The BBC’s Africa as Middle Earth

The BBC Natural History Unit has done it again.  Its new wildlife documentary, simply titled Africa, currently showing on the flagship channel BBC One, is an extraordinary feast of natural wonders in high definition.  It is pulling in large terrestrial and ‘iPlayer’ audiences, impressing critics and setting the Twittersphere alight.  The photography is, as so often before, ground-breaking: slowmo battling giraffes in the Kalahari, a baby elephant dying in an Amboseli drought, starlight camera sequences of black rhino at a Kalahari waterhole and lingering wide-angle shots that capture the grand scale of the African landscapes.

But there is a problem. The ‘Africa’ on display is missing something rather important: Africans. In 2011, the BBC was criticised for splicing footage of a captive polar bear giving birth into wild sequences for the Frozen Planet series (a standard documentary technique). This time the BBC has edited out the people of an entire continent. The first episode of Africa begins with the comforting voice of David Attenborough: “Africa… the world’s greatest wilderness … the only place on earth to the see the full majesty of nature”.  His description might just about apply to the Kalahari of the first episode, an arid region with few people. But the second episode was about East Africa, a region home to over 130 million human residents. In fact, southern Uganda, in which much of the episode was filmed, has some of the densest human populations anywhere on the continent. Where were these people, their buildings, their farms, their livestock? Where were their nation states, which were not named in Attenborough’s narration? One aerial shot of Lake Mutanda in south west Uganda showed a few twinkling tin roofs, but this was the exception. Another, of the Virunga Volcanoes – mountains absolutely surrounded by smallholder farms – seemed deliberately angled to avoid showing any signs of agriculture. After watching this programme, anyone unfamiliar with East Africa could be forgiven for thinking that there is an unbroken chain of natural wildlife habitat stretching from the Rwenzori in the west to Mount Kilimanjaro in the East. There isn’t.

In Africa, the BBC is selectively editing its images of the African landscape to tell a particular story about nature.  When Peter Jackson wanted to portray Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he used the landscapes of New Zealand to represent Middle Earth.  To create the fantasy world, Jackson’s team had a huge struggle to find corners of land where the cameras could not see any imprint of human action. This is what the BBC has done in Africa, projecting a story onto a real landscape; a spell that would be broken if there were any sign of human residents or their creations.

The BBC has done this before – the Natural History Film Unit’s last African series Wild Africa (equally novel for its time in 2001) lived up to its name.  Yet the BBC knows all about how these representations only tell part of the story. BBC Four ran the excellent Unnatural Histories, which included an episode telling the story of the Serengeti and other East African savanna parks, revealing the extent to which these landscapes are as much anthropogenic as natural, and charting their deeply contested politics. BBC Four also did a fine job of explaining the diverse representations of poverty in Africa in the recent Why Poverty? series. These BBC Four series drew on ideas about the (mis)representation of Africa that are well established in academic thinking. For example, Jim Igoe has used Guy Debord’s concept of ‘spectacle’ to discuss the way images can be used to create a (conservation) product for consumption that has little relation to a real place, and problems with the use of the term ‘wilderness’ are well established.

So why Africa’s deliberate blindness to these issues?  Are the BBC’s left and right hands not talking: do BBC departments not speak to each other?  Is this is a case of in-built elitism, in which the BBC One demographic is not considered ready for a more complex message? Perhaps this a cynical decision, that nature sells, another click of the ratchet of commercialisation, a step towards NatureReal™ technology? Or, perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to focus on positive stories about nature, rather than the messy reality on the ground – a contribution to the idea of wild hope. And why does any of this matter? If the outcome is a collection of beautiful films about African wildlife that are enjoyed by millions, where is the problem?

The answer is that the Edenic vision of Africa as Africa is not just entertainment. It has real power to shape the way we think about a whole continent. Viewers are led to believe that Africa is not part of the modern world, and that Africans have no place there. Tourists expect to see this vision brought to life when they step off the plane, and the tourism industry makes it so, through a parade of staged authenticity interspersed with quick hops by car or plane between the national parks, lest the tourist gaze fall on the ‘wrong’ scene. All of this affects real-world relations between outsiders (viewers and visitors) and Africa and its people – economic, political, and social – in profoundly negative ways.

At the end of the second episode of Africa David Attenborough reminded us that the first humans evolved in East Africa. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they must have all left shortly afterwards, only to return two million years later as helicopter pilots, Landrover drivers and abseiling camera people. The refusal to portray African people – farmers, traders, computer programmers and entrepreneurs – as part of African landscapes implies that they can somehow be separated from a ‘real’ Africa of nature. This is not only potentially offensive, it also creates the false impression that nothing threatens the nature on display – that all is well in the wilderness. This is also not true: African conservationists face huge challenges, and most of the ‘natural’ ecosystems we see on our screens are to a greater or lesser extent enclosed, managed and threatened.

Africa is a simplistic portrayal of an unthreatened natural wilderness that does not exist. It is as much fantasy as it is documentary: Africa as Africa.

Chris Sandbrook & Bill Adams


33 thoughts on “The BBC’s Africa as Middle Earth

  1. Well said! I wonder how long the Myth of Wild Africa can be maintained? The BBC deserves to be quietly roasted for its irresponsible behavior. As currently practiced, wildlife based tourism in Africa is just another extractive industry where the natural capital of wildlife is being slowly converted to financial capital that steadily accumulates in the hands of western tour operators. There are many different examples of local people being paid something for looking after wildlife and even some cases of wildlife numbers improving as a result of these innovative schemes for benefit sharing, but experience suggests that these are the exception rather than the rule and that the money going into local people’s pockets and into local economies is a small compared with the amount captured by the tourist industry. In the long term, collapse is inevitable, unless the economic balance tilts in favour of local economies and maintenance of the wildlife resource. Now, if the BBC made a real documentary that followed the wildlife money trail and did a credible job of investigating the social and economic interactions between people and wildlife in Africa, audiences could be entertained, educated and encouraged to act responsibly in relation to one the world’s great wonders. It would be even more useful if the documentary took a hard look at how declining global economies, rising fuel prices, climate change and famine might affect wildlife, rural Africans and the tourist industry. Beautiful films like Africa are little more than a monument to something that mostly isn’t and to a large extent never was there.

  2. It’s a wildlife documentary, not a socio-cultural documentary about Africa as a whole. Why should a wildlife documentary about Africa specifically also be the only kind to introduce humans into the program?

  3. It is a nature documentary. About nature. Anyone who’s watched any of the recent Attenborough docs will know that these are all about the very rare untouched natural world, with nary a person in sight. Isn’t it enough to wonder at the natural world without wanting to know ‘what are the people doing’?

    If you want to know about the peoples who populate these seemingly barren landscapes, the BBC produced the outstanding Human Planet.

  4. “Africa is a simplistic portrayal of an unthreatened natural wilderness that does not exist.”

    Yeah, except Episode 6 – “The Future” – is about the conservation challenges that face the continent. But don’t worry about actually watching the entire documentary before lambasting it, will you?

  5. Hi Chris,

    You make a very important and good point. This type of documentaries (specially one with such a large audience like BBC one) have the power to influence perceptions and values. And Africa has been so greatly misrepresented in the past (and present).

    The first episodes, told nothing about the socio-economic-politics climate in which such “Africa” is immersed, nor about the challenges to manage and protect those habitats and species. This last episode (Cape) however, showed a little about some efforts of conserving turtles by local people in Comoros Islands. Including a comment from the producer on the importance of conservation efforts coming from “roots upwards”.

    Maybe it would be good, as suggested by Ed, to first see the entire series, to better understand the reasoning why it was made in such a way.

    Nevertheless, I must say that the spectacular images, sounds and stories that were carefully captured and put together, revealing nature’s beauty and wonders, have a remarkable power to inspire. Who knows… this may be just what brings purpose and reason to many of those hard working people, who dedicate their lives addressing the many challenges that conservation faces.

  6. “Of course, there is no such thing as “we”. That’s what is unfortunate. How can you speak about Africa or China or India? They all have different agendas and understandings.”

    David Attenborough, from recent interview online – just found this.

    • What an ill thought out statement. Of course there is a “we”. “We” are all different. So what is unfortunate about that. In fact it is diversity that keeps us all alive. Mr Attenborough perhaps wants everyone to have the same agenda so that the Powers may single handedly engineer the planet. Single opinion + single power + single agenda = single species which leads to oblivion. If “we” all act like a “me” and too many people agree then watch out for the debris. Self governance is the key – lets talk about that and leave stupid discussions about Mr Attenborough alone. He is a rare joy.

  7. Many thanks to the various people who have left comments on this piece, and to the many more who have read it.

    Several comments have been along the lines of “it’s a nature documentary so you shouldn’t be surprised when it shows nature.” That’s quite right, and we aren’t asking for every wildlife series to be a new version of ‘Human Planet’. However, people have profound impacts on nature in Africa, both positive and negative, so removing them from the equation is to misrepresent the ‘nature’ on display. It will be interesting to see how the final episode tells its story, but it is still odd to delay any mention of people until ‘nature’ is fully described. As Julia Jones (@juliapgjones) said in a twitter exchange with Simon Willcock (@simon_willcock) on the subject this week: “we don’t need humans as bad guys at the end. ‘All this’ was created by humans. We are part of it”.

    We do agree with Madyo that the most recent episode, Cape, did a little better. It had some discussion of conservation at the end, a shot of Table Mountain in which a road was clearly visible, and even the first mention of a country – Mozambique.

    The BBC’s ‘Africa’ makes great TV, and we admire its photography and insights on species and ecosystems. But, when so much is right, we find it disappointing that it sticks to a clichéd and outdated narrative about African wilderness. It is a missed opportunity.

    • I guide safaris in East Africa and have recently returned from the Mara/Serengeti. The Maasai and their cattle have played a part in shaping this ecosystem over the last few hundred years, no one can argue against that. As recently as 1950 Kenya had a human population of under 10 million, it is now above 40 million. Livestock numbers and concentrations have also risen. We are no longer seeing people shape the natural environment, we are seeing them destroy it. Due to overpopulation our wildlife and wild places now have a “people problem”.

      It would be idealistic to include people in a series about Africa’s wild places without vilifying them. Why the pride at a road being shown near table mountain? why the excitement at a tin roof? This isn’t traditional Africa, this is development at the expense of traditional Africa.Tourists love seeing traditional Maasai people homes and livestock. Tin roofs, baseball caps and motor bikes blaring music don’t fit into this.

      It seems people are taking every step and using every dollar earned to distance and even extricate themselves from the natural environment. The BBC’s Africa may be a reminder in years to come of what we failed to save. I think there is room for a documentary that zooms out from the lion in the park and shows the slum on the edge of the park where people are poaching game meat and poisoning lions. Is this the sad reality of the people in East Africa that you wish the BBC had shown? is this the updated or modern narrative of the African wilderness?

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts and opinions. I write out of interest and for discussions sake, not to offend or criticise.

      • Hi James – thank you for your thoughtful comment, and apologies for the slow reply. The central point of our article was to point out that the ‘Africa’ on display in the BBC documentary series doesn’t bear much resemblance to the small corners of Africa that Bill Adams and I have visited and which featured in the programmes. People have clearly shaped and co-produced nature in Africa in many ways, some of which might be thought of as positive or negative, depending on your point of view. So I wouldn’t say that I felt ‘pride’ at seeing a road or a tin roof, more a sense of relief that here was a view that seemed more honest. Does that make sense?

      • Hi James

        Many years ago I went on a walking safari to Mount Kenya and various other parks. I was disappointed with the geography and wildlife because none of it matched up to Mr Attenborough’s structured vision. The people on the other hand were amazing, exciting, inspiring and thought provoking. They taught humility and were to be greatly admired. You are wrong to think tourists don’t want to see tin shacks – these are the places of real wonder nowadays because our screens are packed full of mud huts, traditional costume and zebra.

      • Hi Chris,

        Thanks for your reply. I can’t disagree with what you have said. I do worry about where our baseline for conservation is though and feel that it is shifting towards a very human dominated landscape. Thanks for the thought provoking posts, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and will continue to follow it and comment where possible.


      • Hi James,

        The question of shifting baselines is a very important one. To my mind the very idea of baselines implies that conservation must always be looking backwards and not forwards for an idea of what to call success. Of course we should not ignore the past, but I do think that being slightly more open to novelty and change is important for conservation, particularly in ecosystems that are already unavoidably impacted by humans in ways that cannot be reversed. There has been some very interesting writing on this subject recently from Emma Marris (her book Rambunctious Garden) and George Monbiot (his book Feral and various other blogs and newspaper articles) among others. It’s something I’m hoping to write about on here at some point in the future.

  8. Might we consider a different question, along the lines of ‘why do we like to view nature in this way at all?’ It is all very wonderful, but very much ‘over there’, separate from us. Does this approach, which might be summarised as ‘behind a (perfectly clean, HD) window, with no mosquitos or people’ only serve to maintain our prevailing dualistic view of nature, something for humans to conquer, exploit and use, rather than something within which we are an interdependent partner? Do not all programmes of this kind make exhibition pieces of other species, subordinating their right to live and choose, to our right to exploit?

    • Ask a prisoner locked in a dark cell for 5 years and suddenly released – “I saw the blue sky, I saw a green tree, I saw the sun” . On the other end of he spectrum ask a lost soul exiting from the jungle – “Give me a cool beer, a hot shower and a soft bed”. Each of us lives somewhere on this spectrum but the average western human having escaped from Naure’s brutality in the last century, wants to see that his/her Mother is OK without receiving the inevitable tongue lashing. It is not David Attenborough who does us a disservice, it is those who ride on his back and exploit his capital investment. If you want balance then make your own programme to educate. It is not only in Africa that attitudes towards nature is twisted. Living 15 minutes from a capital city boundary I was recently asked if I got post.. There are those who can’t abide nature and there are those who can’t abide concrete and plastic. It doesn’t matter as long as there is balance and we all find our niche to live. – in this I include all our partners in nature.

  9. I think the problem is that Africa is not a documentary about wildlife, its a documentary about a magical place in which there is nothing but wildlife. I think it would have been all right if “Africa” was pitched as a documentary about wildlife. If it was set in Europe it wouldn’t have been called “Europe” it would have been called “Europe’s wildest places!” or “The last bears of Europe!”

    It reminds me of a promotional video for a big fun holiday camp like Center Parcs. Except unlike Centre Parcs “Africa” did not choose to represent itself as a giant wilderness adventure, and unlike Centre Parcs it won’t necessarily benefit from that image particularly if holiday makers arrive without any pre-formed expectation or understanding of the resident population.

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  11. I think your position is actually ironically condescending, both to viewers and Africans. The programme in question is quite obviously, intrinsically a programme about wild animals – that’s what Attenborough’s entire career is built upon – and including a political message such as yours would be inappropriate, first because you are presuming that the audience is of such decrepit intelligence that they couldn’t possibly realise that Africa is also inhabited by human communities, and second because you are presuming that these African communities need a benevolent Western broadcast company to spread information about their culture. Both of these premises are insulting, and, actually, if you are going to go so far as to say that the corporation has a specific bias against Africa, then you have a burden to demonstrate that the other wildlife series Attenborough has narrated – based in regions all around the world – have indeed featured human communities which are conspicuously absent in this case. I don’t believe you will find such examples because that is not what these programmes are for; you might as well be asking for the X Factor to include classical musicians – they both have a place in public awareness, but not in the same programme.

    • Hi Callum. I’m afraid I don’t agree with your comments. I am not suggesting that a ‘political message’ about human culture be artificially superimposed onto a programme about wild nature. I am suggesting that much of the nature on display is shaped (positively and negatively) by people, so leaving them out is to give a misleading impression of African nature, and the place of people within it. On your latter point, if the BBC produced a programme called “Europe”, described it as the world’s last great wilderness and filled it with carefully chosen shots of mountain tops, saltmarshes and forests with no people in sight, I would have a problem with that too and would write about it.

  12. In defence of the original argument, it is worth noting that these representations do have real impacts on how people from “outside” expect these places to look like. For example, there are numerous academic analyses of safari tourists expectations of what places like the Serengeti should look like, how they see humans as an exotic and invasive species, and how this produces pressure to make sure these places look like they do on TV – a kind of life imitating art. I have a PhD student working on tropical beach tourism, and here there is tremendous economic and political pressure to make tropical beaches look like they do in brochures, resulting in the removal of both local people and undesirable environmental features, such as “ugly” mangrove swamps in favour of empty sandy beaches. Likewise, near to one of my field sites, whole villages of peasant farmers were removed by the military at gunpoint, without compensation, from places where their families had lived for generations because it was a national park. This was justified because parks should be people free – as someone (the local catholic priest!) put it, “it is not a secret that nowhere in the world do they permit people to live inside national parks”. The fact that the park was created some decades after the village was neither here nor there – the image of these places as people-free was most important.

  13. Great piece Chris. I completely agree that such depictions of Africa do shape our perceptions of the continent, and are largely responsible for the existing chasm between the real and the imagined. I especially like this bit: “David Attenborough reminded us that the first humans evolved in East Africa. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that they must have all left shortly afterwards”. Francois just told me you had a blog – I had no idea! I’ve also set one up, as you’ll see (inspired by my time in Germany). Been rather busy recently so haven’t posted so much unfortunately. Hope you’re well!

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  15. David Attenborough is in the business of Delight and as such is a master of Deception. We all love it because it makes us feel Wonder. The question is as his role as an Educator.
    I have been to Africa once and the thing that stuck in my mind was the inability to escape from humanity. There is as much wilderness in the Cairngorms than there is in the African Bush.
    I think Chris and Bill are right to question the Wonder-Educational balance of media productions and the repercussions for local communities and environments alike.

  16. Watching the BBC’s The Great British Year reminded me of this blog post. Again, it’s a nature documentary, with a lot of beauty and wonder, but a feature is made of human presence and activities. Why is Britain presented like this – full of buildings, gardens and motorways, with a close coexistence of people and ‘nature’ – while Africa is a fantasy landscape almost empty of people? Probably says as much about how we see Britain, and its wildlife, as how we perceive Africa…

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