The West's Nigeria coverage is perfectly described by this one anecdote: Nigerians live with Boko Haram's terrorism for five years, and when the western media finally takes notice, it latches onto a hashtag and wrongly identifies the creator of the hashtag as an American woman. This is just one of several examples about the lack of nuance that characterizes western coverage of African countries.
If you haven't been following the story closely, last month the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 230 school girls between the ages of 16 and 18 from a boarding school in northern Nigeria. The group has been operating in Nigeria for over five years, but the recent mass kidnapping, along with the ineffectiveness of the government in rescuing the girls, proved a tipping point. The kidnapping gained global attention in part thanks to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Our coverage has reflected the oversimplified and paternalistic narrative western countries have of Africa, a narrative that underestimates the damage of colonialism and overestimates the ability of those former colonizers to help at the same time.
The 'White Savior' motif
Someone out there figured out that Americans are slightly more likely to care about something if there's a Twitter hashtag associated with it, and American filmmaker Ramaa Mosley decided to take credit for the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag that has symbolized the world's concern for the more than 200 girls kidnapped last month. But as The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, the hashtag was actually created by a Nigerian Muslim man. Oh, and Mosley just happens to have a documentary coming out soon about the struggle to educate young girls around the world, similar to the girls who were kidnapped from their school.
Last month Mosley explicitly took credit for the hashtag on her Facebook. "I quickly noticed that there was no social media presence, no petitions, no action cry. So pathetically I set out to create a Facebook page and Twitter account for the cause... then I began tweeting and hashtagging one particular phrase #bringbackourgirls," she said in an April 30 message about herself on her Facebook page, The Journal notes. One of Mosley's documentary partners said the kidnapping was "an important moment for us to promote our film."
The White Savior motif is the idea that Africans are so downtrodden they can't help or defend themselves, and need Westerners to step in. The beauty of the Bring Back Our Girls movement was that Nigerian women were rallying and protesting in Nigeria to force the government to act. We turned it into a social media campaign graciously retweeted by benevolent Americans to promote a for-profit documentary. ABC had to correct a story titled "Los Angeles Mother of Two Creates Viral Hashtag," but it's pretty damning that the headline was written at all.
Which sad African country are we talking about again?
Earlier this week, NBC's Brian Williams referred to the kidnapped girls of Kenya twice, before being corrected a few minutes later. He was off by about 3,000 miles.
Meanwhile, some of the photos being passed around by celebrities are pictures of young girls from other countries. The New York Times points out that Chris Brown's #BringBackOurGirls tweet features a young girl from Guinea-Bissau.
Ignoring the legacy of colonialism
A common sentence popping up on the internet now is "Boko Haram roughly translates to 'Western education is a sin.'" It's a little more complicated than that.
As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out, linguistics professor and Hausa (the language spoken by Northern Nigeria's Muslim majority) expert Paul Newman wrote in 2013 that boko originally meant fraud or sham, and was not derived from the word book, as some have argued. "When the British colonial government imposed secular schools in northern Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century, boko was applied in a pejorative sense to this new system," Newman wrote. The association between sham education and Western education happened after that.
Why does this matter? Either way Boko Haram is still an awful terrorist organization murdering innocent people, burning schools and homes and kidnapping children. They attack schools because they're opposed to Western education. But the difference between "Western education is a sin" and "Non-Islamic education is a sham" is that the latter definition acknowledges that Boko Haram is a violent reminder of Britain's colonial history.