Under Armour-clad Americans blowing through fine European sites and barking at Dhaka rickshaw drivers. I’m sure Sunday’s finale will feature vintage reality TV bickering and silly team challenges. But The Amazing Race proved one thing this season: Its depictions of poor countries are far more humane than what many nonprofits come up with.

My case study is Ghana — where I live — which was the setting for recent TAR episodes. After watching, I set out across Accra to track down the Ghanaians who appeared in and co-produced the episodes. What they had to say — and what Americans watched — is worlds away from much nonprofit solicitation imagery.

If I may generalize, the manipulative tools of offending solicitations include (a) depicting Westerners as Africa experts, and Africans as helpless; (b) spotlighting Western heroes (Bono, neighborhood kid, yourself) while rendering Africans voiceless; (c) insisting Africa is only poor.

In Ghana, TAR confounds expectations by doing the exact opposite. It (a) shows bumbling Americans; (b) highlights the lives of Ghanaians in Ghana; (c) rejects poverty porn.

Take TAR’s first challenge. Teams hawk sunglasses in Accra’s Makola Market — and they’re out of their element. Makola is lively with Ghanaians laughing, pointing at the Americans struggling to operate. Says one contestant: “They’re looking at me like, ‘We do this every day and you’re not doing it right.’” A man toys with her, joking he wants to buy 200 sunglasses. She doesn’t get it. Later, another contestant tasked with mounting a TV antenna says: “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Not exactly the self-confident trumpeting of expertise — or reassurance that aid is simple — that characterizes nonprofit solicitations. How refreshing to see a Ghana where it is the Westerners who are helpless.

And even more refreshing to see Ghanaians in Ghana.

Despite good intentions, nonprofit solicitations often illustrate a world where Westerners act and poor people do nothing but await their coming — if they’re there at all. A celebrity stumps for a charity, you are called on to rescue Haiti, and a poor child’s thoughts are limited to “help me” bubble quotes.

(The media can follow suit. Vanity Fair published an article on Sean Penn’s work in Haiti that was virtually devoid of Haitians. In Nick
Kristof’s D.I.Y. foreign aid piece
, which drew
fire for its Western-hero-saves-the-day formulation
, the poor get only one direct quote — a Congolese woman says, “I believe God sent Lisa to rescue me from my misery.”)

The upshot is that solicitations (and media) often paint the poor as lifeless and without character or agency, if not outright absent from the landscape.

Not so Amazing Race. According to TAR, Ghanaians live agency-filled lives. Or, as Daniel Oblie told me outside his Ga fantasy coffin workshop featured in the show: “It’s a great film. Because you see many things.”

Many Ghanaian things. Patience Tetteh Commey — the teacher who witnessed contestants repeatedly failing to locate Ghana on a map — loved the variety of team challenges: “[The producers] were picking the things we do and use.”

The contestants box at a Jamestown gym — the host tells us “boxing gyms like this appear in neighborhoods throughout the country.” The contestants race bicycle rims at the Asebi D/A Primary School in Dodowa District — that’s a real place, not a generic dusty school in a solicitation photo. The contestants get stuck in traffic.

Ga coffins, boxing, games, and traffic are the stuff of life in Ghana — but not according to nonprofit solicitations.

Finally, TAR refuses to traffic in poverty. Not even when contestants barge into Teshie’s cement and tin-roof houses to mount TV antennas. No violins and despair over whether the family has running water or cookstoves. It’s just a family who likes to watch TV. Solicitations would never depict a Teshie home like that.

Alas, in the final scenes, I’m afraid TAR succumbs to nonprofit imagery.

The contestants were at the primary school and TAR had been in fine form: No lectures on meeting the universal primary education MDG. No interviews with Western volunteer teachers in front of mum, silenced students. No heartbreak over a dearth of school supplies. Unassuming; populating Ghana; renouncing poverty porn.

But as each contestant skipped to the finish line, the host greeted them with this: “Tomorrow you’re going to come and do some remodeling of the classrooms. Give back to this community.”

And so even Amazing Race reduced Ghana to poor kids and you-can-save-them slogans, bringing the expert Western hero to the fore and silencing the poor African child.

Early on, one racer had squeaked, “I hope I get to hold little African babies.” She didn’t get that treat, but delivered the encapsulating line as the Americans painted the school in front of the children: “It’s nice to be able to do something for them.”

I asked Teddy Sabutey, the local producer who assisted TAR’s crew, how he thought Ghana fared through the TAR lens. “Your Western media, your cup of tea is to portray us negatively,” he started.

But Sabutey, who turns down productions that harp on “negativity,” said TAR’s producers were different. “[They] wanted the good side, and the fun. So we made sure we delivered that.”

As for the school, Sabutey says refurbishing was simply part of the deal with TAR. The teachers now report a consequent increase in enrollment. Indeed a great — and worthwhile — outcome.

Even better we saw the real Ghana along the way.

The X-Judy Awards: Entry #1

The first entry is in, and it’s going to be a tough one to beat.

Reader Karl “Made of Win + Awesome” Horberg nominates Uzbekistan’s killings of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, his summary is below. He has also named the award you are all competing for: the “X-Judy.”

Karl writes:

For fun, sun, and brutal, vicious torture no one really does it better than Uzbekistan. Way back in August 8, 2002 the bodies of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, formerly prisioners at Jaslyk prison, were returned to their families. Avazov lacked fingernails and and his arms and most of his lower body displayed burns. It turns out he got it pretty easy. Alimov had burns on 60-70% of his body, the type of burns which could only be caused by “immersion in boiling water.” (see Deaths in Custody in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch).

Yeah, that’s right. These guys got boiled to death. Which can lead us to only one possible conclusion–Uzbek prison guards are running out of ways to cause pain and suffering so quickly that now they’re stealing from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

But hey, maybe Avazov and Alimov had it coming. I mean come on, these guys were in prison. They were horrid, wretched criminals, probably plotting the overthrow of the Uzbekistan government and whatnot. What were they charged with? Practicing Islam and allegedly belonging to the Islamic political party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, has blamed Hizb ut-Tahrir for pretty much everything from hangnails to global warming. (In fact, Karimov has become so used to blaming Hizb ut-Tahrir for things that instead of saying their name, he just makes a scary face and says “Oogga-booga-booga!”).

But these accusations are suspicious on a number of accounts. First, everyone knows global warming is a penguin conspiracy to get some adorable movies made about them. Second, Hizb ut-Tahrir hasn’t really ever done anything. They’re an Islamic political party that isn’t particularly Islamic or political, they’re a supposed terrorist organization that hasn’t ever been linked to a violent act.

Now, for the sake of fairness, what do the Uzbeks say about all this? Was it just a big fingernail-pulling misunderstanding? But of course! The official government line is that the bruises and wounds on Avazov and Alimov aren’t a result of months and months of beatings, but of a minutes long tussle between prisoners. The scalding? Well, the prisoners were given hot water to wash up with and they spilled it on themselves (I’m not making this up. See the HRW report quoted above). Those crazy
terrorists!

Karl’s going to be tough to beat, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Send us your entries! The week lasts until Wednesday, but the days are ticking by…