How Journalists and the Public Get It Wrong About African Poverty

REPOST: This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ordinary people’s stories can change the world’s views about Africa

We cannot see salary data in the faces of others, but most of us have similar mental images that structure how we think about poverty in Africa. Search Google Images for ‘African poverty’ to see how yours match up. Dilapidated housing. Tattered shirts. Blank stares. Bellies protruding from parasitic infections. Skin clinging to bones from starvation. Tears.

The visit to South Africa by French economist and author of Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty, should lead us to reflect on how we understand poverty.

To speak of poverty in monetary values, such as living on US$1 or US$2 a day, is to view it as an absolute concept. To approach poverty as a relative concept is to recognise that poverty is contextual – US$1 a day in London is not the same as US$1 a day in the South African township, Diepsloot – and relational, shaped by the expectation gap between the those deemed impoverished and those writing the definitions.

For decades, scholars have criticised media representations of African poverty. Disease, disaster, conflict and poverty have long been hallmarks of global media coverage of Africa and, therefore, have coloured how the rest of the world views the continent.

While more nuanced coverage exists within Africa itself, poverty is still a topic defined by difference. The poor are different from the rest of the public. The poor are different from the journalists who cover poverty. The poor are different from us.

But media coverage of poverty does not reflect how the poor see themselves. There is a gulf between mediated poverty and the lived experience of poverty. So how have journalists and the public gotten it so wrong about African poverty?

Tales of doom and gloom

Members of the press have always struggled to tell the stories of those who do not look, sound, or live like them. While it is easy to blame individual journalists, there are structural explanations for this problem.

Journalists would love to function on an anthropologist’s time table, spending years getting to know the communities they discuss. Instead, most journalists must quickly file stories on deadline while chasing their latest editorial assignment. The daily news cycle does not leave much room for reporters to challenge preconceived notions and question personal biases.

In stories about poverty, journalists typically rely on local nongovernmental organisations to provide local sources and basic information. Resource-strapped nongovernmental organisations are pleased to oblige because any outside attention offers the potential for increased funding and support.

Though most nongovernmental organisations are hard working and well meaning, the nonprofit industry incentivises organisations to continue spreading tales of gloom and doom about African poverty. Donors respond to stories about extreme needs and the good work being done to address those needs. Stories which emphasise community features that locals value are not great avenues for fund raising.

Poor residents also recognise that they can benefit personally from magnifying their struggles when speaking with reporters. In Kenya, for example, journalists regularly compensate slum residents for interviews. The more tragic the tale, the easier it is to play upon the reporter’s sympathies.

That said, we should not criticise the poor for benefiting from their struggles. Interviewees offer value to journalists and news agencies, who turn around and sell their stories to the public. Considering high unemployment rates throughout the continent, being interviewed can serve as a profitable source of income.

Another worrisome trend in poverty coverage is the first-person travel narrative, in which journalists claim to understand poverty by experiencing it for themselves. In these stories, journalists embody pseudo-anthropologists, sharing their newfound experiential knowledge with the public after spending only a few days in poor communities.

The BBC has invested heavily in first-person travel narratives, first with Famous, Rich, and in the Slums, then later with Slum Survivors and Reggie Yates Extreme South Africa.

Though first-person travel narratives reflect the reporter’s experience, these stories fail to question the privilege of the storyteller. Such reporters see themselves as a bridge between the audience and the impoverished, but their stories overshadow the voices of those who understand poverty through living it every day.

Celebrating common humanity

During my research in Kibera, a densely-populated low-income community in Nairobi, residents criticised the gap between how they experienced life and how the media covered their community.

Residents were deeply concerned about insecure employment, disease, and other hardships unfamiliar to those living outside of poverty. But they also voiced great frustration that the media only reported negative stories about their community. Kibera’s media narrative did not capture the fullness of day-to-day life as they experienced it.

Residents told me stories that were complex and contextual, where the homes were of substandard quality but the cost of living suited their lifestyles. They spoke about the vibrant community in Kibera and the kinship they felt with their neighbours while dismissing the isolated nature of Nairobi’s wealthier neighbourhoods. They presented stories in which poverty constrained but did not define their lives.

Journalists who cover poverty would be wise to remember these lessons. They should view their interactions with nongovernmental organisations and local residents with healthy scepticism. They should acknowledge their biases and restrain themselves from projecting unwarranted expertise.

Journalists also should find out what works in poor communities as well as what doesn’t work. They should look beyond the familiar images of dirt, disease, and despair to seek out the mundane. Not to diminish poverty, but to celebrate our common humanity.


New Article: Touring Slums and Telling Stories (About Ourselves)

Five years ago, when wrapping up fieldwork in Kibera, I blogged about the controversy surrounding slum tourism. While many Kibera residents resent the fact that so many foreigners tour their community, a few told me they believed there would be less misunderstanding if more outsiders visited Kibera.

In a previous article, I discussed the complex feelings residents have about their home community and, in doing so, tried to challenge the dominant discourse about slums. In a new article, titled “Ironic Encounters: Posthumanitarian Storytelling in Slum Tourist Media,” David Tuwei and I look at the stories slum tourists are telling about their encounters with global poverty.

The article examines three texts produced by tourists of Kibera: the BBC special Famous, Rich and in the Slums, the book Megaslumming: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa’s Largest Shantytown, and a White House slideshow about Jill Biden’s tour of Kibera. We draw from Lilie Chouliaraki’s The Ironic Spectator and H. Leslie Steeves’ article about representations of Africa in U.S. reality television to argue that slum tourist media exemplify a narrative genre in the post-humanitarian era, which we call “ironic encounters.”

Structurally, an ironic encounter is one in which:

  1. A Global North traveler visits a place of perceived suffering in the Global South
  2. The account is told through the visitor’s voice using narration and/or confessional interviews
  3. The story is structured chronologically around the visitor’s trip

More important, ironic encounters make three normative claims that are consistent with Chouliaraki’s account of post-humanitarianism:

  1. They position experiential knowledge as better than detached learning about global inequality
  2. They present tourists as more knowledgeable about the conditions and consequences of global poverty than those who live it daily
  3. They depict the visitor’s journey as a source of encouragement and enlightenment for those being toured

The article is a part of an upcoming special issue of Communication, Culture & Critique edited by Steeves on the topic of “Africa, Media and Globalization.” The abstract is below:

We argue that slum tourist media exemplify a distinct and growing narrative genre about post-humanitarian travel: ironic encounters. In ironic encounters, Global North tourists construct a humanitarian Self through their first-hand engagement with suffering in the Global South. In these stories, tourists present their travels as essential for coveted experiential knowledge while depicting locals as the true beneficiaries of the tourists’ self-discovery. We examine three high-profile texts produced by visitors of Kibera, a densely populated low-income community in Nairobi, Kenya: the BBC special Famous, Rich and in the Slums, the book Megaslumming, and a White House slideshow about Jill Biden’s tour of Kibera. Emblematic of ironic encounters, these texts ultimately justify slum tourism as a humanitarian act.

New Article: Taking on the Kibera Discourse

Before I visited Kibera for the first time in 2009, I tried to read and watch as much as I could to better understand the community. Much of what I consumed was from international news and academic journals, which largely focused on health, crime, and housing issues in Kibera. After spending some time on the ground getting to know residents and seeing how the community worked, I came to realize that, while these issues are real and significant,  they are only part of Kibera’s story.

Like people everywhere, Kibera residents live complicated lives filled with joys, sorrow, boredom, and pain. I have a new article in Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies that is my attempt to reconcile these two different perspectives: the complexity of life experienced by residents in Kibera and the oversimplified narrative of despair circulating in the media and the public imagination.

Here is the abstract for “Slum discourse, media representations and maisha mtaani in Kibera, Kenya“:

This article examines the discourse surrounding Kibera, a highly populated low-income community in Nairobi, Kenya. Based on 11 months of fieldwork and interviews with 56 Kibera residents, this article discusses the disconnect between the lives experienced by residents and the hyperbolic and essentialised discourse that depicts Kibera as a community defined by sickness, crime and despair. While residents do not deny many of the hardships that are central to the Kibera discourse, they articulate maisha mtaani [life in the neighbourhood] as complex, diverse and contextual. Sadly, several groups that claim to serve the good of Kibera are partially responsible for perpetuating this harmful discourse. In fact, some NGOs, journalists and residents benefit from reproducing a discourse that actively marginalises Kibera and its people.

I realize that academics often exist in silos (an unfortunate reality that is encouraged by structural factors), but I have two sincere wishes for this article. First, I hope it helps people like me who want to get a better understanding of what life is like in Kibera from the perspectives of those who live there. Second, I hope it contributes to a process of changing how we talk about Kibera and how it is represented in the media.

You can find a copy of the article on my account.

New Article: Community Journalism in Kibera

I have a new article in Journalism Practice about the difficulties of doing community journalism in places like Kibera. The article is titled “‘I Wish They Knew that We are Doing This for Them’: Participation and resistance in African community journalism” and will appear in an upcoming special issue on “Community journalism midst media revolution” edited by Sue Robinson. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the relationship between community journalists and residents in Kibera, a sizable slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Focusing on two videojournalism initiatives, this research explores the structural and cultural features of Kibera that impacted residents’ participation and nonparticipation in these projects. Findings reveal that many residents were unfamiliar with these projects because the organizations were located in a more expensive part of Kibera and the videos were not regularly distributed locally. In addition, Kibera has a history of exploitation by media producers and nongovernmental organizations, so residents are conditioned to be wary of journalism organizations. Thus, while journalists believed they were providing a service to the community, many residents did not see the value of this work. This study reveals that journalists in contentious communities must dedicate adequate resources to building productive relationships with those who are not actively engaged in news production. Otherwise, those who do not believe that journalists are serving the best interest of the community may choose to resist this work.

Make sure you check out the full issue when it appears in print in 2014. In the meantime, you can access the individual articles online. There’s great stuff in there from Seth Lewis, Avery Holton & Mark Coddington, the amazing Katy Culver, and several others.

New Chapter: Media Authorship in Kibera

imgresI’m beyond excited to have a chapter in the new volume A Companion to Media Authorship, edited by Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson. The chapter, “Telling Whose Stories? Re-examining Author Agency in Self-Representational Media in the Slums of Nairobi,” offers an overview of the work I did for my dissertation. It looks at the creative and constraining forces working at multiple levels of analysis for young journalists and filmmakers in Kibera and Mathare. Yes, the book is pricey at the moment, so tell your library to pick up a copy or wait for the cheaper paperback version to come out.

Big thanks to Jonathan and Derek. It’s an honor to see my name listed in the table of contents next to so many scholars that I admire.

Letters from Kibera (1950 edition)

I apologize for the year-long sabbatical from the blog. I can’t promise to be more regular, but I’ll try.

I’m back in Kenya for 5 weeks this summer, and this time I’ve gotten the chance to spend some time in the Kenya National Archives. There are some great finds in there concerning the history of Kibera and Mathare, as well as some other gems about the growth of media industries in Kenya. Anyway, I thought I’d share this one letter that really struck me today.

Around 1950, the British government was developing plans to move the Sudanese (Nubians) out of Kibera. The plan was to relocate this group to Kibiko, about 15 miles further west of town. I’ll spoil the ending right now and let you know that they weren’t successful. The Sudanese resisted and the plans became financially prohibitive.

As I was reading over the correspondence and documentation about the plans for this resettlement, I found a letter dated 25 September 1950 from a member of the Sudanese Association of East Africa, sent to the District Commissioner of Nairobi. Here it is in full (I’ve tried to match the spelling and grammar to the original):

I most humbly and respectful before emit a word I lay down my particulars as follows:- I born in Nairobi at Kibra, 30 years old, married man, with two children and very intelligent in Nairobi Town, welfare, good health, and running to town daily for work, myself I can’t living outof town Nairobi 18 miles exept if Government forcing, but I do not like.

I approaching these my petition before you for kindly consideration. I have to explain you that through in our difficulty and tired is that: daily early morning and lateness evening we are walking to Nairobi and back, for our duties as you know we are serve our life as employment in town nothing else, we are spending the whole day’s without meal on account of less salaray, also thereis Bus runing but we can’t spend /40 Cts in travelling by Buses we are keeping for household we are very famine in this area.

Col. Lafontain was state that Kibera must be under Municipal or departure, this is quit too difficult to us we can not serve under Municipal at all we are poor we can not living on renting as he said Municipal shall built lodging houses at Kibra for us, this is quite clear Sudanese clan is to be scattered and lost and we are guest in this colonies. We are first looking an enemy in East Africa, as our fathers combine with British and attack African in East Africa and let them down under Government vengeance still going on between African and Sudanese, how we goin to serve our life if Government is going to leave us apon hill at Kibiko 18 miles from Nairobi, how we can reach Nairobi by walking, sir, this is quite through in fact to live under Municipal Control or, departure to Kibiko both we had rather not, we shall lost our clan and be “JANGILI.” We shall be very grateful if you could putithis my petition under reaction as the Land Commissioner Report state: within easy to reach in Nairobi. Therefore, we shall be lead on an easy life. I shall be very grateful to received your further information to assist me on these difficult.

I have the honour to be sir,  Your obediently Servant,

Ahamed Mussa Sha-Aban

Unfortunately, this thoughtful and impassioned letter about the effect of the resettlement plan did not elicit an equally thoughtful response. Here it is in full:

I have to refer to a letter dated 25th September 1950 in which you complain that proposals for Kibira will seriously affect your life, and to say that these proposals give effect to this recommendation made by the Kenya Land Commission. I see no grounds for any further complaints in this matter.

I am, Sire, Your obedient servant,

C.M. Johnston

I’ve posted pictures of the two original letters below.

ahamed_response ahamed_letter

Dissertation? Check.

A few weeks ago, I successfully defended and deposited my dissertation. I have since moved from Madison to my new home, Iowa City, where I am now an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at The University of Iowa. I am excited and humbled to have this opportunity, to say the least.

My dissertation, as now filed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School is titled “Creativity and Constraint in Self-Representational Media: A Production Ethnography of Visual Storytelling in a Nairobi Slum.” Here’s the abstract:

This study is a media production ethnography of members of a marginalized community constructing and telling stories using visual media. It is based off of 10 months of fieldwork in Kibera, a sprawling slum located in Nairobi, Kenya. In this study, I make three central claims. First, I argue that the dominant discourse about Kibera that is constructed and circulated by authors, journalists, NGOs, and unawares is hyperbolic and simplistic. I explore this discourse by speaking with Kibera residents about the disconnect they see between their lived experiences and the representations of their community offered by non-residents and the media. The prevalence of this discourse results in a valuable opportunity for community media producers to introduce counter-discourses that challenge dominant representations and prioritize the multiple perspectives of community members. Second, focusing specifically on the work of two community-media organizations in Kibera, I argue that media production by economically marginalized people is important both because of the counter-discourses offered in their media products and because the process of producing fictional films, documentaries, and news packages about their community is meaningful for those involved. These media products challenge the dominant discourse by drawing attention to otherwise unreported topics and reframing issues to emphasize community perspectives. Also, participants in these projects find value in this work and often redefine who they are in light of their efforts. Third, I argue that authorship and creative expression in self-representational media is complicated by a number of factors operating at the industry, community, organizational, and individual levels of analysis. While it is tempting to claim broadly and optimistically that these projects enable marginalized groups “to tell their own stories,” what occurs during the process of producing this media is much more complicated and interesting. Creative and constraining factors and forces impact the production of individual media texts as well as the larger systems in which such media are produced. While media production research often focuses on either structural constraints or individual creative expression, I argue scholars need to account for the complex and surprising ways these two forces interact with each other.

I am incredibly grateful to the members of my dissertation committee: Greg Downey, Neil Kodesh, Kirin Narayan, Hemant Shah, and especially my chair, Jo Ellen Fair. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to those I met and worked with in Kenya and my friends and colleagues in the U.S.

Feel free to contact me if you are interested in learning more about my dissertation. I will continue to work with this research as I prepare it for future publication.

Now, about that tenure process…

Forbes Series on Entrepreneurship in Kibera

The past few months, I’ve been busy finishing my dissertation and doing little else. Now that my committee is reading the goods and deciding my fate (I defend next week), I wanted to draw attention to an interesting series of posts about Kibera on The series is a part of their Megacities blog, and the posts are authored by Chelina Odbert. Chelina runs a “public spaces” project in Kibera through an organization she co-founded, called Kounkuey Design Initiative. During my time in Kibera, I met Chelina and visited a KDI public space in Undugu grounds. It’s a really cool project. Anyway, here’s a rundown of her blog posts (in the order in which they were posted):

Complexity at Urban Edges
This post introduces the series. Take-away quote: “In my experience, Kibera is not unique; slums, like all cities, are complex organisms that operate at nested scales, from the mega-scaled urban level down to a human-scaled street or community. To try to understand them from only the 10,000 foot perspective does a disservice to the individuals that most organizations working in slums are trying to help.”

Power to the People: The Black Market for Electricity in Kibera (co-authored with Benjamin Twigg)
A profile of a young man who has a business selling pirated electricity to residents (for more, see Genesis Ngari’s post on the same topic). It shows how criminality can be a necessity when the government and private sector fail to provide important public services. Note: There is a miscalculation on the currency exchange. At current rates, 300 KSH is $3-4, not $8-9.

Location, Location, Location: How One Man’s Patio is Another Man’s Paycheck
A profile of a resident who relocated to the UN-HABITAT “slum upgrading” housing. The post focuses on how one resident converted his patio into a convenient store to meet the needs of his fellow residents, but it’s worth noting that any discussion of the KENSUP project is lined with open cans of worms.

The Road to Opportunity: A Family’s Entrepreneurial Journey to Financial Stability (co-authored with Brie Hensold)
A story about one family’s entrepreneurial journey from selling vegetables on the side of the road to owning a market kiosk to running to a busy restaurant. Toward the end, the story hints at a key challenge of the “slum upgrading” housing: Kibera residents who had thriving businesses near their original homes were put in a difficult spot when they were relocated to new homes on the other side of Kibera. The family profiled in this post now has an hour commute on foot to get to their restaurant.

Taking the High Road? Reformed Youth Turn to Entrepreneurship
I think this is the most interesting post of the series. It focuses on a group of “reformed” criminals who have launched several business ventures, including an informal toll business for passing vehicles. This story demonstrates the normalization and systematization of corruption, something I’ve written about earlier.

A History of Kibera

Before I first visited Kibera in 2008, I started tracking down books, newspaper articles, and journal articles to learn more about Kibera’s history. During this search, I found a couple of real gems. For instance, Timothy Parson’s article “Kibra is Our Blood” offers an excellent account of Kibera’s history from its founding until Kenyan independence in 1963, focusing particularly on the fascinating relationship between British military authorities and Kibera’s first Nubian settlers.

But I also found that most accounts of Kibera’s past are quite brief. Plus, there is little out there that discusses Kibera’s tremendous growth from independence until the present. So in the past 2+ years, I’ve continued to track down material to help me acquire a more substantive understanding of Kibera’s history.

The 13-page document at the end of this post is the result of those efforts. While this historical account is a part of my yet-to-be-finished dissertation, I wanted to post it here first for a couple of reasons.

One, for those who are interested in learning more about Kibera, I hope this history serves as a primer for this fascinating and complex community. Please check out some of sources on the references page, too. Don’t just trust what I have written here.

Two, I’m interested in what others have to say about my account of Kibera’s past and present. Are there key moments I missed? Are there any parts of this historical account that you think are off track? I’m very interested in getting feedback from others who live in and study Kibera. Histories always reflect certain perspectives, so I want to hear yours.

While I don’t pretend to offer the authoritative account of Kibera’s past, I hope this proves to be useful for those just getting familiar with Kibera. I also hope this starts a conversation about the defining moments of Kibera’s past and our understanding of its present.

Kibera’s History (PDF)


Update (5/6): My smarter half suggested I change the title of this post from “The History of Kibera” to “A History of Kibera.” Her suggestion was spot on. Thanks!

Things You Should Know About Kibera

As part of my research, Genesis Njeru and I conducted a bunch of interviews with Kibera residents (you can read more about the process here). These interviews covered a lot of different topics, but one of the things we asked early on was how they would describe life in Kibera. As you can imagine, residents discussed many of the challenges of living in Kibera, but they also talked about some of the positives in their community.

As a follow-up question, we asked (with some variation in wording): “Is there anything you wish people who live outside Kibera knew about Kibera?”* Here are some of their responses:

What I know about Kibera is that when we come together, we can do something great. That is what I know.

Outsiders they should…not think of the mentality that Kibera people can’t make it. We can make it, if we are helped by other people or organizations. I think Kibera can change. And we can do more better than we were [during the post-election violence], because I believe in some years we were in darkness. But right now I can see the light in Kibera.

In Kibera here, we are able people. So we just want [outsiders] to know, to help us in all conditions because we don’t have houses, we don’t have enough water…Life is difficult somehow because even diseases are here. Because people are just going for toilet and they throw like this [demonstrates flying toilet]. So we’ve got some diseases. So what I can say, those who are outside to help those who live here.

I’ll tell people who are living outside Kibera, they should not isolate people who live in Kibera, because I think they are the same-same people. They are Kenyans. We should love them, we should protect them, and we should just reason with them correctly.

I think…that media helps in negativity. Media at least, they market things on negativity, so when the point of view is in the media form, media always [sensationalize] the negativity of Kibera to the public.

[rough translation] Outsiders talk of what they see from the screen, from the TV, from the media. So they might even be talking about things that they don’t even know.

Right here in Kibera, we’ve got talents. Right hidden. But we don’t have ways of pulling ourselves, or even getting ourselves up just because of funds, things like this. We are lacking resources. Of course resources are the major things, it is the major part of us. We are lacking resources. That is the only thing which we are lacking.

We have talent. We are talented in so many things. Maybe football, music, drama. We are talented in a lot.

[rough translation] People in Kibera are working too hard to make their daily bread. So I want to tell those people who are living outside that they should also respect and love the people who are living in the slums.

Yeah, they should not look at the houses [and judge Kibera residents on the condition of the houses]. People are there with jobs.

They don’t know that the people of Kibera are very good people because these people are the ones who are working for them. They are working for them. For example, their maids are just these people who are coming from Kibera.

These people should know that we have very decent people in Kibera. Just to take you back to the Bible. People didn’t think that anything good could come out of where Jesus Christ himself was born. So man, don’t just judge us by our cover, by the bad houses we live in from outside. Just come, know about us more before you judge us.

[rough translation] Kibera is not only a place of fighting, but there are also some good things that happen.

[rough translation] There are a lot of talents here in Kibera and if given a chance, [outsiders] can also see the talents that are in Kibera and they will actually see that Kibera does not only consist of those people who cannot do anything.

Yeah, they should know that apart from the rusted roofs they see around, there is something, there is a gold mine. Yeah, there is talent, there is everything.

In Kibera there is a lot of talent. And people, they are friendly.

[Outsiders] don’t know how people suffer from this…slum. So they just ignore it and just think about more things that are outside.

*While I recognize the insider/outside dyad is problematic, as a shorthand it was a helpful way to talk with interviewees about differences between those who know a great deal about life in Kibera and those who know very little.