One of the many little-known perks of Peace Corps Volunteerhood is the sporadic receipt of Newsweek International. Random issues of this weekly publication, clearly designed for the world business traveler trying to decide which Wimbledon-endorsed Rolex is right for his lifestyle, arrive every month or two in our mailboxes, fresh from the overstock pile courtesy what I can only assume is a small but friendly tax write-off.
While these magazines make impressive stacks at regional houses, they’re also good for vaguely educational village entertainment. In my compound a shiny Newsweek, with its full color photos and tasteful amounts of text, always draws a crowd of all ages. The other day I brought out one that had the usual series of war report/disaster update/European political drama/luxury goods feature. A few of my moms gathered to look at the pictures and sound out the occasional headline.
As we flipped through (back to front), the women asked me questions about the photos: where is this? what are they doing? This is our standard routine, but their questions can still take me aback. One image showed several soldiers lying on their stomachs on a dusty hill, facing away from the camera to watch a helicopter land. Madame asked me if they were dead—it was clear to me from their posture and the context of the photograph that they weren’t, but she couldn’t tell. Another story had a picture of oil derricks in a snowfield; they wanted to know if the scene was land or water.
For me those questions were a vivid reminder of one of the many basic abilities I take for granted: visual literacy. The sheer volume of images Americans are exposed to, from childhood onwards, is staggering. Media saturation is criticized for promoting materialism and consumerism above critical thinking, but I think it’s pretty amazing to consider the amount of people, places, animals, and objects that I can recognize without ever having seen them in person.
We discussed this in Peace Corps training in the context of presentations and trainings—symbols and representations we as Americans wouldn’t think twice about are completely indecipherable to many villagers. Recognizing that a line drawing of a cow indicates the living thing you milk every morning is not as obvious as it might seem. And if that’s not obvious, how much more complicated must it be to understand a balance sheet or a flow chart? They’re cut off from a whole world of ideas and information, and that figurative divide ensures the continuation of a very real physical and economic divide.