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Story Publication logo May 21, 2014

Writing About Africa: Thoughts from the Field


Image by Rijasolo. Madagascar, 2013.

What happens to an aid-dependent country when the tap suddenly runs dry? Since a 2009 coup...

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Villagers in a mining town in southern Madagascar. Image by Rijasolo / Riva Press. Madagascar, 2013.

Foreign journalists who write about Africa are often criticized for focusing on the bad news over the good, privileging the sensational over the everyday, even for casting the continent as a 21st century heart of darkness. It can be a valid criticism, and one that I and I think most of my colleagues take to heart. Whatever we might say about dutifully pursuing the most newsworthy stories, there is inevitably a strong degree of subjectivity, and ultimately course correction, that goes into deciding what, and what not, to cover. You find yourself thinking hard about what your readers will take away from your reporting—even if only because of their own misconceptions. And you wonder whether you've written too many negative stories of late and try to find some more positive ones to rectify the imbalance.

Overall, though, the bad news stories tend to win out. Violent outbreaks and kidnappings by religious extremists easily get more press than local entrepreneurship initiatives and less sensational stories, though that's not unique to Africa; take a look at the local news in New York. Problems are more obvious than solutions. Editors play a role too. Portraits of everyday life in faraway lands draw fewer clicks than frightful tales of genocide and extreme poverty. When I first moved to West Africa to report, I made the rounds of editors in the States to gin up some interest ahead of time. I got more or less the same response from a few. "Good for you. Let us know if something blows up." Positive stories about Africa, meanwhile, can be equally frustrating, such as the mindless bandying about of impressive GDP growth figures without heed to what those numbers mean on the ground.

I've felt some angst about my Madagascar reporting because I haven't by any means struck this mythical balance. I wrote about human trafficking, child prostitution, the plague and a rather flawed election. What I thought was a reasonably optimistic story about sapphire mining in southern Madagascar got the headline, "A Cursed Land."

On the one hand, I'm inclined to give myself a bit of a pass. My reporting for this project was intended to answer a specific question: What happens to an aid-dependent country when that aid is cut? The short answer is bad stuff. Lots of bad stuff. Madagascar's soaring poverty rate since the 2009 coup d'état or human trafficking epidemic or woeful record child exploitation are undeniable realities. Frankly speaking, these are also the easier stories to tell when you only have a month in the country. In Ivory Coast, where I live, I'm attuned to a much greater range of stories, informed by my daily interactions with Ivorian friends and neighbors.

But I worry that, whatever my reasons or intentions, I'll have left at least some people with the wrong impression of Madagascar, which is in fact a beautiful country, with some of the rarest and most precious wildlife in the world, warm-hearted people, a fascinating history and culture and amazing food. I can also attest that Mahajanga, a coastal town in the northwest, throws one hell of a Christmas party.

I wonder about the stories I didn't tell and how I might have told them—of a young rape victim I met who has taken on the role of de facto mother of a shelter in Mahajanga, of Madagascar's thriving music scene, of its mesmerizing biodiversity and irresistible lemurs. (Do go see the IMAX.) "Next time," I tell myself.

I hope that, even in the most depressing stories, the subjects' humanity shines through: the determination of the sapphire miners who brave difficult conditions in search of a better life for their children, Annick Andriahsatovo's courage and fierce devotion to her son and Maurice Herynirina's determination in taking on the powerful forces arrayed against him. I hope too that I've provided some sense of the complexity of Madagascar's problems and their origins in both internal and external factors.

Have I succeeded? I don't know. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely, though I can't claim to have any particularly innovative suggestions. The old clichés are probably about right: Keep an open mind. Know your topic. Talk to a wide range of people. Acknowledge your prejudices and preconceptions. And, I would add, look for good amid the bad and bad amid the good. Reality is almost never entirely one or the other.

In a recent piece, entitled "If Western Journalists 'Get Africa Wrong,' then Who Gets Africa Right?", on the challenges faced by foreign and local journalists alike in covering complicated stories like the conflict in South Sudan, Sterling Carter issued an eloquent plea for humility from all sides of the often acrimonious debate on media coverage of Africa. "We must not denigrate one perspective for the benefit of another," he wrote. "Instead, we must talk, we must converse, we must communicate, and we must be kind."


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