Celebrity Colonialism: Africa – the Glimmer of the “Underdeveloped world”

by Svetlana Fenichel

The West and the Rest dichotomy has  originated during the colonial era. Europeans always pictured the unknown land as exotic, uncivilized, untouched “other.” Africa was commonly viewed as rich “material” for inspiration and consecutive alteration by the newcomers from the West. Their egoistic intentions rarely took into consideration the desires and well-being of the indigenous people.


Modern world colonial practices employed by Western celebrities carry the same underpinning. In spite of decolonization, the virtual division of the world on the powerful West and the subordinate “Rest” still prevails.  Africa and its geographical counterparts are still seen as in need of being educated and saved.  By virtue of being the subordinate element of the West and the Rest dichotomy, former colonized nations still constitute the measure of the recognition of economic, political and cultural domination of the West.  As Achille Mbembe affirms, “Africa still constitutes one of the metaphors through which the West presents the origins of its own norms, develops a self-image and integrates into the set signifiers asserting what is supposed to be its identity” (qtd in Van den Bulck 125).

As asserted by Adam Elkus in his article the wealthy and famous believe in a strong connection with the underdeveloped suffering world and often set as their goal to publicly prove this connection. Elkus declares that,

. . .[Celebrities] confuse this wish-fulfillment and festishization of the exotic for meaningful measures that are actually helping Africans. <…> That’s the most obscene part about the celebrity crusade for Africa: Jolie and Madonna’s antics take public attention off the continent’s real problems, and do-gooders like Bono and Geldof give rhetorical cover to those who bear responsibility for a substantial portion of those problems.

As a consequence of the Western celebrities’ engagement in the African Continent it has been converted into a stage for “preaching the gospel of free-market wealth to suffering Africans” (Elkus).

African current popularity as a cause célèbre  directly echoes practices of early colonial missionaries.  European Christian missionaries were actively engaged in exploration and colonization of the undiscovered world while converting, civilizing, and consequently saving the indigenous population. Spring-Serenity Duvall sees the continuity of this tradition in the actions of “celebrity missionaries [operating] within a Western hegemony” (93).  According to Duvall, contemporary celebrity ambassadors to the developing countries set to promote similar developmental projects and ideas that were spread by colonial missionaries. The world saviors Bono, Jolie and the like simply “[profess] Western ideals about self-improvement, nation building and morality,” assets Duvall ( 92-3).

Elkus pointed that, “[this] brand of moral grandstanding suggests that Africa has become a kind of plaything for some campaigners, a backdrop against which they can make themselves feel good and ‘special.’”  To support this opinion Carol Magee draws the complaint of Ms. Abaunza of Amnesty International, who is stroke by the predictability of celebrities who “try to exploit activism to offset bad publicity” (qtd in Magee 283). Magee offers a recent example of Paris Hilton’s ardent desire to travel to Rwanda in an attempt to “raise awareness about children’s issues and poverty” (283). Significantly, Hilton expressed this idea shortly after she was released from jail, and consequently was in urgent need of creating a positive image about herself to atone for the bad deeds.  Therefore, as suggested by O’Neill, “celebrities’ attention to Africa is more about making themselves feel “special” and good about their actions than it is about the African cause with which they associate.”  There is no better way of receiving public approval for celebrities than getting engaged in saving the world.  Due to their political involvement in Africa, both Jolie and Bono were nominated as the most influential and respected celebrity activist according to Reuters’ public opinion poll in 2007 (Duvall 91).

Duvall stresses the fact that by engaging in missionary activities in the developing countries celebrities ultimately seek the recognition of good-doers. What remains unmentioned, is the fact that the current economic and social condition of many non-Western countries is an immediate consequence of exploitative colonial practices. Western celebrities fail to justify their actions as a well-deserved compensation to Africa for the atrocities of colonialism, nor do they admit the fact that “the West <…> actually owes a debt to Africa” (Duvall 100). Frantz Fanon similarly insisted on differentiating between charity and reparation in relation to the modern day European charitable  deeds aimed at aiding the inhabitants of the developing world. In response to the West praising itself for its charitable activities, Fanon’s valuable point should be taken into consideration by the power-bearing West.



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