When the only news in Africa is about violence
Posted Sunday, March 10 2013 at 02:00
The extreme view, exemplified by our visitor, thinks of news from Africa in terms of strife, thus creating the popular illusion in Europe and America that Africa is a strange place inhabited by famine-ravished inhabitants who, when their bodies regain a little strength, turn on each other with machetes and guns, gripped by atavistic passions.
The man who told us he was a foreign correspondent based in Kenya was slim and tall. He had applied some Vaseline on his completely bald head, which now - under the early morning sun - shone with some urgency. His flaming beard covered all his face, so that, as he spoke, one had the uncanny sense of watching a talking hole.
As with many news hounds, he wore khaki trousers and jacket with multiple pockets, out of which all kinds of paraphernalia associated with his trade stuck out: cameras, lenses, IPods, notepads, pens, microphones. “I work for the Bygone Times based variously in New York, London, Berlin and Paris, among other Western capitals,” he said in a deep timbre. “I want to spend a few days in your village trying to figure out what is wrong with the Kenya election.”
“Wrong?”asked a chorus of voices, Old Nyati’s among them, “we thought it was going well!”
“Well,” replied the man, “that is what is wrong. There is nothing to report. No news.” A despondent look came over his face as he pronounced the last phrase.
In spite of Old Nyati’s warning against it, the villagers nicknamed the journalist all kinds of names. Some called him ‘Burning Face’. Others ‘Robot Man’ in honour of the numerous gadgets he carried on his person. Still others referred to him as ‘Talking Head’, for the man loved to talk, mostly expounding on his theories about Africa’s proclivity for violence and chaos.
“It is the weather,” he told us one evening, “too hot to maintain one’s cool”. We were gathered in his yard, sitting around a fire, as had become the practice since his arrival, listening to tales and theories that amused, irritated or annoyed us. He kept quiet for a while, stoking the fire with a stick. “It is abnormal, this calm in Kenya…”
“Why don’t you report what you see…if the situation is peaceful, you report that… if it is violent, you report that?” I asked him. “Is news only about violence, strife…?” He looked at me, the flickering flames making his face even redder. “My readers think so, especially about news from Africa.” He kept quiet for a while, again contemplating and stoking the fire. “News from Africa has to have drama,” he said matter-of-factly.
As the visitor delved into another one of his long winded theories about Africans, violence and news, I thought about the two extreme views on writing the African story. One, articulated by many African ideologues, claimed that only Africans could honestly tell the African story, and frowned upon writing stories of war and strife.
Such stories, they insist, are part of a Western conspiracy to show that nothing good can ever come from Africa. This is the Hakuna matata in Africa school of thought, unless, of course, the matata is a creation of Western media. So, according to this group, it would seem that the mass rapes in the Congo, runaway crime in South Africa, famine in the Horn of Africa, bombings in Nigeria, corruption, etc, are creations of Western media.
The other extreme view, exemplified by our visitor, thinks of news from Africa in terms of strife, thus creating the popular illusion in Europe and America that Africa is a strange place inhabited by famine-ravished inhabitants who, when their bodies regain a little strength, turn on each other with machetes and guns, gripped by atavistic passions.
The African story must be told just like stories from elsewhere, neither avoiding the tragedies nor focusing solely – or as in our visitor’s case searching - for them. Distorting the African reality by avoiding negative stories or exaggerating them by ignoring the positive ones does not advance the interests of the continent.
“Surely,” Robot Man announced hopefully at the end of his speech, “violence will occur at some point… if it did not happen during the polling, it will happen when the winners are announced, or when they are being sworn in, or during the first debate in Parliament…or when they meet in parliament bathrooms…” The prospects for violence seemed to lift his spirits. Then he suddenly stood up, camera in hand, mimicking a machete swishing sound and the crackling of an automatic rifle, clicking away with his camera at the make-believe mayhem.
The author is a Monitor contributor based in Nairobi.