By Mukoma Wa Ngugi*
In 1982, as the air force-led coup attempt in Kenya unfolded, we sat glued to our transistor radio listening to the BBC and Voice of America (VOA). In fact, the more the oppressive the Moi regime censored Kenyan media, the more Western media became the lifeline through which we learned what has happening in our own country. But in 2013, I and many other Kenyans saw the Western media coverage of the Kenya elections as a joke, a caricature. Western journalists have been left behind by an Africa moving forward: not in a straight line, but in fits and starts, elliptically, and still full of contradictions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but forward nevertheless.
A three paragraph article in Reuters offered the choice terms “tribal blood-letting” to reference the 2007 post-electoral violence, and “loyalists from rival tribes” to talk about the hard-earned right to cast a vote. Virtually all the longer pieces from Reuters on the elections used the concept of tribal blood-letting. CNN also ran a story in February of this year that showed five or so men somewhere in a Kenyan jungle playing war games with homemade guns, a handful of bullets and rusty machetes – war paint and all.
But very few people watching that video of the five men playing warriors, practicing in slow motion how to shoot without firing their weapons and slitting throats with the unwieldy machetes took it seriously. Rather, it was slap your knee funny. Last week Elkim Namlo (turns out it is Michael Holman in real life-Ed.), in the Kenyan paper The Daily Nation, wrote a piece satirizing that kind of reportage. The first sentence in the aptly titled, “Foreign reporters armed and ready to attack Kenya,” reads in part that the country is “braced at the crossroads…amidst growing concern that the demand for clichés is outstripping supply” and that “Analysts and observers [have] joined diplomats in dismissing fears that coverage of the forthcoming poll will be threatened by a shortage of clichés.” That particular CNN footage certainly supplied the high demand of clichés and stereotypes.
This is not to say that the threat of violence is not real. On election day, a separatist organization raided a police station in Mombassa, resulting in 15 deaths. The president-elect and his running mate will be appearing before the ICC to answer charges of crimes against humanity relating to the post-election violence of 2008. And with the runner-up Raila Odinga going to the courts (as opposed to the streets) to dispute the electoral results, we are not out of the woods yet. So there is a place for the kind of journalism that is in touch with the hopes and fears embedded in Kenya’s democracy.
For western journalism to be taken seriously by Africans and Westerners alike, it needs Africans to vouch for stories rather than satirizing them. I am not saying that journalism needs the subject to agree with the content, but the search for journalistic truth takes place within a broad societal consensus. That is, while one may disagree with particular reportage and the facts, the spirit of the essay should not be in question. But Africans are saying that the journalists are not representing the complex truth of the continent; that Western journalists are not only misrepresenting the truth, but are in spirit working against the continent. The good news is there have been enough people questioning the coverage of Africa over the years that Western journalists have had no choice but to do some soul searching. The bad news is that the answers are variations of the problem.
Michela Wrong, in a New York Times piece shortly before the Kenyan elections, debated the use of the word “tribe.” She acknowledged that the word tribe “carries too many colonial echoes. It conjures up M.G.M. visions of masked dances and pagan rites. ‘Tribal violence’ and ‘tribal voting’ suggest something illogical and instinctive, motivated by impulses Westerners distanced themselves from long ago.” But she concluded the piece by reserving her right to use the term. She stated that “When it comes to the T-word, Kenyan politics are neither atavistic nor illogical. But yes, they are tribal.” The term tribe should have died in the 2007 elections when Africanist scholars took NYT’s Jeffrey Gettleman’s usage of the term to task. To his credit, Gettleman stopped using the term.
If you have Wrong insisting on using a discredited analytical framework, you have others who position themselves as missionaries and explorers out to save the image of Africa. But their egos end up outsizing the story. Martin Robbins last year introduced his five-part essay on Kenya/Africa with the promise to tell misrepresented or rarely revealed truths about Africa. He was, he announced, “exploring the ways we were manipulated and misled by a procession of public officials, NGOs, activists and spokespeople; examining the reasons why a disturbingly high proportion of what we hear about Africa is just plain wrong.” His mission was however foiled by an ego that pushed out the search for the promised truths to create room for himself at the center of the story.
In “Grandma Obama’s support for domestic violence” the second of his five pieces, he writes, “President Obama’s angry granny stared impassively into the distance, as her rabbits relentlessly fucked each other around us. One ventured near her ankle, as if wondering whether to hump it.” Why destroy the subject of your reportage? Why impose the anti-establishment I can use fuck whenever I want young-writer-cigarette-drooping-from-lower-lip-angst over an old woman whose views most activist Kenyans disagree with?
The wildlife has been replaced by the horny rabbits circling Grandma Obama’s feet – a joke that succeeds only in turning Obama’s grandmother into a subject of scorn for holding views held by millions of men and women worldwide. Rather than read about the fucking rabbits, I would rather read about why she holds the opinions she does and what those in support or opposed to her views are doing. I want to see her opinions in relation to the larger society. In other words, I would rather read something useful rather than something that establishes its authority by destroying the subject of the reportage. There is no difference between the well-intentioned Martin Robbins imposing his ego over his African subject and the terrible reporter who yells Africa is a hopeless, violent, tribal, and bloody continent
The irony though, or perhaps the point, is that when Robbins is writing on issues outside of Africa his Livingstone alter ego is in check. For example, read his essay on “The new, old war on abortion” – yes, it’s an opinion piece, but his ego does not choke the hell out of the subject.
You have still others who see the question of how the Western media reports about Africa as fundamental and in need of intellectual discussion. Jina Moore’s essay in the Boston Review, “The White Correspondent’s Burden: We Need to Tell the Africa Story Differently,” is vastly different from Robbins’s essay in content, style and goal. Whereas Robbins’s Kenya writeups are ultimately about his heroic ego, armed with irony and sarcasm, Moore’s essay is seriously, and I think honestly, trying to understand why white journalists make the choices they make.
Her essay can be divided into three parts. The first part describes the problem – the Africa is one, Africa is violent, hopeless reportage. The second part, where her essay really begins, tackles the historical and philosophical reasons for what is essentially a racist trope that will simply not go away. First she says, it is not widely accepted that the West is responsible for the most of the suffering, “centuries of slave trade, followed by a near-century of colonialism and its attendant physical and structural violence, from the rubber fields of the Belgian Congo to the internment camps of British Kenya.” In spite of the obvious direct correlation between slavery or colonialism and destitution, the idea of a good moral agent emerged. But more than that, she argues, this moral imperative became more about the giver than the recipient. So now it is not about helping Africa per say, it is about having a moral and ethical Western civilization; we are civilized because we help those that we abuse. Call it a fast track to getting to heaven or remaining relevant in Hollywood. When this moralization is transposed into reporting, Africans becomes the “subject of compassion” and not “the subject of a story.” There is not much to disagree with there.
All this provides a reminder to journalists that history matters and that they should also look beyond the effects of poverty and violence and talk about the causes – African leaders, corporations that mine wealth without giving back, arms companies etc. In other words, let’s look at all the actors instead of seeing Africa outside present-day global economic political processes.
The third part of Moore’s essay mainly deals with the choices that the reporters make, why they think they have to make them, and the consequences. She talks about Howard French, formerly with the New York Times, who writes about tragic stories because he would otherwise feel guilty if he told a happy story and leave the atrocities unexposed. This is a sentiment with which human rights activists in the Congo, Kenya and elsewhere would agree.
It is the lesson that Moore takes from this that I disagree with. She argues that “We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things—extraordinary violence and ordinary life—in the same story.” On the face of it, it does read like a sound choice, to show the tragedies and at the same time show day-to-day living. That is, until you think about how Western reporters write about extraordinary violence in their very own backyards.
In the West, tragedy after tragedy, the journalist does not forget the agency of the victims, and their humanity. The 2010 London riots, or rebellion, depending on your take: In equal measure the rioters and the fed up shop owners who started cleaning up after the rebellion — the heroic street sweepers. The August 2012 Sikh temple massacre: yes, the violence but also how a rainbow community came together to stand against extremism. The 2012 Colorado movie shootings: the brave boyfriends who shielded their girlfriends and died protecting them. The 2011 Tucson shooting: Gabrielle Giffords and her recovery.
September 11: yes, the terrorists, but also the firemen who died saving others. School shootings in the US: the brave teachers and students who at the risk of life and limb rose in defense of others. The War on Terror: the individual soldiers losing souls, limbs and life in a war that is bigger than them. And Hurricane Katrina: yes, the black people looking for food were portrayed as looters and the whites as survival experts, but most stories also contained something about how the people were trying to keep a sense of community and rebuild their lives.
But when it comes to writing about Africa, journalists suddenly have to make a choice between the extraordinary violence and ordinary life. It should not be a question of either the extreme violence or quiet happy times, but rather a question of telling the whole story within an event, even when tragedy is folded within tragedy. There are activist organizations in the Congo standing against rampant war and against rape as a weapon. The tide of the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 turned because there were ordinary people in the slums and villages organizing against it — that is, people who stood on the right side of history as opposed to ethnicity — in the same way Americans across the racial spectrum stood last year with the American Sikh community.
In any situation, there are those who perpetrate and those who, defenseless and weak, still stand up at great cost for what is right or just. It is the nature of humanity – that is why we are still here, as a species. We struggle often against forces stronger than ourselves. Sometimes we triumph and just as often we fail. The question for Western journalists is this – when it comes to Africa, why do you not tell the whole story of the humanity at work even in times of extreme violence?
* Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat (Melville, 2011) and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi (Melville, 2013).The article was originally published at the blog Africa is a country.