It had been a while since I’d thought about National Geographic. I had ‘unliked’ it along with all travel and nature sites when I’d moved back from Uganda two years ago. Yet, the April 2018 edition titled ‘The Race Issue’ kept popping up so insistently in my news feeds that finally I gave in, reading the letter from the editor with a growing nausea, a visceral resistance to digesting the words.
Over its hundred-plus year history, the magazine confessed to portraying people from foreign lands as ‘backward’: 1916 headshots of Aboriginal Australians that captioned them as “savages,” for example, or a 1962 story in South Africa with black people only included as servants or dancers. The tone, however, remained optimistic: “To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It,” the headline read.
Is that all it took, I wondered. It could trade in its signature yellow borders and close-ups of panthers for a new aesthetic, but its character had always dealt in the exotic. How much could it – could any of us – change?
I slept restlessly that night, images of dark unsmiling men and fanged creatures filling my mind. In the morning, I sent Boni the link to the letter on Facebook. I imagined him in the house in Masaka, the walls still unfinished in my mind, looking at his phone while cheetahs or whales leaped across the TV screen and Olive cooked yam and beans from their garden for dinner. I imagined him, our two geographies collapsing into one for a brief moment.
In 2014, I moved to Uganda for a job as an economics researcher. Ironically, I knew little about the east African country aside from what I had seen online and in travel magazines. Visions of gorillas in misty forests tangled in my head with rushing waters of the Nile.
Reality was, of course, a little different. My first assignment was to study financing options available to small-scale farmers with less than an acre of land. Making up most of the population, these farmers and their families were the engine of the national economy.
My new colleagues thought an immersive experience was in order. A day after landing in Uganda, I arrived in Masaka, a town in the agricultural south-west of the country. Its three largest streets were taken up by a sprawling farmers market and shops the size of tool sheds selling fertilizer and pesticides. I would be staying here with a farmer and his family.
Boni waited for my colleagues and I on the side of the main road as we drove into the town. He greeted each of us in perfect English, his boyish voice matching his smile as he got into the car. We drove to the outskirts of the town, a drive that only took a few minutes, before turning onto a dirt road and bumping uphill. Finally, we arrived at a small red brick house with a garden three times the size of the house itself. Later, I would realize that that was the farm, with plants of kidney beans, yams, onions, and a matooke (plantain) tree spaced carefully apart. All that you’d need to feed a family and hopefully a surplus to sell at the market in town for cash to pay for school fees, medical expenses. Maybe toothpaste and some new clothes if enough was left over.
“You are most welcome,” a female voice said. I turned from the garden to see a smiling woman standing beside Boni. She held a small boy in her left arm, and the hand of a slightly older girl in her right. “Olive, my wife, and the kids, Adenoi and Seesay,” Boni said, smiling
They gave me the tour of the house but of course, I didn’t really see it, too busy noting the differences from the homes I had known. Living room (old-school ‘box’ TV and unfinished walls with the brick still exposed), kitchen (low charcoal stove and not much else), bedrooms (nets draped over the bedframes to protect from mosquito bites), bathroom (an outhouse that you had to walk through the garden to get to).
That night, as I laid under the gauzy white mosquito net, I could still see the wild tangerine of the sunset behind my closed eyes. Perhaps because the house was on top of a hill, the sky seemed closer here, as if I could have reached my hand up and grazed it. I thought of an interview I’d read with National Geographic’s former editor Chris Johns. When asked what took him to Alaska, where he had started his career, he spoke of “a desire, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, to go to a wild place. A place that was grand.” Despite the gorillas and the Nile being far away, I too felt I had arrived in such a place.
But it was apparently too much for my over-stimulated brain. I fell asleep watching an episode of Scandal that I had downloaded onto my phone, the familiar images of The White House and Kerry Washington drinking wine and eating popcorn on a soft white couch finally soothing me into sleep.
During the weeks that I spent there, Boni and I would walk along the road from his house into town together. He would go to the agricultural supplies shop that he owned on the main street and I would interview farmers, bank managers, credit unions, government agricultural extension workers, private moneylenders.
On the way into town, we passed several farms. Tall stringy maize plants, fat lumps of jackfruit, fuzzy-leaved short bean plants, flamboyant wide fans of banana trees. Overnight, they became as familiar to me as the dandelions and marigolds in my mother’s garden.
Boni was not only a farmer and the owner of a shop that sold fertilizers and seeds to farmers, but also a trained agronomist. “See how that coffee plant is turning brown?” he asked once as we were walking. “They have planted the maize too close to it. Now, they are competing for water and soil.” Another time, he shook his head as we passed a farm where the weeds appeared to be invading. “You have to be on guard constantly against them or they will ruin you,” he would say, agitated.
Once, we saw rows of sickly yellow maize, so dry that the stems were peeling.
“What is being done wrong here?” I asked.
Boni was silent for a moment. “The rains that came last season, it was enough for some to survive – but not others,” he said finally. “Their only mistake was not praying enough perhaps.”
“The Rwenzori Mountains rise 5000 metres, crossing the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda,” a male voice intoned. “At their summits we find some of the only equatorial glaciers on Earth.”
On the TV screen, the National Geographic channel showed a field of snow stretching into the horizon. Boni and I gaped at the landscape, so alien to the humid green of Masaka. “Uganda’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 80% in the last century,” the voice continued. “And scientists predict that the remaining ice will disappear in less than twenty years.”
Every night after dinner, Olive would clean up, shooing me away if I tried to help. I would join Boni in watching National Geographic, his favorite channel after the American evangelical stations.
“Look, kids, that’s our country there,” Boni whispered. Adenoi and Seesay also loved the nature documentaries, the two of them curling into Boni’s arms where they would fall asleep.
The screen flashed to a black and white shot of peaks draped with wide necklaces of snow. Soon, we learned that we were seeing a documentary following two scientists re-tracing the Duke of Abruzzi’s 1906 trek to the Rwenzori mountains. During his trek, the Duke had taken the black and white photos of the glaciers. Now, the scientists were trying to photograph the same scenes to illustrate the changes in the glaciers over the past century.
A moment later, a shot of the same peaks appeared, this time in color and with some of the previous snow missing, as if someone had stuck a finger into whipped cream and scooped off a huge dollop.
“It’s a strange thing to visit a beautiful place that you know will disappear,” one of the scientists said.
The scene replayed in my head for days, loss over something that I had never even had welling in my chest.
National Geographic magazine was founded in 1888 by The National Geographic Society. Its first president was Gardiner Hubbard, who also founded the Bell Telephone Company, and his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, succeeded him. Led as it was by the men who brought the telephone to the world, it would appear that the Society has always tried to bring disparate peoples and places closer together.
“Ultimately, we are not in the magazine business,” confirmed the Society’s CEO John Fahey in 2007. “We are in the business of bringing the world to people.”
But which worlds are being brought to which people? Part of the answer may lie in the Society’s founding at the height of colonialism as “a club for an elite group of academics and wealthy patrons interested in travel.” Still today, 4 out of its 6.8 million subscribers are in America, as are the majority of visitors to its website. In 2017, 35% of the magazine 2.7 million readers had household incomes of greater than $100,000. 66% owned homes. “More important than the size of our audience is its quality, which provides our partners the opportunity to connect with affluent, educated, influential consumers,” its press kit brags.
A New Yorker article published in 2013 on the 125th anniversary of National Geographic magazine’s existence perhaps sums it up best: “the real task of National Geographic was to show white people […] where America stood in the great maw of geological time and in the great chain of creation, and to reassure them that they stood at the top of both.”
The National Geographic empire, now consisting of several magazines and TV channels, informs us about endangered species and climate change, but still cannot help but cater to Westerners responsible for changing the climate and endangering species. It was and continues to be, as both critics and fans have labelled it, “America’s lens on the world.”
In Masaka, I visited farmers: female, male, young, old and middle-aged, highly educated, illiterate, rich, poor. They mostly grew maize, beans, matooke, cauliflower. A few of the richer ones grew coffee, passionfruit, pineapple, mango. Despite their differences, what they told me was largely the same.
“I was never prepared for this,” Abe said. Abe, who looked to be in his forties, grew maize, had done so for as long as he could remember, like his parents and grandparents before him. “There was drought when I was growing up, some years worse than others. But this – every year lately it has been getting worse, the rains coming later and later. And when they do come, it is too late to plant,” he shook his head, seemingly mourning the loss of what would never be, the seedlings that would remain unborn for another season. “And then, when it rains, my lord, does it rain! It’s so much, too much. It washes away all the soil.”
The same story, over and over again: The rains don’t come like they used to. So farmers relied now more than ever on fertilizers and pesticides to keep their crops alive. They needed now, more urgently than ever, irrigation systems; even the wells were dry nowadays. But these were horribly expensive; they needed loans but no bank would lend to them. They didn’t have bank accounts, credit history, couldn’t prove a regular, reliable income. They didn’t even have land titles to offer up as collateral.
“Our grandparents are buried in the backyard, under the matooke tree,” Susan said. She and her four children grew cauliflower and plantain. A few years ago, she had tried and failed to get a bank loan to buy fertilizer and higher quality seeds. “The bank said, we need the papers proving the land is yours. I showed them the photo of the grave. That’s all I had.”
I took photos of each farm and each farmer. I pretended they were for the research I was doing, but I knew the truth lay elsewhere. If the gorillas or the equatorial glaciers disappeared, at least we had the close-up photos and hours of footage from National Geographic. But Abe who grew maize, Susan’s plot of cauliflower and plantain. What record would remain of those worlds?
The root of the word ‘exotic’ is the Greek word ‘exo,’ or ‘outside.’ Over time, ‘exotic’ has come to mean ‘mysteriously different.’ So, if something is exotic, it means it is outside of our understanding. At the same time, the word has a positive connotation: we use it to refer to otherworldly-looking yet attractive plants, women and pets.
Is it just coincidence that it refers to things that are traditionally powerless?
What if we don’t say the word out loud, just think it silently as we gaze at images? Is it as potent, as dangerous?
Once, I returned to the house to find Boni in the garden, poking a large stick into a trash can, the kind you’d use for backyard fires. I walked closer but before I could see what was inside, the stench hit me, whipping my head back.
“Oh sorry dear! I should have warned you,” Boni laughed, wiping his arm across his sweaty face. He told me that he was mixing manure from the neighbour’s cow with straw and sawdust.
“You see, we Ugandans, we love to complain about all the things that we cannot control. The rains that did not come, seeds that did not yield, the spray that did not kill all the bugs,” he said, pushing the stick into the dense concoction. “And if you are educated, you also complain about the big factories and big cars of Americans and Europeans dirtying up the skies. But what about what we ourselves are putting into the ground? All those chemicals. We don’t stop to think that maybe we are killing our own lands.”
Although chemical fertilizers were his best-selling product, Boni wanted to create his own organic fertilizer. Yet, the market for this in east Africa was non-existent. “But it will come,” he insisted. “Nature is already making us feel the consequences of acting without thinking about the future.” He gave the viscous mixture a final stir, the muscles of his arms clenching, a poster boy for making lemonade with very bitter lemons.
Another evening, the National Geographic channel featured the Queen Elizabeth National Park, located in north-western Uganda. “Wow,” Boni said. On the screen, giraffes chewed on the sprawling branches of an acacia trees. “That is so cool.”
“You should go there with Olive and the kids sometime,” I said. “Park fees are pretty low for residents.”
When he didn’t say anything, I looked over and his face said it all, said how the walls of their house remained unfinished, how a modern latrine was yet to be built, and how school fees for the children were soon due. The TV would be the closest they’d come to the parks.
A few months later, I would go to Queen Elizabeth, cramming into a safari jeep along with four or five other tourists. With the hatch roof pulled back, we were able to stand up, nothing between our top halves and the giraffes and elephants that ambled around the straw-colored savannah. It was mesmerizing, the sense of being in the animals’ territory, a natural order prevailing here over the artificial one that humans had imposed on the rest of the world. Until I realized that the only Ugandans around were the drivers and park rangers. There was no nature untouched by colonialism, I thought, feeling my exhilaration evaporate.
Later, when I posted some pictures on Facebook, Boni was the first to ‘like’ them. “Lucky girl,” he commented.
In a 2016 interview with Variety, the CEO of National Geographic’s Global Networks talked about the importance of retaining its core audience of ‘facts-driven men’. In other words: American, middle and upper-class men who believed in science above all, who wanted to not only see the world but understand its functioning with certainty, grasp it in the palm of their hands. The magazine has catered to this audience throughout history, as the 2013 New Yorker article pointed out: “in that manifesto-bearing year of 1915, National Geographic promised its readers, and demanded of its authors, ‘accurate accuracy.’ This lovable and very American term—not just fidelity to the facts but faithful fidelity to the facts—speaks for an empiricism about the world and its denizens more radical than any offered before between covers.”
But facts don’t help you sleep at night; they may actually be what keep you awake if you’re on the wrong side of ‘America’s lens.’
Boni and his neighbors understood the facts of climate change, knew the causes, felt all too viscerally its effects. But precisely because they lived in a world of uncertainty, they needed faith in things that could not always be grasped or predicted. The rains. Jesus. The images on TV, a world away from their own realities. And so did I. During the three weeks that I was in Masaka, I went through three seasons of Scandal in addition to watching at least an hour of National Geographic with Boni every night. I was in a wild, grand, depressing, stunning, place. I could only fall asleep imagining I was back home, sitting on a soft white couch and drinking wine from an overly large glass.
When I moved back to North America after three years, I did a cleanse of my social media feeds, purging it of travel blogs, nature sites, airline pages, tour guide companies.
Perhaps I had misplaced my sense of adventure. Or I had just realized that life ‘out there’ was as life here: unpredictable, miserable, wonderous. A season can ruin you in Uganda if you’re poor, just as it could in North America. Awe can engulf you at seeing a gorilla in the wild, as can the sight of a newborn, a childhood friend you haven’t seen in decades, the first harvest of your vegetable garden.
What is it about seeing gorillas in the wild anyway that is so powerful? It’s that they resemble humans so closely. Two hands, two feet, five fingers, five toes. What our ancestors must have been like. We wander the world, hoping to see another version of ourselves reflected back, other possibilities of who we may have been.
I still have the photos of Abe, Susan and the other farmers. Forty-six photos in total, all stored on my computer. Some of the farmers are not smiling, others are but there is a ruefulness to their smiles, as if they know something we don’t. Or as if they’ll stop smiling as soon as the camera flashes.
I’ve thought about printing them, maybe even framing a few. I took those photos, after all, I asked for permission. But they still don’t feel like they’re mine, so I never do.
Boni wrote back the day after I sent him the link to the magazine’s Race issue. “Of course they wanted to show the tribal people. Photos of Olive or I wouldn’t be so interesting. We’re almost like Americans.”
Raksha Vasudevan is a researcher who lives in Colorado. Her writing has appeared in Roads & Kingdoms and Africaisacountry.