The absolute necessity to tell our own stories

WHEN I was growing up my grandmother encouraged me to listen to local radio almost every day. She also insisted that I listened to regional and international radio stations. 

WHEN I was growing up my grandmother encouraged me to listen to local radio almost every day. She also insisted that I listened to regional and international radio stations. 

By the same token, my father encouraged me to read local newspapers and to watch television programmes, particularly those that made a reference to international affairs. 

Incidentally, I became a fan of familiar names such as Tim Sebastian, the first presenter of HARDtalk - a flagship BBC television programme which started airing on BBC World News in 1997; Lawrence Zeiger, also known as Larry King, a veteran American television and radio presenter who presented Larry King Live on CNN. I was young but I adored the experience.

As a young man I was pressed by this oblique training to want to know more and to understand what was going on not just around my immediate vicinity but also as far as the oceans extended. 

I was fascinated by what these media outlets reported. Thereupon, as I read, listened and watched the world’s media tell stories I learned that something was not quite right. I learned that African stories were being told with a complete lack of a sense of balance as if these media outlets had ulterior motives to continue casting Africa in a negative facade. 

In August 2011, for example, The Economist ran a pictorial headlined ‘Hunger in the Horn of Africa’. In its pictorial were thirty-two pictures that exhibited the dire hunger that people in that part of Africa were experiencing. 

Did it matter that such images were portrayed as negatively as they were, or that Western audience was destined to consume mostly negative images, thus resulting in negative perception of Africa? 

Yes, it did matter then as it does now. I am not under any illusions that The Economist was wrong to publish those pictures; in fact I commend them for bringing this story to the world. 

What enrages me, however, is the failure of prominent media outlets to report positive stories that come out of Africa with the same amount of conviction and resources. 

It is a near certainty that when the word famine is inserted in an online search engine such as Google, the overwhelming results will lean towards Africa. Some might say that given Africa’s history with famine, the results reflect a fair outlook and I concur. 

However, what results do we get when we search for an optimistic word such as innovation? Does Africa appear in the mix by any stretch of imagination? 

No, it does not. Indeed, the results are disappointing. This time around, the search engines fail to produce any meaningful results that link innovation to Africa in any way possible. 

In effect, it should not come as a surprise that only a handful of western media outlets reported a story in 2012 about Arthur Zang, a 24 year-old Cameroonian engineer who invented the Cardiopad, a touch screen medical tablet that makes it possible to carry out heart tests such as electrocardiogram for patients based in rural locations while allowing for the results to be wirelessly transferred to heart specialists in urban areas for interpretation. 

Similarly, the story of Saheed Adepoju, a Nigerian entrepreneur who invented Inye, a low cost tablet computer designed for the African market, was hardly reported with the same conviction as famine. 

We are constantly fed in overwhelming quantities of distorted stories relating to Aids, violence, conflicts, charity, rape, child soldiers, dictators, and famine, while at the same time denied inspiring African stories such as increased trade, strides in innovation, youth creativity, improved business standards, diverse culture, highly educated young talent, and increased foreign direct investment. 

It is easy to argue that positive stories are only reported in small doses while negative stories go as far as covering a pictorial section. I am not naïve of the fact that negative stories outsell positive ones; however, I cannot help but ask; why do we let the international media patronise us, and why can’t we tell both sides of the story? Surely, it must be our duty to do so.

There is an absolute necessity to tell our own stories so that we can challenge negative perceptions that have masked Africa as a charity basket for so many decades. 

As cited by Opoku-Owusu (2003), Paddy Coulter, a specialist in media and development, observes that while TV news may be the most important in shaping perceptions, and the hardest to crack, a focus on other elements of the media including documentaries, feature magazines, travel and so on, are the way forward to challenge negative perceptions of Africa. 

We have an obligation to strike a balance in reporting Africa by exposing the harsh conditions that people live under while at the same time crediting our society for the good that is taking place. 

We should not continue to allow the international media to dictate what Africa should look like to the outside world, nor should we standby media outlets who clearly lack genuine African representation at senior editorial level to continue telling our stories in a biased fashion. 

International media outlets choose to concentrate only on evil stories and ignore the good that this continent has to offer. Africa, like any other place, deserves to be reported in all three layers; the good, the bad and the ugly, not just the final two.

The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Service Policy.

Twitter: @Jsabex



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