Portrayals of the developing world

So Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, Best Director, and a slew of other awards at the Academy Awards last night. I have not seen the film, but have been thinking recently about the way that the developing world is portrayed in western culture.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the much-hailed book Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I had been hearing about this book and its anniversary for some time but did not read it until last month. It tells the story of one man but that story is merely the pillar to wrap other things around, mainly to describe the structure of life in a small Nigerian village as the British colonists, led by missionaries, start to make inroads into that country around the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of the book describes the traditional life and practices and religious beliefs of the villagers and what happens to their culture with the arrival of the colonialists and their new ways and religion.

I could see its appeal to some readers in the West. They would find interesting and amusing the superstitions of the villagers described in the book, with its many examples of how ‘primitive’ people believe the most absurd things about omens and the like. It would never strike such readers that their own religious beliefs are as absurd as those of the villagers. This is because they do not apply the same rigor to their own familiar and comfortable religious beliefs as they would to those that are unfamiliar to them.

I did not particularly care for the book. There is a genre of books that deal with the developing world that I am finding increasingly annoying. Another novel is The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton that deals with the efforts of a New Yorker to set up a mobile library using camels to take books to remote villages in Africa. The third is a non-fiction memoir Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin which described the heroic efforts of Mortenson to build schools in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

All these books tread the well-worn path of contrasting the affluent sectors of the developed world with the poverty-stricken life of the rural poor in the developing world, and thus may reinforce the misperception that the developing world is made up entirely of poor and illiterate and backward people. Although these books are well-meaning and sympathetic to the people they portray, they ignore the fact that although such deplorable conditions exist, the developing is also comprised of very modern cities and advanced technological societies.

It is not uncommon that such books and films about the developing world are praised in the developed world but are often disliked by those living in those countries. For example there have been protests in India over the film Slumdog Millionaire, because it apparently only shows the worst slums of Bombay and not its other highly modern sectors. As I said, I have not seen the film and am dependent on the reports of those who have, so stand to be corrected.

I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad’s skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.

Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad’s novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad’s many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.

Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.

POST SCRIPT: The need for green spaces

If I were given some of the stimulus money to spend, I would use it to create lots more green spaces in the poorest neighborhoods and in the inner cities. I would tear down abandoned building and build parks and playgrounds, and plant trees and bushes and grass all over so that the people who live in those areas would be able to enjoy the outdoors. I would also sponsor concerts, sports leagues, and other cultural public events for the communities.

Some may see such things as luxuries, to be done only after basic needs like food and shelter and health care are met. That is a strong argument. But I think giving people pleasant neighborhoods to live in as a sign of the respect that we have for them, that they too deserve the finer things in life, and is an important aspect of people’s sense of dignity.

And the two positions may not be as incompatible as they seem on the surface. Some studies indicate that creating green spaces reduces the health gap between people.


  1. Jared says

    Hi Mano,

    I am reminded of when I was a student at CWRU I took Professor Bala’s “British Colonialism in India” course in the history department. It was a very good class, and it expanded my knowledge of the history of India a good deal. However, I think the most important thing that I took away from the course was a greater sensitivity to the sort of nonsense ideas that take hold in colonialist cultures.

    I appreciate your post, because I think that it helps us Americans, who tend to have a rather colonializing-style attitude towards the world, to rethink how we look at the world. It is important to see what one might call the “benevolent interest in the misfortunes of quaint people” is not just arrogant, but actively precludes understanding the REAL problems that are going on.

    Also, Mano, I am curious if you agree with me that the Orientalists, or the “Friendly Brits”, were just as arrogant as the ethnoclastic Anglicizers. I ask because I was surprised to find that although I was the only non-Indian student in the class, I was also the only one who had a negative impression of the more “beneficial” practices of the colonizers. The others had a much more “the end justifies the means” sort of response.


  2. says


    Wow, what great issues you raised! I started to respond to each but it got so long (my usual problem) that I am going to post a followup later based on those responses.

  3. Jared says


    I appreciate that you spent the time to write a long response. I look forward to reading it!


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