During apartheid’s 1986 declared state of emergency, when I was a neophyte foreign correspondent sneaking in and out of South Africa undercover to report for the BBC, I came across a beautiful saying. One afternoon I went to interview a group of children who had been tortured by the security police. All were badly bruised; some had cuts on their backs where they’d been whipped; one child’s leg was stippled with shotgun pellets.

Across Soweto the police were rounding up anybody they suspected of being involved in antiapartheid protests. A lawyer had been appointed to take statements from the children. Hers was a risky job since lawyers weren’t immune from state terror. After recording the children’s stories, I asked this woman why she risked her own freedom to do this. “We have an expression here,” she told me. “People are people because of other people. It means we are connected. We must look out for each other.”

In two decades of reporting from Africa, I’ve witnessed living proof of this proverb often. From the toughest refugee camp in the deserts of Sudan to the bustling streets of the Johannesburg townships, I’ve been relentlessly overwhelmed by displays of humanity, compassion and generosity.

The Two Stories of Africa

The problem is I don’t see much of this on television. There are exceptions, such as good segments that CNN has produced and the program, “Africa Direct,” which BBC World aired until recently. But usually the Africa of the international camera is a continent of just two stories. In the first, smiling Africans in white jackets serve ice cold drinks to Western tourists at safari lodges. This is the Africa of spectacular wildlife, wonderful sunsets, and genial locals, seen through windows of air-conditioned minibuses. The Africa in which the majority of Africans live is kept at a safe distance, or glimpsed, again through bus windows, on one of those newly popular “township tours.”

The other predominant vision is the disaster zone or, in the cliché most favored by distant headline writers who coin phrases about Africa, it is about “the Heart of Darkness.” In this continent the locals exist in a state of perpetual famine, corruption, disease and warfare. It is this vision of the continent that has been providing stories and journalistic awards for people like me since television news was invented.

I am a disenchanted member of the television Africa corps, tired of hearts of darkness coverage that reduces every African problem to questions about tribalism or native corruption and refuses to recognize sprouts of hope where they exist.

Since the end of colonialism, Western correspondents have stood in front of emaciated Africans or piles of African bodies and used the language of the Old Testament to mediate the horrors to their audiences. That practice began four decades ago, and the template hasn’t changed all that much. For example, no piece from an African disaster zone is complete without the sound bite from a white angel of mercy from one aid agency or another. In doing this, we convince ourselves this helps folks back home “relate” to the stories we are sending them. Rarely do TV journalists pause to contemplate the consequences of this color-coded compassion. Viewers at home are watching (usually) a white reporter and white aid worker, and beyond them almost as backdrops are the wretched African masses. Just as it’s always been and always will be, they think. Thank goodness for our brave reporters and aid workers.

As for the Africans themselves, we hardly think about what it feels like to them, as generation after generation sit on barren, parched ground while well-fed people from faraway dole out charity, take away sound bites and transport your hungry nakedness into sitting rooms thousands of miles away. In this, we are aided and abetted by aid agencies that need our cameras to draw attention to these disasters. It suits both parties to play up the omens of apocalypse. We need the headline; they need the funds.

I have many personal memories of such scenes. Among my least favorite was the sight of the American vice president’s wife, Tipper Gore, descending on Goma as an army of press paraded her compassion in front of a backdrop of Rwandan Hutu refugees. This was after the U.S. government and the American networks for the most part ignored the Rwandan genocide of the previous three months. This complicated story didn’t fit the traditional template, and when the genocide was first reported, coverage reduced a complex political situation to the “typical” story of African tribalism, or as the French President François Mitterrand remarked, the kind of thing that happened in that part of Africa.

Let me add here two important caveats.

  1. I don’t seek to set myself apart from the problem. I’ve made mistakes in the way I’ve told African stories. I am waking up late to this problem.
  2. I don’t for a second believe we shouldn’t report the disasters. And yes, most of the time, international aid agencies do remarkable and much-needed work, as do many of my reporter colleagues. Reporting stories like the conflict in Sierra Leone and the Rwandan genocide demanded enormous bravery.

What profoundly concerns me is the real damage to Africans’ sense of themselves and of their nations’ potential in the midst of journalists’ relentless focus on their misery. Spin back through news tapes—from Congo in the early 1960’s through Biafra, Ethiopia and into Sudan today—and we see how little has changed in our reporting of Africa’s stories.

This is a pity, because during this time a lot has been transformed in Africa. The ground for positive change has never been so fertile as it is today. This isn’t because of anything we’ve done in the West but because of the rise of a new civil society in places like South Africa, Kenya, Liberia and even in deeply troubled Nigeria. Africans are now holding their leaders to account. Anyone who remembers the messes of the 1970’s and 1980’s cannot be but inspired by this new scenario. It isn’t an African renaissance but an awakening, every bit as powerful as the Pan African-ist movement of the 1960’s.

In Kenya, for example, calls to clean up corruption would have had no effect had it not been for a change in government brought about by Kenyans themselves. They voted the crooks out of office. Now the people are dragging their former leaders before a judicial commission of inquiry. Corruption in the new government is being exposed, too. Very little, if any, of this story is found on television in the West. In some very remote parts of the continent, small human rights groups and independent newspapers are building the foundations for civil society. I’d like to see such struggles acknowledged in the Western narrative of Africa.

Tipper Gore, the former vice president’s wife, with members of a CBS News crew in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo courtesy of Moncef Bouhafa.

Changing the African Paradigm

We can—and should—do this by changing our news agenda. Our tendency to portray life on this continent as an unrelenting series of disasters, if not happening then waiting to happen, is as old as news reporting itself. We thrive on drama, and this habit of ours isn’t going to change overnight. But evolving into a different kind of coverage challenges all of us who love Africa and her people and want to see the continent fairly portrayed as a place of hope in this new millennium. To do this, I have a few suggestions.

  • Find African aid workers to speak: These days when I go with my camera to report a disaster I try to find an African aid worker to describe what is happening. If I film a food queue, I make sure to state that the people are here because they don’t have a choice. It’s vital I portray them not as mendicants but farmers, fishermen, people who would be feeding themselves if they could.
  • Have them tell their own stories: We can’t continue with a situation in which most news out of Africa is told almost exclusively through the lenses and voices of Westerners. Someday I hope an African station will stand alongside CNN and BBC World. We can help make this happen by getting our governments to make funding for journalistic training part of their bilateral aid programs to African nations. This training should not be about Westerners lecturing Africans, but should involve diverse groups of journalistic experts from across the globe sharing their skills.
  • Speak to the ingenuity of survival: For those of us who report frequently from Africa, let’s make sure we help our viewers (and listeners and readers) recognize the energy and vitality of this continent. So if there is a story of disaster, let’s not forget the ingenuity needed to survive in such circumstances.

Most of all, as journalists, we need to get past the outdated idea of Africa and its people that many of us bring to this assignment—the feeling that somehow Africans are not quite full citizens of our global community because they are not like us. There will be times when it will be good to bear in mind the South African proverb, “People are people because of other people.”

Fergal Keane, a BBC special correspondent, reports often from Africa.

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