When the president of the United States visited his ancestral home, CNN came up with a phrase that President Barak Obama had visited a terror hotbed. This did not go well with Kenyans who quickly took to social media and started the hash tag ‘somebodytelCNN’. Later on CNN apologized to the Kenyan President. But that is not the first time western media has depicted an African country in bad light and the question is why?
Indeed, Western media continue – and will continue – to get coverage of African issues wrong because of their inability to confront this unspoken hierarchy of knowledge and the barriers it generates. Firstly, in this scheme, The Rest is necessarily set up in opposition to The West in resulting coverage, and issues or situations are rarely, if ever, analysed for their intrinsic impact or worth. Events or situations are therefore analysed as what the West is not, and so articles are a process of either reifying or undermining pre-existing assumptions that are either set up in history books or in other literature about Africa in general or the phenomenon at hand. So the coverage of the crisis in South Sudan is either used to reiterate or undermine beliefs about ethnicity and its role in conflicts in Africa: where “ethnicity” is a trope that can easily distinguish “Africa” from The West but is now a shorthand so overused and misused that it’s lost its explanatory value.
However there are those who argue that no one else will tell a better African story if African journalists have not yet taken that role. Most African media houses show what is happening in the west. It is not news for the people , by the people. It is showmanship.
Few African media houses are actually trying to cover the continent for the continent. Many have their hands full reporting (or not reporting) news at home and do not think of Africa so much as a story that needs to be covered, but as part of the rest of the world and take their cue on reporting it from the western outlets. As South African photojournalist and film-maker Greg Marinovich notes, most African media stories on Africa are from international wires. Few have bureaus or send reporters outside their home countries, choosing to rely on the same western reporters they delight in bashing.
Look at the coverage of South Sudan, CAR, DRC or Somalia, for instance. Most media on the continent remains supremely oblivious to happenings there. Even in neighbouring nations such as Kenya, which has paid a huge price for Somalia’s instability, media only seems able to regurgitate the Western tropes about fighting terror and Islamic extremists. Few journalists bother to understand the genesis of the two-decade long anarchy or to explain the reasons and wisdom of Kenya’s intervention. In October 2011, many were too busy beating the patriotic drum of war and most have since lost interest in what Kenyan troops are doing across the border.
The fact that cannot be denied is that western media usually sheds a bad light on Africa and that needs to stop. Africa is a continent. It has individual countries that have working economies. Africa is a continent that believes that women can lead and it has had several female presidents. Africa is full of skyscrapers, highways and universities and yes just like everyone in the world, Africa has its poor, terrorists and war but Africa forges on instead of shedding light on it. Germany is not associated with holocaust and America with Vietnam. This means that there are certain things that can be done when it comes to Africa.
Here are four things you can do:
Look at a map. Study the Peters-Gall map projection and try to digest just how enormous Africa is (it’s bigger than you think). For example, I’m currently in Niger. It’s just one of Africa’s 54 countries, yet it’s three times bigger than my home state, California. Get acquainted with the many African countries that nobody talks about. Find out where Gabon is.
Remember we’re all homo sapiens. I had never been to Africa until March 2013, but before I entered I just knew that it couldn’t be a lawless mess everywhere. Humans societies can’t tolerate utter chaos forever. We spend most of our time at peace with each other. It doesn’t feel that way when you look at the news, but it’s a fact. Fundamentally, Africans are just like you and me: they have human DNA, human values, and human aspirations. Remember, we all come from Africa.
Research how fast Africa is modernizing and celebrate it. Yes, much of Africa is still stuck in the Stone Age, but it’s remarkable how fast most of the continent is modernizing. Of course, there are plenty of tourists who will cry when they see Masai warriors tweet from the savanna. Others will wish that Africans stay primitive so we can enjoy them like we would enjoy an animal in a zoo. However, their urge to modernize is the same as ours. Yes, modernization brings new troubles, but overall, it’s a good thing. A very good thing. If it weren’t, we’d all be racing toward the Stone Age.