How to write about children in Africa

Children's Radio Foundation's shows are a testament to children’s capacity to be agents for change and to confront critical community issues themselves.

Photo: Children's Radio Foundation.

In early October this year, PBS released the documentary ‘Half the Sky’, based on the book by frequent AIAC target and New York Times journalist, Nicholas Kristof, together with his wife Sheryl WuDunn (a former New York Times journalist) focusing on the lot of girls and women in the Global South. As part of Kristof’s mission to replace their oppression by opportunity, he visits a number of sites. The action usually revolves around Kristof accompanied by a famous American actress. The first stop had to be in Africa, of course.

Kristof visits Sierra Leone where he, along with actress Eva Mendes, takes on the case of a 14-year old girl Fulamatu, who has been raped repeatedly by a next door neighbor, passing as a “pastor.” Kristof and Mendes visit the shelter where the girl was taken by her mother. Over the next few minutes, Kristof proceeds to do his own police work, and takes it upon himself to arrest the rapist. He also counsels the young girl. By the end of the segment however, it is unclear whether the rapist will stay in prison and pay for the crime and whether Fulamatu will be safe (her father throws Fulamatu and her mother out of the house because of the “shame” and attention they bring to the family). The whole ends with an odd scene, with Mendes — who looks as she does not want to be there — saying goodbye to Fulamatu, offering her a necklace and hugging her: “You are so beautiful, brave and strong.” Kristof then moves on to Thailand and Mendes goes back to the US.

Kristof has drawn criticism for his storytelling techniques, his tendency to exoticize cultures, his parachute style of engagement, his disregard for the impact of structural forces and power dynamics and ill-suited solutions. But Kristof is not the first and will certainly not be the last Western reporter who, in his conscientising endeavors, locates himself central to the stories of vulnerable children. Neither will he be the last one to steer his parachute towards Africa.

The category “African children” occupies a rather distinct, almost symbolic position in Western media. Stories about African children as victims of hunger, malnutrition, disease and violence attract quite some attention, compassion, aid and increasingly hands-on ‘help’ from visitors from wealthier Western countries. Interest in the lives of these young people and awareness of the challenges they face is important, not lastly because there are so many of them. Around 50% of sub-Saharan Africans are under 25 years old. They’re also Africa’s “future.” They’ll be running the continent at some point. (As we know this is also becoming a cliché and platitude pulled out at every conference or press conference by self-serving politicians and those undermining public education.) A second reason why these young Africans deserve a spotlight is that they carry the brunt of today’s developmental problems. When it comes to hunger, malaria, malnutrition and poverty, it’s often the children who are most vulnerable. Reporting on the challenges this group faces and thinking of ways to protect and empower them is therefore essential to meaningful development initiatives. Yet the ways in which the media frame and report their lives reveal some fundamental shortcomings that directly relate to the particular position that African children occupy in the collective Western imagination. Here, the child has turned into a ‘type’; a type with a typical and singular story of despair and helplessness. This story started in 1968 with photos of child victims of the Biafran secessionist war and was passionately taken to the global stage by Band Aid’s 1984 ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ campaign which effectively drew global attention and compassion to the victims of the Ethiopian famine. Photographs of perishing children with flies on their faces and desperate stares into the cameras shocked the world, pulling in millions of dollars. The overwhelming momentum of the campaign and its usage of the pictures seem to have set a trend. Having proved their shock — and some would say sensational value — African youth came to serve as the ultimate illustration of disaster and hopelessness. Thirty years after Band Aid’s Campaign, ideas around the typical ‘African child’ as the ultimate victim of drought, famine, poverty and disease have firmly taken root in the Western imagination. Today, the “remember the children in Africa” guilt-trip seems as effective in pushing obstinate European kids to finish their supper as it was during the campaign. Similarly, much of disaster reporting (and NGO funding appeals) on Africa have made use of the African child’s compelling victimhood; from nature, disease and geography casualties to mutilation and abduction targets. To argue that these child victims don’t exist or shouldn’t get outside support would be senseless. As real as the Ethiopian famine was in the 1980s, as real are the devastating effects of malaria, HIV/AIDS, famine, wars and displacement today. The problems are real, the children are real and many are in need of real support. The problem, however, is that the ‘African child’ has become a rather static and one dimensional symbol; a symbol that renders all children in Africa into unclothed, dirty, muddy and powerless creatures. It obscures the wide diversity in children and renders those that do not suffer ‘the African way’ invisible. Like Kristof’s documentary, CNN’s report on ‘The Life of an African Child’ (which aired earlier this summer), is also a case in point. In the report, CNN quantifies the story and presents it as statistics. There is an obvious attraction in telling stories by numbers. Not only is it clear and space efficient, this type of numerical message is more likely to stick with readers. Yet the power of simplicity goes hand in hand with the defect of falsehood. The danger is that in the process of convenient simplifying, a plethora of fictional tales will trump the facts. CNN, for example, tells us that “In Sub-Saharan Africa, 34% of children under five are sleeping under an insecticide-treated mosquito net.” Being close to a third, the 34% is easy to remember. And since even the most couch bound Icelander won’t struggle to grasp the concept of a mosquito net, for those with an interest in African children it’s a story that sticks. But since this figure doesn’t tell us anything about the percentage of children who actually need the net or how this number relates to, say, the situation 5 or 10 years ago, it is bound to spell (out) a whole lot of fiction about its young subjects. Should the reader be alarmed by the implication that two-thirds of Africa’s under 5 year olds are still waiting for their nets? Or should we be delighted that, given the (hypothetical) fact that, say, 70% of all Sub Saharan African under 5 year olds actually need a net and that “34%” represents an increase of — I don’t know — 200% compared to a decade ago, we’re halfway toward a happy ending? Crying for context, the straightforward number smudges the facts. Nevertheless, the report provides a useful and clear oversight of major themes and challenges that youth in Africa face. Contrary to much news on the subcontinent, the report does not fail to uncover the subcontinental variety. To give another example, it contrasts Burundi’s percentage of underweight under 5 year olds (39%) with Swaziland’s (6%), and juxtaposes the primary school teacher per pupil ratio in the Seychelles (1:22) against the Central African Republic’s (1:95). Moreover, it steers clear from the popular disaster focus and expresses some solid optimism. The report tells us that today, the number of African children dying before the age of five has decreased with almost 50% over the past four decades. Especially in the current context of relatively high rates of GDP growth in various countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia as well as Tanzania on the one hand, and hopeful democratic improvements on the other, some cautious cheering would therefore not seem out of place. Isn’t it rather baffling, then, that the report’s single visual illustration shows us an apparently dirt-poor girl, clothed in rags, carrying a muddy torn bottle? Not really; CNN shows the African child that Western audiences came to ‘know’ and expect (ever since Biafra and Ethiopia). The type of child we are used to think and speak for; the ‘voiceless other’ whose imagined life is captured in tables and graphs and whose priorities and solutions we feel capable to define. With half of Africa’s population under 25, it might be about time to pass the microphone to them and listen to what they have to say.

Children’s Radio Foundation (CRF), a Cape Town based non-profit organization, chose to confront the problem by doing exactly that: offering youth not only the microphones, but equipping them with both the media skills and tools that encourage them to think and question critically, vent their concerns, share their stories, advocate their ideas and connect with their peers (in their own languages). Being central to their communities’ developments, young people have stories to tell and relevant opinions to express. What many don’t have is the infrastructure to air and share these ideas. Making use of the continent’s most widespread and penetrative medium — in 2011, over 90% of African households had access to a radio yet only 6.2% of the population logged on to the internet — CRF has been working with local radio stations in Rwanda, Liberia, South Africa, the DRC, Tanzania, Zambia and Ethiopia since 2006. By training voluntary facilitators at community radio stations in producing youth driven radio shows (and providing them with appropriate program curricula), they create sustainable platforms for youth dialogue. Across South Africa alone, CRF works with 12 different community radio stations (from Atlantis to Aliwal North to Moutse) where youth report every week on problems such as alcohol abuse, gang activity or xenophobia and add their voice to debates around issues such as polygamy, corporal punishment and gender equity. Nationwide, SA FM airs ‘The Radio Workshop’, which offers youth a mix of current affairs and infotainment every Saturday at noon. In Tanzania, one of the partner stations is Radio Sauti (which reaches 5 million listeners). Here young Tanzanians have shared their experiences of, for example, how their parents’ conflicts affect them and the meaning of their country’s Constitution. In a broadcast (and audio slide show) from Arusha, streetchildren speak about their daily routines and interactions on the streets. More Westwards, in the DRC, the Congolese broadcaster RTNC made room for the youth show Yoka Biso, where youth explore challenges like educational inequality. Today, Children’s Radio Foundation-trained youth reporters are producing radio shows from 50 different project sites. Far from displaying voiceless victims, the radio shows are a testament to children’s capacity to be agents for change and to confront critical community issues themselves. Far from being misrepresented in some graph or video, youth attempt to reclaim their own stories.

Children’s Radio Foundation productions are accessible worldwide through their website, Facebook page and podcasts on SoundCloud. Photos by Lerato Maduna. More photos here.

Further Reading

Edson in Accra

It happened in 1969. But just how did he world’s greatest, richest and most sought-after footballer at the time, end up in Ghana?

The dreamer

As Africa’s first filmmakers made their unique steps in Africanizing cinema, few were as bold as Djibril Diop Mambéty who employed cinema to service his dreams.

Socialismo pink

A solidariedade socialista na Angola e Moçambique pós-coloniais tornou as pessoas queer invisíveis. Revisitar esse apagamento nos ajuda a reinventar a libertação de forma legítima.