The Africas And the Complexity of Our Media Problems

Michael Onsando
7 January ,2014

I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending.

– Teju Cole

An article in Al Jazeera talks about how the Western media is always getting the story wrong. It is, more importantly, asking why we instinctively turn to Western Media outlets – as if the rest of the media on the scene is full of monkeys at a typewriter who are yet to figure out who dies in Hamlet.

I’ve been arrested by the idea of how the Africas (the term ‘the Africas’ was coined by Ann Daramola to demonstrate the diversity within Africa) and, more specifically, Kenya (doesn’t) work. I’m wary of the media, all of it. Media from the West, the East, the North, the South and, sometimes, even dead in the Middle. Every media outlet has an agenda (I realise the irony of writing this, and posting it on an online journal). This skepticism of the media is what keeps me out of the media debate on how information is gathered and disseminated. While I agree the Western media gets the Africas horribly wrong, I think we err deeply as well when telling our stories.

Allow me to go back a little, in order to move forward.

A lot of my friends have dropped their English names. The argument is to be reclaiming their heritage. Getting back what was, authentically, African. While this argument is sound and the intent exists, I believe dropping the English part of one’s name is, to a large extent, to deny the complexity of the times within which the Africas exist.

As much as we reject the ways of the acquired part of our identity, we cannot deny the fact that it is deeply embedded within us as well. We would love to find our way back to our roots, to our culture, but the extent to which this culture has been eroded, changed, vilified and manipulated does not allow us to go back. At least not back in the way we imagine it would be. One cannot speak as to how culture within the Africas would have grown or changed had we remained unperturbed for those decades.

The identity of the Kenyan is, as much, defined by the West as it is defined by us. I grew up listening to Eminem, alongside E-sir. On TV I had to sit through hours of Oprah till my sister came in and sat me through hours of Shaka Zulu.

This is the crisis we have.

While we do rigorously fight to define ourselves – as we must – we mustn’t forget  that a definition has successfully been imposed upon and within us. We are not just who we are but who we have been told we are.

And it is not only the personal that is a struggle. We have nations that have to deal with defining who they are and what democracy and survival mean for them while trying to keep from being exploited. Kenya, for example, thought we had it down with our valley of peace under Mwai Kibaki then he was kicked out. Then, five years later, peace was no more. Then, five years later, peace was the tool that was used to bring Uhuru Kenyatta  into power.

Identity is a hard enough nut to crack without having to deal with the surrounding pressures of a global demand for product and a history of colonization.

The burden of identity is always upon the identified.

Chuma Nwokolo

The thing with identity is as individuals and, indeed, as states we must be allowed to find it on our own. One of the most powerful tools of identity is the media. The stories that we read, see, hear and discover all shape the identity formed of others. By virtue of the media being such a powerful tool for identity we must think about how that tool is used and, in effect, what identity we have created.

Upumbafuness has set about trying to start tracking misogyny in the media in Kenya. They work on user submissions and haven’t gained much traction. This is not to say that the media isn’t full of misogyny – it is. One can only guess that the administrators had problems keeping up with updating the blog. However, it has become an interesting digging ground with the few articles it has managed to gather. They range from defending rapists to overt homophobia.

I think what makes me wary about the essays that insist we tell our own story isn’t that they are wrong – they aren’t. It is very important that we have this story told by people who understand the layer, nuances and histories of a place. It’s even more important that the Western media gets the whole superiority complex out of their minds. No, what bothers me is that they all seem to stem from a place where we assume that the media houses here will do such a great job of telling those stories even when we have no evidence of the same.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a famous TED talk called ‘The Danger of a Single Story.” In this talk she speaks of how shocked a roommate of hers was shocked that she listened to Beyonce. As if somehow a young lady from Nigeria must only know of cooking pots and trees. Aamer Rahman in a skit called ‘Workshops for Whitey’ talks about being ‘complimented’ on his English and how condescending and dumb it is. Teju Cole (quoted above) talks about the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. The idea of the Africas being a dark continent that struggles for survival is dumb, and is exactly how the Western media would like to portray it.

However, the reverse  is false as well.

I get particularly uncomfortable when people counter poverty stories with stories of cities and metropolitan areas. While I understand the origin of the reaction, and what work it seeks to do, I don’t think it does that work.  I think the one facilitates in the erasing of the other of vice versa.

All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country.

– More Teju Cole

I’m wary of media – all of it. I think the code of conduct that is taught is just another piece of paper that they read, in order to receive another piece of paper. The idea that an institution owned by the rich and powerful will expose the rich and powerful is slightly laughable. However, if we must think critically about the media (as we must about everything) then we must.

The Western media gets the Africas wrong – all the time, and that sucks. We should point it out and give them hell. In the same breath, media within the Africas gets them wrong as well and one can only hope that we do the same.

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