Why do Western media get Africa wrong?

There are fundamental differences in how Western and African media cover African events.

A lot of very important nuance gets lost in translation when reporting on Africa [AP]

Yesterday I witnessed yet another twitter storm erupt over Western coverage of an African situation. A Guardian correspondent offered an analysis of the on-going crisis in South Sudan that, judging from the comments on the website, was well received outside South Sudan.

Yet, the reaction from the South Sudanese online community was the opposite. Relatively well-known twitterati roundly criticised the article as a complete misread of the situation on the ground. As someone who has both criticised Western media for their coverage of Africa, but has also relied on Western media for information about places that I have never been to, I found it fascinating. Who should you believe in a situation like this? And why do Western media keep getting coverage of African issues wrong?

My inclination is to believe that the South Sudanese bloggers, if for no other reason than they are relatively immune to the vagaries of the news cycle, remember the same journalist was touted as “the first Western journalist on the scene” – a descriptor that the South Sudanese community rejected. Does it matter if he’s a Western journalist? What does that say about the premium that Western news outlets place on information given by Western (read white) reporters versus non-Western reporters?

This casual descriptor inadvertently disregarded the lived experiences of the thousands of literate, experienced South Sudanese writers, journalists and informants, and created a hierarchy of knowledge that appears to be largely based on race. So, given the choice between a person whose truth seems conditioned by race, and another whose truth is based on experience on the ground, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

Indeed, Western media continue – and will continue – to get coverage of African issues wrong because of their inability to confront this unspoken hierarchy of knowledge and the barriers it generates. Firstly, in this scheme, The Rest is necessarily set up in opposition to The West in resulting coverage, and issues or situations are rarely, if ever, analysed for their intrinsic impact or worth. Events or situations are therefore analysed as what the West is not, and so articles are a process of either reifying or undermining pre-existing assumptions that are either set up in history books or in other literature about Africa in general or the phenomenon at hand. So the coverage of the crisis in South Sudan is either used to reiterate or undermine beliefs about ethnicity and its role in conflicts in Africa: where “ethnicity” is a trope that can easily distinguish “Africa” from The West but is now a shorthand so overused and misused that it’s lost its explanatory value.

Secondly, one must recall that any reading of a polyglot nation using a colonial language is necessarily an act of interpretation, and Western coverage of African situation is always going to suffer from this process. Sending people who speak only English or even Swahili to find people who also speak English or Swahili is always going to create a selection bias, and necessitates a process of translation within which the nuance of coded, non-verbal communication will be lost.

Binyavanga Wainaina wrote in a powerful essay for the National Geographic about how Nairobians, most of whom speak three recognised languages in addition to the patois, sheng’, and occupy three or more corresponding “worlds”. The world of English is necessarily formal – schools and offices – while the world of sheng’, at the other extreme, is the world of familiarity and fraternity. Anyone who speaks multiple languages will testify to this – there is more to language than just words. When a multilingual person switches between languages, it’s not just about finding the grammar or the syntax that best represents what they’re trying to say. It’s also about coded messages that indicate familiarity with the spoken to; that demand fraternity; that create space for all sorts of unspoken communication. It is in the informality of sheng’ that tea (chai) or a soft drink (soda) becomes a bribe.

So when a foreign journalist enters a space in which he speaks the formal but only understands the informal, a great deal will necessarily be lost in translation. I believe that it is in this space that most of the mistakes occur when writing about Africa. I argue that most Western journalists who come to Africa believe that they can get by because they speak English or even Swahili, but never really get down to the essence of what it means to be a South Sudanese in war for instance, an essence that is fundamentally related to the ability to be able to switch between the three or four languages and their attendant identities.

This switching matters to a large extent because it is in this switching, for instance, that many Africans comprehend the fluidity of ethnicity, which translates as hardened and immutable in English but is actually pretty malleable and utilitarian in sheng’ or in any other African language. It is in this switching that context is given – a Kikuyu or Dinka descriptor that modifies an English concept, and either attenuates or aggravates its meaning. The use of poorly translated or contextualised concepts, of hardened constructs in place of malleable ones, is thus an integral part of the broader frustration that Africa just isn’t being heard right. Yes, this person says that Tribe X is responsible for issue Y, but are they just using that as shorthand for a more complex phenomenon, like the interrelationship between class, ethnicity and power?

There is an easy way to resolves this of course: ask Africans what they think and have them tell their own stories, instead of co-opting them to undermine or reinforce existing narratives among the Western audience. But given the aforementioned racial hierarchy of knowledge in the Western public sphere, I doubt this will happen and we should all prepare ourselves for another bout of misunderstanding.

Nanjala Nyabola, is a writer and political analyst, currently based at Harvard Law School.

Follow her on Twitter: @nanjala1