April 27, 2000
Whitworth Senior Challenges Stereotypes of Africa Portrayed in Popular Book, Upcoming Movie
In her popular 1991 memoir, I Dreamed of Africa, Italian author Kuki Gallmann writes about her experience establishing a wildlife reserve in Kenya, using flowing poetic phrases to depict the people and places of Africa as part of an exotic safari motif.
While Gallmann acknowledges the dignity of the land and animals, she fails to recognize the dignity of the African people, and instead unconsciously projects onto the African people her own imperialistic preconceptions, according to Whitworth senior Andrea Palpant.
"Even as a postcolonial writer, Gallmann reinforces the old imperial construct," Palpant says. "In her narrative, she offers images that limit open, cross-cultural understanding between individuals. On a large scale, these images give the West simplistic and stereotypical conceptions about Africa."
The images in Gallmann's book are troubling to Palpant, who lived in western Kenya for six years while her father worked at a Quaker medical mission hospital. Palpant says the book exemplifies her theory, based on the writings of post-colonial theorist Edward Said, that a subtle imperialism is being projected in many narratives, films and other art mediums, which often reiterate rather than question popular cultural conceptions about Africa.
Not only has Gallmann's book been translated into more than 20 languages, but it was recently made into a movie starring Kim Basinger, to be released May 5.
Palpant, a 4.0 English/Spanish double major, is exploring and questioning Gallmann's memoir and its subtle, culturally-constrictive messages as part of the Pew Younger Scholars Program, which helps Christian students prepare for graduate school by involving them in a research project with a faculty mentor. Palpant's mentors, Assistant Professor of English Pam Parker and Associate Professor of English Doug Sugano, have recommended sources for Palpant to consult, critiqued her work, and helped her focus her research.
"The point of my research paper is to break down the assumption that the west is an inherently superior culture that occupies a place of control over other cultures," Palpant says. "I want to make people aware of those issues, and prompt people to be critical and ask questions such as 'What stereotypes am I projecting?'"
One way Gallmann projects stereotypes of Africa is by describing Kenyan natives using animal metaphors which connote a sense of innate inferiority and primitiveness, Palpant says.
In her book, Gallmann writes, "With a cadence of numberless cattle, of pounding buffalo hooves, an army of marching bare feet stamping in rhythm approached slowly from the plain.An unending procession of identical brown shapes moved like wooden spirits.they appeared sexless and remote, like ghosts or angels."
In Palpant's estimation, 90 percent of the metaphors Gallmann uses in her memoir to describe Africans relates them to images of animals.
"Perhaps these descriptions are poetic," Palpant says, "but the metaphoric use of animal herds to describe a group of human beings nonetheless subordinates the purportedly determined, African mass to the free, European individual."
Palpant's research is not so much a critique of Gallmann as it is a critique and exploration of the geneology of the author's imperial ideas. As a young girl, Gallmann heard stories from her father that appealed to the popular notion of Africa as a romantic, exotic ideal. Gallmann inherited these conceptions and then projects them on to the African people, according to Palpant. These conceptions are adopted and reflected by the readers of her memoir, as evidenced in editorial and reader reviews of the book.
"She never really looks at the people, she just has this idea that they're this primitive, exotic 'other,'" Palpant says. "Gallmann displaces them with her idea or mental construct of what they should be. This destroys our ability to really know other cultures and to ask 'Who are you?'"
Palpant has been surprised to discover that even though she lived in Kenya for six years, she still subconsciously holds Western views of Africa.
"Before I did this project, I made the assumption that because I lived in Africa I was immune to the Western mentality," Palpant says. "It dawned on me that even I, who lived in that culture, am affected on a subconscious level by Western thinking.
"Gallmann is looking at things in a limited fashion, but I admit that we're all doing that in some ways. We're all a part of this history that is critiquing itself. All we can do is help each other examine our conceptions and explore healthier ways to look at the world."
Palpant will make a formal presentation of her work May 5 at the Pew Younger Scholars Conference at Whitworth. Since her presentation falls on the same day as the movie's release, she plans to encourage conference attendees to view and critique the movie with her.
Andrea Palpant, 464-4200 or email@example.com.
Julie Riddle, public information specialist, Whitworth College, (509) 777-3279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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