By Oscar Okwaro Plato
One consistent thing about the New York Times coverage of Africa for the last one hundred years has been its paucity and inadequacy in portraying the continent, in comparison with other major regions of the world. By any measurement and standard, Africa has been the most ignored region of the world.
Similarly consistent is that the little African coverage that escapes the gatekeepers and makes it to the pages of this venerable paper has been characterised by pessimism and unforgivable cynicism.
A few articles by one of its former editors, now a special columnist for the paper, Nicholas Kristof, written within the last few years, provides a window into this history of Afro-pessimism, cynicism and distortion.
Judging by the headlines of at least some of his articles, this NYT writer may have intended to draw attention to the problems ravaging Africa and Africans today.
The writer may have even have been trying to sympathise with the continent, a friend attempting to twitch international public consciousness about Africa and the many problems plaguing the continent.
But, with friends like Nicholas Kristof, Africa does not need enemies. In his op-ed piece, also published in NYT satellite publications like the International Herald Tribune, we see a replay of the old Western media theme which portrays Africa as the continent where nothing, or almost nothing, works.
Africa is broken, Kristof declares, and invites the West to repair it. This is the kind of portrayal that pushes the continent and anything African to the margins of international public consciousness. Reinforcing that perspective which the writer developed after a few days’ stay in the continent, he says: “Africa itself has largely failed, so it’s time to rethink this continent.” His assessment about the overall state of the continent is as bizarre as the solution he prescribes.
He seems to have very little faith in what Africans can do for themselves. That is probably why he subjects Eritrea, which is driven by an abiding faith in self-reliance, to a savage treatment. He sees salvation as coming from the West, not from within Africa.
Then, for good measure, using a series of sweeping but unsupported statements, he condemns the continent on a region by a region basis. “Central Africa has been a catastrophe for up to a decade”; “West Africa seems caught in an expanding series of civil wars”; and the Horn of Africa regimes are starving their peoples.
He reserves some of that intellectual savagery for a few of the nations. For some bizarre reasons, he sees Africa’s baby nation, as a representative of the older African states. He views Eritrea, which came out of a 30-year-old war of independence only a little over a decade ago, as the continent’s “window into what went wrong.”
He alleges that Eritrean parents starve their children the same way its government starves its people and rapes its women. All these sociological and political observations after a five-day visit to this Red Sea nation, just for being at the forefront in the struggle for women’s rights, and for using every resource it can mobilise to help its IDPs and famine victims.
What sweeping statements based on very little direct knowledge about a complex society with a long history! The question is: How do these wild assertions pass the fact checkers, the copy editors, and the editors of NYT, unless it is the media house’s philosophy and perception of the continent?
Other nations served up for such savage treatment are the Congo, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia and Somalia.
Good intentions aside, articles like those by Nicholas Kristof, soaked in pessimism, sautéed in cynicism and marinated in condescension about the African experience, can only repel, not attract people to Africa.
Who wants to have anything to do, much less invest anything, in a continent where the author is saying nothing works? In fact, Kristof’s writing is a good example that reveals the role of the American media in the marginalisation of Africa, and the devaluation of anything African.
People wonder why such a central region of the world is the most marginalised in the world today. The answer is, at least partially, in the works of “parachute journalists” (Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in an op-ed in Al-Jazeera called him “Kristof: The Journalist as Tourist”, July 9, 2012) who go in for a very short time with little direct knowledge of the nations, their cultures, and peoples, yet make strong assertions when they fly out a short time later – sometimes measured in hours.
Let us look at another angle of Kristof’s rant. In a stunning mix of self-righteousness and ignorance, he lectures African parents on parenting.
In Ethiopia, he says, his heart was broken when he saw “healthy parents cradling skeletal children”. In his attempt to understand this big “puzzle,” he says, “I asked how the family ate”. He made the big “discovery” that in rural societies in the region, “the man eats first, and then the children and the wife eat together”.
He offers his grand solution to this African problem.
“We [the West] need not just more food but, above all education so that … families eat together and understand the need to look out for their youngest members.”
In Eritrea, he meets a 15-month old boy “who came within a whisker of starving to death”. However, he discourages potential donors from coming to the aid of this starving Eritrean child because his mother looked “healthy and plump” and “she was wearing a nice dress and had purple nail polish on her toenails.”
It is a shame that such a journalist would go into societies that he knows very little about, and make so many unsubstantiated assertions based on a few isolated, out of context, bits and pieces of sociological facts.
The bottom line is that this kind of coverage only reinforces the distorted image of Africa that the international media has been cultivating in the minds of most Americans.
Some of those of us who have been following the NYT’s coverage of Africa closely have been hoping that the paper will grow out of its past, one characterised by a perspective that sees Westerners as the motive force in the history of the African people.
In its attempt to justify the Scramble for and Partition of Africa during the mid 1880s and support European colonialism of the continent, the NYT described the African as “incapable of developing or even retaining the benefits” of colonialism.
Ten years later, when one of those European powers, the Italians, successfully penetrated part of the Horn of Africa, the paper hailed the event as “a conquest for civilization and Christianity over barbarism and savagery, over unbelief, over habits of ferocity, over brutal ignorance of every human law, religion, social and civil”.
In the 1960s, during a crucial era in the history of Africa, and the decades that followed it, NYT continued to exhibit the same attitude towards the continent’s effort to be free, especially through armed struggle, though the tone was a little restrained.
As a result, African movements actively engaged in the decolonisation process, through armed or peaceful means, from South Africa to Eritrea, from Algeria to Mozambique, had a hard time getting space or fairness on the pages of America’s leading newspaper.
However, there is one silver lining in this unending stretch of media cloud: Nicholas Kristof serves as a good reminder that Africans should not let others, especially those who know very little about African culture and history, define who they are.
It looks the African story will continue to be distorted until the continent develops its own media resources strong enough to be heard – its own Al Jazeeras and NYTs, in both broadcast and print. Nicholas Kristof is more dangerous to Africa than a nuclear-armed Iran.
Okwaro Oscar Plato is an analyst with Gravio Consulting.