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Why is it always the same stories about Africa that are repeated?
When Danish news on rare occasions point the camera or microphone towards Africa, the natural conclusion to draw is that the continent is populated only by HIV-affected women, starving children and men carrying machetes. War, famine, violence and injustice are on the air – maybe spiced up a bit with some proud Maasai people and a bunch of kids dancing in the street. If we never hear of anything else, that will be the mental pictures we store and carry with us around in life. Frustrations about the simplistic representations made photographer and entrepreneur Jesper Houborg react: What can we do to provide a fuller picture?
The idea about a photo exhibition took shape. Together with audio documentarist Sofie Vestergaard it grew and became ‘Mr and Mrs Africa – Middle Class Stories from Uganda and Ghana’ – a sound and photo exhibition that wishes to challenge the notion of Africa being a hopeless continent.

The flipside of good intentions

It is about time that we reinvigorate our perceptions of Africa. Perceptions that to a great extent are under the influence of a biased media representation: Benefit concerts and charity shows such as the Danish ‘Danmarks Indsamlingen’ (or Live 8 in a worldwide perspective) are sympathetic, but also problematic when they again and again tell us that “Africa needs your help”. The flipside of the good intentions of charity campaigns is that it strengthens us in our moral superiority, while it maintains a one-sided and simplistic image of Africans as passive and powerless.

A recognizable everyday life

‘Mr and Mrs Africa’ shows Africans – Ugandans and Ghanaians to be exact – who are ambitious, enterprising. Very simply put: they can do well on their own. The exhibition depicts middle class life in the capitals Kampala and Accra where an everyday life which unfolds at aerobics classes after work, on the quiet suburban streets and on family trips during weekends.
It’s not because we should avoid trying to understand what it’s like to be a refugee in Darfur, a child soldier in Congo or a pirate on the coast of Somalia – and it’s certainly not because we should ignore those in need. But when the media only focuses on these kinds of stories, we will never broaden our world view. We believe that many Danes – and other Westerners – may be surprised when ‘Mr and Mrs Africa’ lets them experience stories from an ordinary life, which is not so far removed from their own.

The mental pictures must be renewed

The hope is that the Danes can reflect their own lives in the recognizable stories of ‘Mr and Mrs Africa’, for we believe that identification goes hand in hand with engagement. It may sound like a cliché but we want to show that a middle class life in Accra is not necessarily so different from a middle class life in Copenhagen.
Everyday life is depicted here with large photographs and evocative soundscapes. ‘Mr and Mrs Africa’ does not provide a cut-and-dried message – there’s room for creating your own impression. Fact boxes with quantitative generalizations can not be found, and a more detailed discussion of the definition of the middle class is absent. It is certainly a relevant matter but it is not the aim of the exhibition.
Our aim is rather to show a counterpart to those African images that already exist. We hope that the combination of photo and sound can create a sense of experiencing middle class everyday life in Kampala and Accra close up. Maybe the next time someone mentions Africa your mental pictures will not only depict HIV-affected women or proud Maasai people – next to them, an ambitious radio host, a cosmopolitan blogger and a super toned aerobics instructor will appear!

Jesper Houborg and Sofie Vestergaard