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: 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.

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.