Signs the journalism on Africa you’ve just encountered is trash

If more than one of these apply to your media source, you're probably not getting your information from the most reliable place.

Radio technician. Ghana. Image credit Arne Hoel via The World Bank Flickr (CC).

You may already have accepted that those images of swollen potbellies underneath protruding ribs, those sticky flies sitting on the starving child’s eyebrows and lips, those panoramic views of refugee camps are not the be-all and end-all of Africa. Or those unclear references to Africa which suggest it’s a monolith, or even worse, a country. You may have accepted that all these, some of which are not inaccurate in some places, don’t provide the full picture. A picture which, if it were genuine, would reflect a continent of diverse peoples and ideas, varied standards of living (including horrendous poverty and unbelievable inequality) yet infinite potential, a picture of an eclectic mix of things good and bad.

Besides flies, potbellies and continental monoliths, here are some other telltale signs of simplistic and often pathetic attempts to cover Africa. If more than one of these apply to your print, online or broadcast journalism source, you’re probably not getting your information from the most reliable place.

1. Darkness, darkness everywhere

If you come across a description of Africa as the “dark continent,” Africa having a “dark history,” especially if you come across Conradian references to “the heart of darkness,” it may suggest the journalist relies too heavily on a book of fiction written in 1902 and is unlikely to have spoken to many people on the ground. Also, all this “dark” this and “dark” that business, feels just more than a little racist.

2. African sunsets, African skies

Only in Africa do news reports sometimes wax lyrical about golden African sunrises, molten lava African sunsets, azure African skies… I can assure you: The sun in Africa is the same sun as the rest of the world. The sky is exactly the same sky too. Trees are trees in Africa, not African trees. “Plumes of smoke went up, smothering the Japanese sky in Fukushima.” If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is — and for Africa it’s no different.

3. They need a reason to kill each other?

Bill Maher recently interviewed the New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman on his show and Maher asked why it seems “in Africa… [there are] wars for no apparent reason… for the sake of.” Gettleman then indicated that LRA leader Joseph Kony’s insurgency might fit that category since he can’t be bought, he can’t be reasoned with and he has no ideology. I found it curious: Kony anointing himself as a messiah and calling his organization the Lord’s Resistance Army still didn’t qualify enough for Gettleman’s definition of an ideology. This sounds a lot like someone who’s watched that scene from The Dark Knight where Alfred (Michael Caine) tries to explain the Joker’s psychopathic personality to Bruce Wayne using the example of the Bandit from Burma. Forget the layers upon layers of background to Kony’s rise, including the terrible atrocities against civilians of the Acholi districts in Northern Uganda by rebels and the government since as early as 1986. It may come as a surprise, but no — wars don’t just happen for the sake of, in Africa. Like everywhere else, they have a context. Colonialism was real. So was apartheid. These phenomenon, imposed from the outside, have had a lasting effect on every thread of the fabric of society, from Morocco to Sudan, Ghana to South Africa. The continent cannot be reported accurately without recognition of these legacies. Any piece of journalism that doesn’t — is not worth trusting. We remember The American Civil War, The Russian Revolution, World War II, The Holocaust — and factor them into how they affect realities on the ground today. Africa’s history is no different.

4. They speak English?

Colonialism brought European languages to Africa. Any report that gives even the vaguest indication of surprise that this Angolan speaks fluent Portuguese, or this Ivorian speaks fluent French, or that Zimbabwean speaks perfect English — should be mocked.

5. Can’t understand ’em

When you do come across a news report that has an African interviewee speaking English, but still find the speech subtitled, ask yourself why heavily-accented factory workers from Glasgow, protesters in Belfast, or even the Australian PM Tony Abbott aren’t subtitled too.

6. All dictators are equal, but some dictators are more equal than others

Confident, unapologetic use of the terms “Banana Republic” or “Tinpot Dictatorship” tend to feature heavily when it comes to Africa in the mainstream. Not that there aren’t many, far too many — but if a news source is going to call one dictator a dictator — it should call all dictators dictators. Ask yourself, how many times has the d-word been used by your news source when referencing U.S. and European-allied absolute monarchs in the oil-rich Gulf? If the polite “strongman” or “pragmatist” or “reformer in a traditional society” can apply to them, it can apply to African leaders too.

7. No potholes — it’s a miracle!

Rwanda has been through a lot. It’s a nation that’s making big strides on many fronts, particularly economically. But the next time you read something about the lack of potholes in Kigali and the miracle that the roads and buildings are so incredible, so soon after the genocide, consider this: What the hell do potholes have to do with hacking someone to death with a machete? Nazi Germany had great infrastructure and probably zero potholes. The Tibetans have few roads, and those few probably have very many potholes. They’re hardly the most violent people you’ll ever meet.

8. Look, they’re singing and dancing!

If a political report devotes a substantial chunk of attention to tribal dancing, and “vibrant African music” — beware. You wouldn’t sample the nightclubs and “vibrant American music” in Adams Morgan when doing a piece on Democrats and Republicans arguing over the U.S. budget. Just like the sky is the sky in Africa and not the African sky, music is music in Africa and not African music. And if music wasn’t vibrant, well then it’s probably not music.

9. What do you think about Obama?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen or read a western reporter asking every African they come across what they think of Barack Obama (you know, because he’s black and they are), I’d use the money to travel to Kosovo, or Latvia and ask people there what they think of Mitt Romney, you know, because he’s white and they are.

Further Reading