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Motherhood

Exploited: The Day My Child Became the Face of African Poverty Porn

Sixteen years ago I used to run a satirical blog called Maizebreak.com. It is now defunct. I would write parodies of the real news, conjure crazy and unlikely stories and photoshop images for humorous effect. It was my African answer to The Onion, which I discovered around early 2002. MaizeBreak did enjoy the longevity that the Onion has. Writing parodies takes more of an emotional toll than you realize.

Part of my writing process meant I had to make up names for my made up characters. Sometimes, this was difficult to do. My solution – therefore – was to use names of friends or acquaintances who bore unusual monikers and insert them into the stories. The stories I used these names in were pretty “harmless”…at least they were to me. Things along the lines of ‘Lucy Persevy shoots beans through her nose at the Accra mayor while highlighting the scarcity of beans in the metropolis”. The trouble began when the real Lucy Persevy* was looking for jobs and was showing up in searches on this “news site” that was so well written that it was almost impossible to discern whether it was satire or not.

Eventually, I got an email from a desperate Lucy Persevy. She was looking for the editors of MaizeBreak and noticed I had liked their page as well. Could I help her get in contact with them? I informed her that I was the owner of that page. How could I help?

“Well, Malaka,” she said, “although I love the work and it’s really funny, I need my name taken OFF. It’s causing me problems. People are thinking I have nothing better to do than to shoot beans through my nose at the Accra Mayor.”

I balked initially. What was her gripe? This was harmless fun! I thought her request was “stupid”, but I complied anyway. It wasn’t until years later that I – and many other people around the world – began to understand the true power of the Internet; how deep and far it can go; how eternal it is. The phrase “the Internet never forgets” exists for good reason. While I had the benefit of anonymity, the Lucy Pervsevy I had “created” was having real life effects on a real person.

I abandoned MaizeBreak for that and other reasons soon after. Satire is a powerful tool, and I didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility. Plus, I felt awful for exploiting Lucy Persevy in that way and without a second thought.

Social media, and the rules governing it, are ever changing. When I was a teenager, revenge porn manifested in a fairly innocuous manner. A boy merely had to spread the rumor that he’d slept with you, and while you might have been shamed for something that may or may not have happened, you at least had the certainty that he had no real evidence to prove that fact. Now revenge porn all its accouterments are hosted on SnapChat, IG or links on the dark web. We know this. We talk about it in schools, in work places, on talk radio and afternoon gabfests. Handling images of total strangers, with care particularly those that have not been designated for public consumption, is not a new concept…which is why I don’t understand why a “friend” of mine deemed it fit to use my Black daughter’s face for a Go Fund Me campaign.

Yes. You read that right.

Now, in the old days, I would’ve put the woman, her page and all her details on blast and let nature take its course. But I’m 40 now, and I’ve put away the antics of my exuberant youth. I’m sure this description will suffice.

An American woman I have come to know over the last year (let’s call her Susan) has been a guest in our home on numerous occasions. She’s here in South Africa as a missionary, somewhat like we are. She’s watched my kids and I’ve hauled her luggage to a different city. I would say we were fairly god friends, or at least working our way towards a good friendship. She’s taken selfies with my children. I have taken selfies with her. We tag each other on our personal pages. It’s what we do in this digital age.

But you have can’t imagine my surprise when I stepped out of a meeting this morning and checked the alerts from my Facebook feed. Susan’s friend Becky, it seems, was planning a mission’s trip to South Africa and wanted the world to know about it and seed into her fundraiser. And who was featured in the Go Fund Me thumbnail? My youngest child: gap toothed, silly and staring right into the camera with a rosy cheeked Susan by her side.

I was infuriated. I am still incensed. This was some disgusting bull.

An hour later I checked my inbox, where I had received a message containing a screenshot of my daughter’s face with a light hearted note explaining that Becky was doing an online fundraising campaign and using my baby’s face to “guilt” people into giving. #NotARealSouthAfricanKid #IWon’tTellIfYouWon’t.

LOL.

 

I was not laughing.

I made it very clear that I was pissed.

“Please ask your friend to use another Black child to raise money for her trip,” I retorted.

Susan apologized and said Becky didn’t know that this was my child. She just went to Facebook and grabbed a picture at random. And that makes it okay? That actually makes it worse, I explained. You can’t just take pictures of people’s kids and use them in advertising! The least you could do is ask.

I checked 20 minutes later and was pleased to discover that my daughter’s selfie was gone…and that it was replaced with a selfie of Susan and a different Coloured child. Unreal. Absolutely unreal. I thought she would read through the sarcasm, but it was clearly missed on her.

I am sick of people using Black children as props. I am weary of Western powers using Black bodies as fields from which to harvest their next bounty. But furthermore, I am disgusted by Christian missionaries who see Africa and Africans are the ticket to their next come up. The fact that these two women (and thousands of others like them) have no qualms about using the cherubic faces of Black and Brown children to earn coins for airfare and accommodation defies decency. However it has been the modus operandi of Christian and do-gooder organizations for so long that it has become an industry standard practice.

Source: Instagram/EllenDegeneres

You know why Susan and Becky haven’t used their own faces, independent of a Black child, in their fundraising? Because the optics aren’t right. The image of their white, smiling faces, companion-less and seeking money smacks of entitlement. At least the presence of these “poor African children” justifies you digging into your pocket or making that transfer out of PayPal. How much of that lucre were they planning to share with my kid, I wonder? The one whose face was being used to prick the conscience of the giver? Not a dime. And neither will this unsuspecting child.

It’s exploitation. It’s pornography under the guise of selflessness. It needs to stop. I would carry on further, but I must away. My African Poverty Model is requesting a homemade milkshake and other bougie food for our family movie night in.

 

Discuss.

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