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The Africa You Need to Know
Posted on Nov 28, 2006
Facts are sacred and the truth must be told. Despite generous human and natural endowments, Africa is home to 32 of the 38 highly indebted countries of the world and remains the only continent where the proportion of the population in extreme poverty is growing. Thirty-six and two-tenths percent of Africans live on less than a dollar a day. Most African countries are at the bottom of the United Nations’ overall human development index, which also measures education, life expectancy, gross domestic product and other indicators of development. The overwhelming majority of African countries are not on target to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals agreed upon at the United Nations in 2000. Sad, but all true.
But those who make a living out of showing Africa’s soiled behind to the world should also be fair enough to show her fair side. Ignoring one side of the story means readers and viewers are getting only half of the story. And half-truth, as the saying goes, is half-lie. To bring it home, it is like saying all there is to America is Hurricane Katrina, Skid Row, the Oklahoma City bombing, congressmen and congressional pagers, serial killers, child molesters and snipers. It is like airing only “American Justice,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “Dark Heart: Iron Hand,” “Lock-Up,” “Skeleton Stories” and “To Catch a Predator” in Africa and implying somehow that this is America. Yes, bad things happen everywhere, not only in Africa!
Carol Pineau highlights this lopsidedness in the documentary “Africa Open for Business”: “Yes, Africa is a land of wars, poverty and corruption. The situation in places like Darfur, Sudan, desperately cries out for more media attention and international action. But Africa is also a land of stock markets, high-rises, Internet cafes and a growing middle class. This is the part of Africa that functions. And this Africa also needs media attention, if it is to have any chance of fully joining the global economy.”
Ezekiel Makunike addresses the same concerns in “Out of Africa: Western Media Stereotypes Shape Images.” “We hear about famines and coups, but not the rejuvenation of its cities and the cultural vitality of its village life ... about oppression and massacres, but not education, economic self-help and political development ... about poaching and habitat destruction, but not ongoing active efforts at conservation, reforestation and environmental awareness.”
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The study concluded that “one would have expected the New York Times and the Washington Post to make an effort to inform American citizens and policymakers in a much more balanced, detailed, and fair manner. Failure to address this issue will contribute to an increase in Afro-pessimism in America.”
The 2005 study by Boston University of Africa news coverage also revealed nothing about fewer civil wars, economic growth or increased access to education on the continent. Disasters in Somalia, Rwanda and West Africa dominated, while transitions to democracy in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and elsewhere were ignored.
Also grievously ignored by the Western media is the fact that a good number of African countries have made real progress over the last few years. In 2005 alone, Africa posted an unprecedented growth of 4.5 percent, which prompted Haiko Alfeld, Africa director at the World Economic Forum, to declare that the African continent has “emphatically and irreversibly turned the corner.”
In its review of 2005, a year widely acclaimed as “The Year of Africa,” the World Economic Forum reports “a new resolve [by Africans] to promote the African business and investment climate. Many African countries extended economic reforms and put in place structures to fight corruption.” Really? Will someone please tell the whole world that Africans are capable of helping themselves, and that they are not helpless, hapless and hopeless?
The report goes on to say: “A key development on the business front was the rapid increase in Chinese and to some extent Indian investment in African countries. In just a few years, trade and investment between China and Africa has tripled, with the pace of such engagement becoming particularly vigorous during 2005.
“The trend has continued into 2006, as has the phenomenon of South African business expansion into the continent.” And what is more, the report says, “These positive trends seem set to continue beyond 2006, given their long-term nature.” Is anyone listening?
Africa indeed has turned the corner. In the last five years, Mozambique has reduced its poverty level from 70 percent to 55 percent and has doubled the number of its children in school. Kenya has introduced free primary education, which has brought 1.2 million children back into school there. In Tanzania, 1,000 new schools have been built and 18,000 teachers recruited to enable the nation to achieve the goal of primary education for all in 2006—nine years before the target date of 2015.
Uganda has reduced HIV from 20 percent in 1991 to about 6.5 percent in 2001, showing that with political will, the tide of an epidemic can be turned. In 1973, only three African heads of state were elected. Today, 40 countries have had multiparty elections. Two years ago major conflicts affected 19 countries in Africa. Today they affect only three countries.
The World Bank reports that countries like Senegal, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Uganda and Ghana are on course to meet the target of halving poverty by 2010—five years ahead of schedule. Botswana, with soaring literacy rates, has doubled, some say tripled, its school enrollment figures. South Africa boasts of sustained economic growth. Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament in the whole world. Even war-torn Liberia achieved the distinction of putting the first elected African female head of state into the global club of female heads of government.
These giant strides are, however, lost in what has been described as “disaster pornography,” a disturbing trend in Western media tradition, which tallies with Ezekiel Makunike’s assertion that “for American readers or viewers to be interested, news out of Africa must be negative. It must conform to the traditional stereotypes in its spotlight on grotesque and sensational events. It must show misery, corruption, mismanagement, starvation, primitive surroundings and, as in the case of Somalia, chaos and outright anarchy.”
Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal in “Disaster Pornography From Somalia” tell of “pictures of grotesque human degradation, with foreign angels of mercy ministering to starving children, juxtaposed with images of trigger-happy teen-age looters.”
Putting an indelible question mark on disaster journalism, they say, “Reduced to nameless extras in the shadows behind Western aid workers or disaster tourists, the grieving, hurting and humiliated human beings are not asked if they want to be portrayed in this degrading way.” Has anyone ever considered this?
They also reveal that “Somali doctors and nurses have expressed shock at the conduct of film crews in hospitals. They rush through crowded corridors, leaping over stretchers, dashing to film the agony before it passes. They hold bedside vigils to record the moment of death. When the Italian actress Sophia Loren visited Somalia, the paparazzi trampled on children as they scrambled to film her feeding a little girl—three times. This is disaster pornography.”
Richard Ngamba, in “Reporting Africa in Western Media Style,” also relates an interesting experience that he had while collaborating with some Western journalists during the filming of the documentary “Darwin Nightmare” in Mwanza City, on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. He says: “... in the documentary, it is claimed that the presence of the fishing industry has caused the outbreak of street children in Mwanza, with most of them eating packing materials used by fish processors to pack their fillets, because they can’t afford to buy fish.
“Yes, in this documentary you can see street children gathered at Kamanga ferry area in Mwanza, trying to cook their food with their faces showing sorrow and grief, but this is a fiction which was directed and paid for by the authors of this documentary.
“The facts is that all street children seen in this film cooking food were paid between Tshs 1000/- and Tshs 5000/- by the producers of the film and then directed to do what they are doing, paving the way for my guests to film what they then termed ‘striking images.’ ”
Strange and disturbing revelations indeed! Are these “striking images” of disaster actually man-made “pseudo-events,” planned, contrived, concocted and synthesized for believability? Daniel Boorstin describes pseudo-events as “more vivid, more attractive, more impressive, and more persuasive than reality itself.”
So what is the cost of these attractive, impressive, persuasive, enticing and highly believable “pseudo-events” to Africa?
Wilson Rutayisire, post-genocide director of Rwanda Information Services, says “the way Africa is covered in the international media is not only charged with a partisan view but also responsible, to no small measure, for the perpetuation of prejudices that exacerbate Africa’s problems.
“Although the media coverage Africa receives is not the principal cause of the problems Africa faces, it provides the superstructure within which Africa is perceived and foreign policies on Africa are prescribed.”
According to Carol Pineau, it “comes at a high cost, even ... the cost of lives. Stories about hardship and tragedy aim to tug at our heartstrings, getting us to dig into our pockets or urge Congress to send more aid. But no country or region ever developed thanks to aid alone. Investment, and the job and wealth creation it generates is the only road to lasting development. That is how China, India and the Asian tigers did it.
“Yet while Africa, according to the U.S. Government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation, offers the highest return in the world on direct foreign investment, it attracts the least. Unless investors see the Africa that is worthy of investment, they won’t put their money into it. And that lack of investment translates into job stagnation, continued poverty and limited access to education and health care.”
Rwandan President Paul Kagame says: “The constant negative reporting kills the growth of foreign direct investment. There has even been a suggestion that it is meant to keep Africa in the backyard of the global economy.”
Gleneagles Background and History: “Africa—Some Key Facts”
World Economic Forum on Africa: “The Year of Africa in Review”
G.V. Kromah: “Africa in the Western Media: Cycle of Contra-Positives and Selective Perceptions”
David Whitehouse: “Genetic Study Roots Humans in Africa”
Tim Stoddard: “African Statesmen: Western Media Should Look at Continent’s Bright Side”
Thabo Mbeki: “Who Will Define Africa?”
Chris Thomson: “Only Bad News From Africa”
Abraham McLaughlin: “Africans Ask: ‘Why Isn’t Anyone Telling the Good News?’”
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