30 April 2012

Shifting the Story While Keeping the Author

The latest video from Mama Hope, African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes began making the rounds last week. The same NGO produced the very smart Alex Presents: Commando. Myself and others were generally positive about the short where a young boy narrates the Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle Commando.

The aid social media space buzzed once again for a video that features four men tearing down Hollywood stereotypes of African men. Elliot Ross was not so impressed by the new video. He wrote in Africa is a Country:
Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.
Ross's post expands on Lidya Polgreen's recent tweet:

To combat stories that focus on pity, Mama Hope and others are mounting a campaign to tell positive stories. A Day Without Dignity is in some part connected to this movement. The focus on local champions was to tell stories of people of capability rather than in need of foreign assistance. While the stories are quite short on making into regular media stories and NGO posters, the problem is also a matter of the author.

If the same people who are telling the stories of pity decided to tell stories of hope, what changes is the story but not the storyteller. A part of the reason why a single narrative has developed is because there is a single author. The story of countries in Africa, whether it is news, film, or literature continues to be largely authored by Westerners for a Western audience.

In some part, this is due to the fact that the author has an understanding of his or her audience. Nick Kristof says he intentionally includes Western protagonists or bridge characters in his work because it provides a stronger connection to his audience. Pieces without the character are less read than ones with him or her.

As long as the global north insists on telling the story of the global south we will run into the same problems that come with a lack of local social and cultural understanding. We access our news and information from a localized source because of its understanding of the landscape for a given story. If it is politics in West Virginia, the best sources are going to be people who cover the political landscape of the state.

Why do we expect that level of local reporting from our own countries and others that make up the global north, but do not question it for Somalia, India and Bolivia? One of the problems is due to the changing media landscape. Newspapers have less money and are pulling what they consider to be less essential foreign correspondants. No surprise that the first to cut are in South-east Asia, Africa and South America.

Laura Seay writes in Foreign Policy:
Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa? Part of the problem has to do with the limited number of journalists assigned to cover the continent. Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent -- more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment's notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country.

She points to instances where there are single correspondents for regions like East Africa and bureau chiefs for all of Africa. Could you imagine a New York Times bureau chief for all of North America with a few regional correspondents? The news quality would suffer immensely. People would turn to other sources that can provided the necessary depth and understanding that will provide context for the reporting.

Why then is it acceptable for one person to cover all of East Africa and be the main source for a newspaper? No matter how good someone is as a writer and reporter, it is immensely hard to cover Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan with adequate depth.

The authors of stories will change. Telling positive stories is useful. Lee Crawfurd points to a recent study that shows how Sub-Saharan African countries are receiving less international investments when measured against comparable economies in other parts of the world. In part, this may be due to the way people see SSA. If they only hear of rape, war, and corruption, private investors can think twice about how much to invest in Zambia.

In a way, this is the exact same discussion about development at large. Some argue for a larger effort to affect change through outside intervention; another group wants grass root support, another calls for the complete end of outside interference, and so on. Much like the aid debate, there is a role for all to play. We all can play the excellent TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie and share Wainaina's "How to Write About Africa" to show what is possible and tell of the damage of the current narrative structure.

However, I challenge you to find many people in the United States who know the two authors. Some may know about Adichie, but that is probably because they herd about her book from Oprah. Right now, the likes of Oprah, George Clooney and Nick Kristof are the holders of the narrative of Africa. They reach the largest audience who then support aid based on the narrative that is spun by these few authors.

The authors do need to change. It will not happen suddenly. Rather, the people and organizations that have the greatest reach can begin to make important shifts. They can given time for others to contribute on their own space. Kristof can share local reporting with his 1 million + Twitter followers. Oprah can share stories that are not about her school in South Africa, but of locally developed and run schools in South Africa.

As the stories told by the same authors shift the space will be created for local authors to take over. Much like a good NGO, storytellers of the global south who are from the global north should be working to put themselves out of a job. There will always be foreign correspondents. An outsider's view can have some value, but it should not be the only author of others' stories.

What do you all think? AIC can get really into the academic analysis of issues that may go far at times, but there is something to consider about the point of actively telling positive stories. The stories change, but the storytellers are the same. Ross is right in his analysis of the video, but he should not forget the audience. If media makers have the awareness of Ross with the understanding of the present audience, they can begin to change the dominant single narrative to a decentralized and diverse multi-narrative. This can be done in part by engaging in conversations about how to do it and encourage more humility in telling storytelling.

The ability to take hold of the the story of an entire continent is privilege defined. We who hold that power should do everything possible to breakdown the privilege.