Foreign Correspondents in Africa

– “We went into the heart of Africa self-invited — therein lies our fault.” (Henry Morton Stanley)
How to write about Africa (Binyavanga Wainaina)

The 2008 Kwani Lit Fest kicked off on Wednesday night with a talk on How foreign correspondents have formed the literary image of Africa with a panel consisting of Steve Bloomfield (The Independent/Monocle), Binyavanga Wainana (Kwani), Jonathan Ledgard (The Economist) and Mary Anne Fitzgerald (London Times)


– Foreign correspondents write for a foreign audience
– African newspapers who can (Daily Nation, Mail & Guardian) don’t use local correspondents. They pay Reuters to cover other African countries yet local expertise is plenty
– While it’s not appropriate for a news organization to have one person cover the entire continent called Africa, there is only room for two stories a week from Africa in many organizations. And they are often about misery
– Kenyans are as ignorant about Somalia as Americans
– Africa is still the place where young journalists are sent to the vast continent to cut their teeth in journalism. It is where many careers are made
– African countries should not be treated with kid gloves, and foreign reporters should not shy away from writing about the ills of Africa in the interest of positivity or pan Africanism. E.g. Kenya went through a violent period this year and it was a much more advanced society than Yugoslavia a decade ago

– Many Africans grew up with images of the rest of Africa shaped by foreign correspondents and authors. These images are not necessarily the true Africa
– Foreign correspondents inhabit and write about a world alien to most Africans – so how can they write about Africa? They are not encouraged to deviate from the formula
– East Africa was romanticized by the pioneers of foreign journalism and Hollywood. The history of West Africa which was more complex (slavery, trade) and is still not widely understood or covered by the foreign press.
– Unfortunately, foreign correspondents sometimes become the story e.g. I couldn’t leave my house because of the genocide outside.


On Keith Richburg and his controversial book Out of Africa: For black American correspondents there are advantages (sense of community) and disadvantages (danger as you may resemble one warring tribe) to working in Africa.

7 thoughts on “Foreign Correspondents in Africa

  1. N.W

    Hi Bankelele,

    I really feel bad I missed the event yester-night. I was looking forward to it. Thanks for the heads up, I was pleasantly surprised that you were present(no pun intended). Was it just from a journalistic angle or did it also focus on other writers e.g the authors of ‘White Mischief’, ‘White Maasai’,’Out of Africa’ etc.

  2. Anonymous

    I’m glad you’ve covered this subject.

    During the violence, I felt Zain Verjee had certainly come to improve her journalist credentials by pretending to know the lingo and nuances of a Kenyan country to which she was born but whose language (Swahili) she barely knows and culture (apart from Westlands) she barely understands. I mean, she was wearing bullet-proof (the international symbol journalists use to show they are in a warzone) in areas where the violence was with machetes and stones!

    Her reports were littered with Swahili words that were often inaccurate or not authentic like saying ‘People are going to the “bunge” which is “parliament”‘. Even guys who speak swahili in Kenya say “parliament”. The best though was a report she did and she showed a dead dog to show how bad the violence had gotten – that even dogs weren’t being spared. That really cracked me up.

    It was definitely reporting for a foreign audience and to help further her career. Don’t blame her for it but I wasn’t impressed either.

  3. Mad Moran

    the foreign press coverage of Africa is sometimes negative,the nyt is no exception,After the recent clashes on post election violence,they pulled #s literally out of the air without any kind of verification They really got people scared, Which is their goal anyway, You would expect Zain of CNN to have been an exception,because she grew up in Kenya and had a clear understanding of the prevailing conditions, But the Dead dog incident was hilarious…As A journalist friend of mine said to me recently…”It,s all about Ratings and what actually sell,s and attracts add revenue..The more sensational it is the better”,The old journalistic values are long gone.

  4. coldtusker

    Oh… puhleeze… we give them something to talk about and they do…

    Zain has not been covering Africa/Kenya for a while… she was thrown into the mix coz of her Kenyan roots. It’s like CNN sending Jeff to Nigeria coz he is “African” when you know Nigeria is vastly different from Kenya.

    Of course, the ills in Africa cut across all ethnic boundaries and countries… the largest being corruption…

    African ‘rulers’ are the dregs of the earth. Even Dante could not have dreamed them up!

    The level of violence in the developed world is a fraction of what we have in Kenya/Africa.

  5. Proud Kikuyu Woman

    I so look forward to experiencing Nairobi this way! More ‘Africans’ should take up writing so we can tell the world our stories as we experience them.

    n.w. there is also ‘White Man Walking’. The author was wondering what would become of him if the World Vision trucks never came back to get him from West Pokot, a place where no other white person had set foot. Scary, I tell you.

    It’s been interesting interacting with people who’ve had a stint in one African country or another. I’ve heard people who lived for a couple years in one country talking of “in Africa….e.g. in Africa when your husband dies, you have to sleep with your brother-in-law, otherwise…that’s why the face of poverty is always female”. Then there’s the guy who did two years in the outskirts of Nakuru town and talks of having been “in the bush! bush kabisa!”. We are talking Kiambogo here. Another did a year in the college I went to for undergrad and it was “totally wild!”. Others have been to places in Kenya that felt like being “on another planet or something”. I can’t wait to go to some of those countries where people barely get through the airport alive, food is inedible, and there are prostitutes everywhere you look.

    To be fair, people see and experience things differently, and they write for like-minded audiences. I still remember wondering why people were so into themselves on the train, either just reading or listening to music on their ipods or just sitting there looking very serious. It felt like people were going to a funeral every day. This may sound interesting to a Kenyan, but not an American.

    Again, the West is generally very competitive (OK, I’ll stick to the U.S.) hence, I think, the need to blow something over the top so one looks like they overcame the most difficult situations, or are the best person you could get for the job. Hillary Clinton had her running under sniper fire moment. McCain is touting his POW experience, and Obama, well his father grew up herding goats, how much farther could you come from. Mostly true, but crafted to portray the ‘reporter’ as a resilient person who has overcome enormous odds to be where they are.
    If you have a career to save, there are few more challenging places to be a hero outside of ‘Africa’.
    Bankelele sorry for blogging on your blog.

  6. bankelele

    N.W: was a nice turnout and great exchange of ideas. Kwani is a great group of interesting people; I have a few pals there

    Mad Moran: as was said chances are height that the stories that are highlighted are those of misery
    -I saw Zain walking around burnt houses in flak jacket, but I missed the dead dog piece

    Coldtusker: There are as many good stories about common wananchi doing good and great things, but which don’t fit the western picture of Africa, and don’t get published. It’s much easier to write about obiang and mobutu

    PKW: as Binyavanga said chances are the local papers prefer foreign feeds to local reporters
    – Interesting take on Nakuru you have and the fact that some people claim hardship allowance living in Nairobi

  7. Jen Brea

    I don’t necessarily blame the correspondents. When the West owns all the publishing houses and the television stations, what do you expect? It’s the market that determines the coverage, not the subjects.

    Only when Africa becomes a market with its own publishing houses and television stations with a global reach will things begin to change.

    I think these forums are positive but those who hold all the cards won’t change simply at the asking. You have to compete.

    Wish I could have been there!

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