How to Write About Africa

A digression from normal “Life in Juba” reporting (which I’ll return to in a bit as I have neglected updates the past few days due to lack of internet), Kristof this week focused his column on “How Should We Cover Africa?

It’s an intriguing question, and I like that it comes from Kristof – a man who is both loved and loathed by those in the aid world.  Those who love him claim he highlights issues they care about, focuses attention of the global media and readers on issues, and actually provides suggestions to the question, “What can we do?”  Those who loathe him claim he is just another “drop in” journalist, who writes about things he doesn’t fully understand, misconstrues complex issues, supports unsustainable and misdirected projects, and generally gets in the way of those doing “real aid work.”

But I think he brings up a good point in terms of journalists/people writing about Africa – it’s almost impossible to strike that balance between writing about the horrible things that do go on (poverty, war, famine), but also balance it with the simple idea that Life Goes On.  International development is full of people who (self-righteously) all roll their eyes and bemoan people who think “Africa” is one big country, and complain how it’s just portrayed as starving kids with flies in their eyes. But sadly, that negative image is often what gets funding, that’s what attracts readers and donors and charity.  And balancing the two sides of the coin is tricky.

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this conundrum, but one thing I try to do from time to time is remind readers that the grim scenes I portray in Sudan or Congo are not representative of Africa as a whole. That’s essentially the aim of this Sunday piece, to provide a broader context and a reminder that plenty is going on that is very hopeful. But this kind of balancing is invariably occasional and incomplete. It’s already very difficult to get readers interested in Africa (whenever I write about Africa, my column readership plunges), and a good news column not tied to a crisis (“Benin Thrives!”) would frankly have zero readership.

I try not to write here too much about the more depressing things in South Sudan, or how contrary/ironic the realities of expat living are (I leave that for the “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like” blog).  Because even though I’m living in a country where war in the north seems imminent, and kids die for stupid reasons, and women are sold in marriage for cattle, the reality I deal with every day is people going about their daily lives. Kids play football. Moms cook dinner. Neighbors talk about their day. Balancing these microcosm images and realities of how they align with the larger macrocosm ideas, without removing a sense of autonomy of people, is hard to adequately portray.

And  right now, 10 million people are excited that after 50 years of civil war, later this week – for the first time ever – they will be able to get together and sing their national anthem as a free and independent country .

And that, for a moment, is a beautiful portrayal of Africa.

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