The Africa Beat

Hardly anybody likes the mass media. Everybody likes to beat up on them, use them as an alibi for their own intellectual or political shortcomings. Academics have a particular form of that aversion: journalism appears to many of them relentlessly “down-market”, sloppy, misrepresenting subjects that academics care about.

I used to subscribe to the general and common version of that complaint; I even wrote a paper early in my career built around Bryant Gumbel’s Today expedition to Africa. The more I’ve thought about it over time, the more skeptical I’ve become of most such criticism. Coming from academics, it evinces an otherworldly ignorance of both space constraints and readability, it often reeks of professional jealousy, and it overlooks the good work done by journalists in favor of the bad work. Anthropologists and other social scientists also sometimes seem to expect journalists to authoritatively represent information which academics don’t have access to themselves. Few of us directly study the sociology of the military forces controlled by secretive dictators, for example, but I’ve seen colleagues with a straight face complain that journalists covering the same country or society don’t write enough about topics of that nature. Some of the complaints about media coverage of Iraq take on this form, that important stories aren’t being covered, as if that lack of coverage is deliberate and instrumental (or at the least sloppy and unprofessional) when in fact it’s nothing more than bowing to the outer limits of possibility. Some stories can’t be covered by anyone, journalist or academic.

If I’m going to complain about particular media coverage now, I’d like to keep my complaints more focused on individual stories and reporters. I have no problem, for example, joining the chorus of attacks on Judith Miller, because her case involves a professional standard that can be clearly enunciated which readers of political reportage have every right to demand. (A standard whose application calls into question a good deal of inside-the-Beltway journalism, but that’s a legit gripe in this case.) A complaint like this is valid not just because it’s about a concrete standard, but because you can talk clearly about what the alternatives look like, about what a reformed journalistic professionalism would be.

In stories about Africa, I don’t want to just complain that reporters aren’t scholars. I’d rather be clear about what they could say instead, and say appropriately and effectively within the constraints of print or television journalism. So, for example, a New York Times article on child marriage in Africa that both Abiola Lapite and I noticed back at the end of November was indeed a pretty shabby piece of work, largely for the reasons that Lapite notes. It took a specific situation in a specific place (Malawi) and abstracted it to all of “Africa” in a few broad brushstrokes. More importantly from my perspective, it was utterly without any historical perspective, treating “child marriage” as some antediluvian, unchanging, generically African tradition against which contemporary reformers must struggle. If there’s anything that scholarly study of European colonialism in African societies turns up, it’s that gender was in some ways a far more important social category in expressions of imperial authority than race. In some places and at some moments, it would be fair to speak of what some scholars have called a “double patriarchy”, with the specific design of indirect-rule colonialism expressed as a kind of bargain between senior rural gerentocrats and European administrators. One of the consequences of that pact, where and when it appeared, was that women were often redefined as statutory minors, without rights or recourse under “customary law”. At the same time, the terms of labor in the 20th Century also often extensively commodified marriage itself, transforming diverse bridewealth practices in many places into a much more standard form of cold-cash transaction.

This too is a simplification, but I offer it to say that the article by Sharon LaFraniere would be just fine with two fairly simple rewritings. The first would be to just write the story from Malawi and stick with that, to make it a “local” piece rather than a trans-African one. There’s no reason to write the story about Africa as a whole. The second would be to offer just one paragraph, one measly paragraph, that relates something of the historical context. That’s not too much to ask for, I think.

To keep up a bit of Times bashing, both because I think they have historical problems with Africa coverage and because I think have a right to expect that Bill Keller could spot some of these problems, given that his work from South Africa was one of the few bright spots in the Times reportage on Africa, Marc Lacey’s article on an “isolated tribe” in Kenya in December 18th’s paper was far worse in many respects than LaFraniere’s. Her article could have been strengthened simply by refocusing and adding a short bit of context. Lacey’s article is flatly incorrect about almost everything. It could have been filed from New York, given how generic and credulous the fundamental angle of the article is.

Basically, Lacey allows himself to be manipulated by a small number of experts who have a sustained, vested interest in the concept of “vanishing cultures”, isolated and pristine indigenes untouched by modernity, in particular, one scholar who has planted his flag on a group he characterizes as such in Kenya. I’m willing to concede, unlike some colleagues, that there may be a small handful of human societies that could have been appropriately characterized as such in the past fifty years, largely peoples living in extremely remote environments with formidable natural barriers separating them from other societies. But there are almost no societies that are worth describing in those terms in modern African history.

Take for example the “Bushmen”, various Khoisan-speaking peoples scattered through the western half of southern Africa. An older generation of anthropologists, as well as various romantic travel writers, wildlife conservationists and popular entertainments, got enormous mileage out of portraying them as isolated from contact with any other human societies, “Stone Age” relics. Some of the people who helped construct that lasting idea were active fabulists like Laurens van der Post or the “Denver Expedition”, others were just inattentive to the histories lying in plain sight all around them. Bushmen weren’t hanging out in the Kalahari because history passed them by: they were there because of history, because of contact with a variety of other societies, Western and African. They became the people that they were in the 20th Century in a deeply historical process, not in opposition to history.

So too the Arrial in Kenya. Yes, of course there are people in African societies with much closer and more powerful links to the global economy and to global culture than others. Yes, of course you can talk about relative isolation. But Lacey just buys hook line and sinker a view of the Arrial as generic primitives straight out of central casting, looking at magazines the way that the cartoon Bushmen of The Gods Must Be Crazy look at a Coke bottle. At least the latter is conscious fiction (if often mistaken by Western audiences for documentary). A reporter should do better.

The worst thing about the article is really not its characterization of a given African society but the really seriously incorrect representation of anthropology as a discipline. Lacey basically takes a handful of old-style sociocultural anthropologists and a very particular strata of biological anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists who have a continuing investment in the idea of pristine cultures and hey presto! turns them into “anthropologists”, the whole of the discipline.

Following my earlier guideline, what would I suggest Lacey do differently? Here I’m not sure the article can be salvaged. There’s so many things to report on from East Africa: why file a story that could have been filed at any time in the last fifty years, that’s close to being a dog-bites-man staple of inattentive foreign correspondence, or an entertainment-beat reporter mechanically paraphrasing a press release from a public relations agent? At the least Lacey could have tried calling up a few anthropologists who might have given him a critical take on the hook of the story, and made the story into a profile of a debate within anthropology. Or make it a story about the systematic weirdness and complexity of anthropological fieldwork rather than quick-take cliches? These are not necessarily arcane or impenetrable angles, impossible to cover appropriately in a major daily. If it’s to be about the Ariaal, spend some more time there, talk about what that area of northern Kenya looks like, about the histories involved, about what it means to be far from the centers of state power and global economic integration in the contemporary world.

Mostly I think reporters and general nonfiction writers do a fair job in Africa and elsewhere. Some of them do a spectacular job, easily outshining most or all scholarly work. I’d rather teach Philip Gourevitch and Micaela Wrong on Rwanda and Zaire than many scholars writing about both places. But the general adequacy of a lot of reportage simply makes the weaker work stand out all the more. In many cases, it’s really not that hard to take one extra step to keep a story from lapsing into cliches and misrepresentation. In a few cases, perhaps, a reporter would be better off backing up and trying again.

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4 Responses to The Africa Beat

  1. joeo says:

    This page gives an excerpt of the 1999 National Geographic article mentioned in Lacey’s story. The 1999 National Geographic article contrasts the Ariaal with the Rendille. The Rendille were persuaded by development organizations to settle down and enter the cash economy, while the Ariaal kept herding. The point of the National Geographic article is that the Ariaal were better off. You don’t see too many articles about the dangers of high-school education.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. But note already how far away that framing of the story is from the take Lacey offers–not tribe-of-isolated-primitives being studied by “anthropology” in the generic, but instead, about strategies for negotiating your collective relationship to international institutions of various kinds.

  3. Doug says:

    I wonder if the only way to get the Malawi story into the paper at all was to add something to make it relate, or appear to relate, to a broader topic. Since there’s probably a limited amount of reader interest in Malawi qua Malawi, mybe the brushstrokes were added to sell it to the editor as an Africa story instead.

  4. mfriedman says:

    In general, this is how it works in PR, with regard to getting the print media to pick up your story. Relate it to a topic of high current interest, communicate the angle correctly to the editors, and voila. I wish it was different, but that is indeed how it works, in my twenty years of experience.

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