April 26, 2012

A Nonprofit Uses Humor to Change the West's View of Africa

Nyla Rodgers is one charity official who is fed up with the way nonprofits represent Africa. Too often she sees depictions of AIDS, warfare, famine, hopelessness, desperation, and dependence on a Western hero. That kind of concern came to the surface when she saw the "Kony 2012" campaign by the advocacy group Invisible Children.

"When I saw the Kony campaign, it made me so mad," says Ms. Rodgers, founding director of Mama Hope, a San Francisco charity that works in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to start farms and build schools, health centers, and other facilities that strengthen communities.

But long before that campaign, her charity started working to create new perceptions of Africa and to show that it is full of capable people with the potential to support themselves. Her nonprofit has released three videos over the past year as part of its "Stop the Pity" campaign, using humor to create a new conversation about the continent and humanize the people who live there.

In the first, published in February 2011, a 9-year-old African boy explains in detail the plot of his favorite movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Commando." In another, Americans and Africans sing along to Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al."

The most recent video, included above, shows a group of educated, rugby-playing young African men dismissing Hollywood stereotypes and making jokes about a "shirtless Matthew McConaughey."

The video, released on Wednesday, received more than 250,000 views on YouTube in its first day online. Ms. Rodgers takes that as a sign people are ready for a new image of Africa.

"Using images that people can relate to, showing people not at their worst but at their full potential, with creativity, is just as effective," Ms. Rodgers said.

Donors so expect to see a tragic story from Africa that many people who watched the "Commando" video assumed at first that the boy was a child soldier, Ms. Rodgers said. But as the video continues, it becomes clear that the piece is merely about a 9-year-old boy's love for his favorite movie.

"We wanted people to say, 'What am I thinking?' " Ms. Rodgers said.

Ms. Rodgers has faced criticism for showing only relatively wealthy, happy African people in the charity's videos. But Bernard, a man featured in the "Hollywood Stereotypes" video, was an orphan originally sponsored by Ms. Rodgers's late mother, who inspired the founding of Mama Hope. His story shows the power of what people can do when they get an education, Ms. Rodgers says.

Ultimately, Ms. Rodgers said she believes the perceptions Americans have about Africa will be shaped by what nonprofits say. Too often, she says, charities figure images of desperation will attract more gifts. But that's not helping anyone, she says.

What do you think of this campaign?

Send an e-mail to Cody Switzer.