Reviews Press

A different picture of Africa

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7519.782 (Published 29 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:782
  1. Gillian Baker, editor (beauty{at}langmead.com),
  2. Petra Boynton, lecturer in international health research, London, and agony aunt (p.boynton{at}pcps.ucl.ac.uk)
  1. Beauty Zambia
  2. Beauty Zambia

    It has to be one of the more bizarre ventures—publishing a glamorous women's magazine in the world's 14th poorest country. Last November that's exactly what happened with the launch of Beauty Zambia.

    Zambia is home to 10 million people—many with zero income, a lack of clean water, and periods of hunger. Poverty is real, yet every month Beauty Zambia is a glossy riot of colour, fashion, and features. How can this be?

    Even in a country like Zambia there are new cultural identities forming. Stereotypes of Africa include poverty, war, famine, disease, or exotic wildlife—not perhaps a place of fashion models, professional workers, nightclubs, fancy restaurants, cell-phones, and rush hour streets at near gridlock with imported Japanese cars.

    This highlife is experienced by a lucky few, in contrast to others on lower incomes with greater social problems. Publishers in Western countries rarely consider the tensions such diverse audiences create.

    Criticisms of women's media include that it keeps women in subordinate positions, provides incorrect or inadequate health information, privileges appearance over achievements, and reduces women's lives to sex and relationships. At a time when women's magazines rarely include interviews with non-celebrity older women, Beauty Zambia has featured interviews with nurses, teachers, and even police chief superintendent Brenda Muntemba.

    Many Western magazines seem afraid to cover gender issues. Zambian society is still very male centred. To illustrate this, the magazine's most recent monthly vox pop revealed some startling comments from conservative male interviewees on women's dress, including such gems as a request for miniskirts to fall below the knee, and for a government devised dress code.

    Our aim with the magazine is to support Zambian women to enjoy life and build confidence through articles on hobbies and sports (reading, swimming, weight training), and education and career advice (hotel management, workplace discrimination, presentation skills). Readers are involved through “word on the street” discussions of topical issues, by texting in their questions or comments, and reader essay competitions. Not that this puts men off—a large proportion of our readers are male.

    By being ruthlessly commercial and relying on advertising, the magazine plans to continue publishing long term, where other donor driven publications invariably fall by the wayside once funding expires. The magazine has a monthly print run of 2000 copies, although each copy is read by many more people, lifting readership figures to an estimated 15 000 to 20 000 copies a month. At 7500 kwacha (slightly less than a pound) it is a quarter of the price of the imported glossies.

    In the past year the magazine has run stories on menstruation, breast and cervical cancer, HIV, smoking cessation, malaria dangers during pregnancy, stress management, and dental care, all tailored to an African audience. Every health feature is informed by and links to current evidence, something most Western magazines miss.


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    Showing a glamorous and hopeful side to life

    We have deliberately not taken a preaching role on HIV/AIDS or other lifestyle issues

    All these ingredients add up to a huge dichotomy being grappled with by many of our readers—the allure of the modern versus the pull of tradition. It makes for baffling times, and is played out every month in the magazine's problem page.

    Some problems—jealousy, relationship dissatisfaction, or sexual concerns—are similar the world over. Some are Zambian-specific—coping with the hunger season, long distance relationships, or extended families. The traditional Western practice of advising readers to make decisions to suit themselves, to pamper themselves, or to seek out health or therapy resources may be impractical or incomprehensible. Even those problems that seem to be shared across countries still need to be answered in a way that respects cultural issues rather than imposes Western values upon them.

    HIV/AIDS is a prime example. According to 2003 estimates, 16% of adults in Zambia are HIV positive. Prevalence rates vary between urban and rural areas. Donors have pumped tens of millions of pounds into the country to try to tackle the epidemic, both by prevention messages and care of those infected. Yet on the ground, especially in poorer households and rural areas, little real impact seems to have been made.

    At Beauty Zambia, while we respect the work of educators and volunteers, we often feel that experts are trying too hard to impose Western approaches without really understanding the African psyche and way of life. How can you tell someone not to have unsafe sex because they could become infected with HIV and die in five or ten years' time? They may reason that they are more likely to die from malaria or be bitten by a snake well before then.

    Learning from these problems, we have deliberately not taken a preaching role on HIV/AIDS or other lifestyle issues. At the request of our readers, we have specifically avoided being dragged into “workshop-speak” and relentless anti-AIDS messages.

    We cannot ignore the realities touching our readers' lives. Every month we run an accurate health story. But we also aim to paint an alternative aspect, profiling role models, showing a glamorous, fun, and hopeful side to life—a different picture of Africa.

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