Africa needs better media coverage

The international media has a woeful ignorance of Africa. Why don't they listen to someone who knows? 
Martyn Drakard | Mar 21 2009 | comment  

Fans wait for the Pope in AngolaAs he flew from Rome to Cameroon for his first African trip, Benedict XVI held a press conference. He spoke of many things relevant to Africa: the credit crisis, its ethical dimension, its social welfare dimension; solidarity between the developed and developing world; corruption; the vibrancy of the faith and energy of the people; how he hopes to implement Catholic social teaching; and a forthcoming Synod of African Bishops. He even rebutted suggestions that he was “lonely” in the Vatican.

Yet what did the media pick up? That the Pope is opposed to condoms as a solution to Africa’s supposedly overwhelming problem: AIDS. And, in fact, he was right to say that condoms are only making the problem worse.

The media slant is that the Catholic Church is run by elderly celibate men who are out of touch with the needs of married couples, “sexually-active” adolescents, and the sick and suffering. Out of touch? Really?

Go to any remote corner of sub-Saharan Africa and, if you find anyone there caring for these people, it will be missionaries, religious brothers and sisters and dedicated lay people. They will be building and running schools, condom-less dispensaries, and orphanages, giving pastoral attention in displacement camps to traumatized war victims and raped women, sinking boreholes and constructing cattle-dips.

It is not easy to say what the “main problem” of Africa is, but it’s not AIDS, any more than the main problem of the developed world is heart disease, cancer, obesity or STDs. These are signs of the deeper problems of self-indulgence and an unhealthy lifestyle. AIDS, too, is a symptom, but of different problems: war, famine, drought, chaotic urban migration and the resulting poverty, lack of medicines and properly equipped medical centres and trained personnel, traditional practices such as wife-inheritance, witchcraft and superstition, and rape as a weapon of war.

Certainly material poverty is ubiquitous in Africa. But the cause is not just AIDS. Poverty is caused by erratic climate patterns; by greedy, corrupt leaders; by conflict over resources; by slow and corrupt bureaucracies; by apathy and a “hand-out” mentality; by land disputes; by ethnic differences exploited by politicians; by illiteracy; by an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, by being pushed around at North-South trade meetings.

These are some of Africa’s “main problems”, but they are seldom mentioned in the international media. Hence, in New York and London, Africa is just AIDS, war and savagery.

What a pity. The media could do so much to portray the real Africa. Every African country has its generation of old men and women. When each of them dies a library will be destroyed. Even if they are illiterate, they have a phenomenal knowledge of the rich local fauna and flora, customs and history, and a sharp understanding of human psychology, unspoilt by television and advertising.

Imagine a Ugandan who has lived through the attack on the Kabaka (the King) and his flight to Britain, the hazardous years of Idi Amin, the bush war of 1980 to 1986, the 20-year insurgency of Joseph Kony and his LRA rebel army. Or a Kenyan who ran errands for the Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s, saw independence granted and 45 shaky years later, lost his land and property in the incredible (to Kenyans) violence of one year ago which pitted tribe against tribe.

Imagine what fascinating stories these people have to tell of courage, sacrifice, adventure, family pride, heroism, political intrigue and personal disillusionment. Is all this to be left only to novelists and as a backdrop to Hollywood films?

Where were the Western media, anyway, except for a handful of hardy journalists, when Rwanda blew up in 1994? Did journalists ever visit neighbouring Burundi which, over the years, has had similar genocidal killings on a slightly less grand scale? How many are chronicling the chaos in eastern Congo where between 4.5 and 6 million people are estimated to have died since the ousting of Mobutu, mainly from starvation and disease, and where thousands of women have been raped and the towns are still crowded with street children and orphans?

And why aren't the media covering the multinationals which dig out precious minerals for the developed world -- like coltan for mobile phones? At the end of the 19th century Africa was plundered for its ivory; now it is tantalum, tungsten, platinum, mahogany and oil. Where do you read about this?

From his regular meetings with bishops and briefings from his nuncios, the Pope knows the joys and the wretchedness of Africa far better than the media, as his addresses in Cameroon and Angola showed during his trip. If anyone is qualified to pontificate about Africa, it is Benedict XVI, not the New York Times and the Guardian.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.

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