International media reporting on Africa has always been quite… ‘interesting’ [‘Interesting’ is not exactly the right word to use here, but it is difficult to find a word that perfectly encapsulates the mix of imputed expertise, death-trope-making, and naive joy that describes media coverage of Africa. If you have not yet read Binyavanga Wainaina’s article, How to Write About Africa, you really should. It often feels as if some media houses have taken the article to heart, but not in the way it was intended. Rather than use it as a guide of what not to do, it has become an instruction manual to be followed to the letter.I have no wish to spend my time regurgitating the wrongs of this sort of reporting. As, honestly, that is time and effort that I will not be getting back, saying the same things that have been said for centuries, but which seem to continue to fall on unhearing ears. Par exemple:
Africa is not a country. Duh
Africans have agency. Double duh
Africans know stuff. I mean
Africans use the stuff they know to do stuff for themselves.
Or as Dr Kalinga says: This sort of reporting relies on the trope of Africans who only experience circumstances, but never make intellectual decisions to enable things happen for them. It is as if Africans exist as the perpetual object of research, never the agent. We never question the presumptions behind the science, as if science is a tool wielded by non-subjective human beings. Who decides what questions to ask, what is worthy of being explored and who should ask the questions?
It's hard for you to see the difficulty of not just the title but the hypothesis. For hose who have studied/traced media narratives of African pandemics, it embodies tropes of the 'unthinking African' whose life experiences/decisions are circumstantial rather than intellectual.— Chisomo Kalinga, PhD (@MissChisomo) September 3, 2020
However, despite not wanting to go over well-trodden ground, I do want to use a particular story to point out a couple of things.
So for context. The initial news story was headlined, ‘Coronavirus in Africa: Could poverty, explain mystery of low death rate?’ The subscript also described the rates as ‘bafflingly low.’
The story reported on some research done by a group of scientists in South Africa, specifically: ‘scientists at Vaccine and Infectious Disease Analytics unit, at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto.’ [Remember what I said earlier about Africa not being a country?]
After much public derision, the headline was withdrawn and replaced with ‘Coronavirus in South Africa: Scientists explore surprise theory for low death rate‘ The story was also now accompanied by the following retraction notice:
‘The headline and article have been updated to better reflect what the scientists said. It was not our intention to cause offence.’
So, here are my points. First, for the avoidance of doubt, the above is not an apology. At the bare minimum, an apology contains an acknowledgement of harm, maybe some expression of remorse or regret. I have written elsewhere about the proliferation of non-apologies. So, ‘It was not our intention to cause offence,’ is not an apology. But this ignores the fact that the core of the issue here is not offence. Which brings me to my second point. News houses need to be accurate in their reporting, especially when they are trusted and relied upon for that accuracy. The scientists in Soweto may be right in their hypothesis, but it would be inaccurate and unscientific to extrapolate their results – which, according to the story, they have not yet gotten – to a continent of 55  countries with a population of over one billion people. A population 20 times as large as the country in which the scientists were hypothesising.
The next point is related to the previous one. There is a pattern of critique and many constant retractions of headlines on African stories and we should reflect on what that tells us about reporting on and researching Africa. There is a history here of how Africa is viewed and researched and who is listened to about Africa and what is considered ‘authentic Africanness.’ It is a long history and not a good one. Ignoring that history continues to reproduce it in new ways.
If you have to keep issuing an apology re your Africa coverage every so often, then know that something is structurally off in your organization. I wonder what that might be. https://t.co/bvU0kgcopP— Grieve Chelwa (@gchelwa) September 3, 2020
The point is that words have meaning. But the impact that words have, is very dependent on who speaks them. There is a downside to this kind of inaccurate reporting. I emphasise inaccurate. It is not offence. Offence is immaterial. Some will be offended and some will not. That is the way of the world. Harm is what matters. When we rely on the news for accuracy and trustworthy information, a long history of this sort of reporting affects a whole plethora of things. Funding choices made by research bodies. Decisions about what data is relevant to work with. Choices by researchers about who to partner with. Whose advice to take. Collaboration within and outside sectors. International loans. Who is made to take an English language test. Which country is told to quarantine. Who is listened to – the local practitioner who knows her stuff or the international ‘expert’ who thinks a well-known hairstyle was named for the coronavirus?
There are significant long-term effects of trope-laden inaccurate reporting on Africa. But we should take those effects seriously in a nuanced way, and not fall into the middle-class habit of splashing pictures of lavish African wealth across social media. ‘The Africa They Don’t Show You’ style. We should be listening to local experts who know about the areas they work in. Some good people to follow on Twitter for example, are Nanjala Nyabola and Grieve Chelwa. I am not sure anyone can be an expert in ‘Africa.’ And the presumptions that underlie the idea that they can be, are also implicated in the long history I mention above.
If you do want nuanced commentary on Africa and COVID-19, a good place to start would be the conversation below between Dr Simukai Chigudu and Professor Sophie Harman. Dr Chigudu explains how media reporting and academic speculation on Africa from outside Africa, relies on tropes, long-standing attitudes of catastrophizing Africa, and feelings of African inevitable morbidity and pathology. Inevitability in analysis takes us to the end point [i.e. many will die in Africa], rather than an analysis that moves through the possible steps of the pandemic [in this case a pandemic, note that reporting on elections follows the same pattern]. A good analysis should proceed by taking into account the high level of variables on the continent in and within different countries.
Because, Africa is not a country. Duh.