Breastfeeding and other Damning Images

by zunguzungu


As the Daily Guide — an Accra based newspaper — put it, “World Bank paints Ghana Black”:

The World Bank, at the just-ended 2010 annual meeting in Washington DC, stabbed Ghana in the back. This was demonstrated by horrible pictures that the Bank displayed about the country on its computers installed on the 3rd Floor of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) HQ2 Building located on the 1818 Pennsylvania Street in Washington DC. The computers, which had a picture of the Finance Minister of Ghana, Dr Kwabena Duffuor as well as the country’s flag, also had pictures portraying the country as a land of abject poverty.

Though the choice of language in the headline is interesting (outrage that the World Bank has painted Ghana black? What?), I wouldn’t have been paid any attention, except that I read this description of what had happened:

The World Bank has apologized for displaying damning images of Ghana at its recent annual meeting in Washington DC. Some of the pictures have half-naked women breastfeeding their kids and portray a country high on poverty levels.

That “damning” image, of “half-naked women breastfeeding their kids,” is not mentioned in the first article, though they do feature a naked child bathing himself next to a bucket. What interests me is the easy equivalence between “damning images of Ghana” and the figures of (a) breastfeeding and (b) naked children. These are emphatically not the images that be-business-suited bourgeois African men want to represent them!

There is a man-bites-dog aspect to this; World Bank grabbed a bunch of thirty year old clip art because, hey, it’s Africa, right? and some of the indignation is just with that lack of diplomacy:

A Kenyan journalist, Kelly Mbani, asked: “Why couldn’t the country office of the World Bank in Ghana show pictures of interesting and attractive places such as Trassacco Valley, East Legon, the Accra Shopping Mall, Boti Falls, and Kakum National Park?”

Which is to say part of it is just the usual thing where the rich ruling class of a country that has a lot of poor people would like to exclude those poor people from images of their country. But that second article selects the image of a woman breastfeeding her child — and the first selects a naked child bathing — to represent the whole range of poverty in those pictures. What bugs them isn’t just an image of poverty, per se, it’s the way they see poverty in a child’s nakedness and a breastfeeding mother. Which, I mean, what? What is it about naked children and breastfeeding that signifies poverty?

It made me think of this passage from Things Fall Apart, in which we not only have “rich man” sharply distinguished from “breastfeeding naked child,” but that distinction is the means through which Okonkwo’s belief in his own ruling class self-made wealthy awesomeness gets punctured, by people who remind him that he, too, once was dependent on his mother:

“Looking at a king’s mouth,” said an old man, “one would think he never sucked at his mother’s breast.” He was talking about Okonkwo, who had risen so suddenly from great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan. The old man bore no ill will towards Okonkwo. Indeed he respected him for his industry and success. But he was struck, as most people were, by Okonkwo’s business in dealing with less successful men. Only a week ago a man had contradicted him at a kindred meeting which they held to discuss the next ancestral feast. Without looking at the man Okonkwo had said: “This meeting is for men.” The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit.

Everybody at the kindred meeting took sides with Osugo when Okonkwo called him a woman. The oldest man present said sternly that those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble. Okonkwo said he was sorry for what he had said, and the meeting continued.