Le Mal d’Afrique: A Journey into Old and New Africa

“The disease of Africa” – so this book’s French title translates into English. Photojournalist Guillaume Bonn was the third generation of his family to be born in Madagascar and has lived most of his life in Kenya. In light of this privileged position a title such as this becomes more justified … or does it?

Le Mal d’Afrique is quite ambitious in its scope. Bonn’s purpose in creating it, as he mentions in the introduction, was to “break free from seeing Africa in one stereotypical way. Rather, it is to visually commingle all the different worlds …” Doing so in a mere 150 pages does not seem viable. He approaches this goal by setting the book apart in four seemingly disparate sections: My Family, Traditions, The New Africa and Men & Wildlife.

The images taken by Bonn’s great-grandfather and grandfather from the 1920s and 40s, beginning and ending the book, are timeless and also the most emblematic of the root of Africa’s problems, only touched upon in this book, stemming from colonial times. Revealing his family history and background firmly situates this book on a deeply personal level and becomes more about Bonn himself than the issues facing Africa today. In the Traditions section Bonn describes the Massai tribe and their customs pertaining to young boys’ initiation as warriors. The images accompanying this are beautiful, classic images of traditional Africa similar to those we have seen from the pages of National Geographic.

In the section titled New Africa, the direction of the narrative becomes more vague and drawing links between the images more tenuous. The main focus here is on the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Images of poverty, modernisation and the still apparent colonialist divide between the races dominate here. When suddenly we are shown images from Uganda, bringing up the country’s conflict with the LRA, the structure is diluted. These sudden jumps are curious; surely a more coherent and valid point would have been made by staying focused on one subject at a time.

The most intriguing, visually and factually, is the section on Men & Wildlife. The problem of controlling the hunting in Africa brings up many valid points relating to the senseless killing for ivory and game meat and on the other side of the spectrum killing for game, mostly done by the white tourists. This tradition more than signifies in itself the hardships Africa is facing due to the reaping of its natural resources, animals included. Not much photographic work is created on this subject and perhaps an entire publication focusing mainly on this aspect would have been of greater interest and meaning. Some images seem quite dated but also iconic and such is their appeal. A strong journalistic approach flows through this section and it is obviously something that the photographer was deeply interested in, perhaps more so than the other themes represented in the book.

To see photographic work about Africa by a black African photographer is quite rare. Bonn’s position does provide him with some privileged views of the country seen through a colonialist family history that has always considered Africa home. Perhaps by taking this as his best asset and working more on the role he and others have played in shaping the continent into what it is today, will a more coherent and interesting point be made. Bonn has been privy to observe first hand “the disease of Africa” but does not manage to elucidate exactly what it is. LH

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