Letting Africans speak, telling African stories

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Shortly before his sudden death in January, Joanna Wright spoke to BBC's Komla Dumor about what it takes to tell the African story.

For decades, the African story told in the foreign media was one of lack, famine and violence. But with the continent experiencing economic growth, another narrative has emerged. The Economist caused a stir in 2011 when it ran the triumphant coverline 'Africa Rising'. But this new story ignores the daily lives of many Africans who still lack food, clean water and access to medical care.

Komla Dumor, who anchored BBC's TV current affairs show Focus on Africa, said the key to reporting on the continent is to let Africans speak for themselves.

Dumor, one of Ghana's best known journalists, had worked for the BBC from 2006 and started off on the radio show Network Africa. He travelled to most countries on the continent and reported on the major events of the past few years, from the 2010 World Cup to last year's Westgate mall siege in Nairobi and Nelson Mandela's funeral.

Dumor died in his London home on 18 January of a heart attack.

BBC global news director Peter Horrocks called Dumor a leading light of African journalism. He was 'committed to telling the story of Africa as it really is,' Horrocks said when Dumor died. And James Harding, BBC director of news and current affairs, spoke of Dumor's 'singular role in transforming the coverage of Africa'.

The key to reporting on the continent, Dumor told The Media, is telling their story 'without letting one's own assumptions take over'. He said: 'African audiences are changing. Viewers are more sophisticated. The old ways of telling a story can no longer be sustained.'

The BBC has an 80-year history in Africa, with bureaux in 45 countries that are largely staffed by Africans. These are 'experts', said Dumor, 'who understand the stories in their complexity'.

'At the same time, we are not getting trapped in a single story or narrative. There has always been a recognition [at the BBC] that there are many narratives. The stories aren't just in the news ' there's a lot happening in business, entertainment, sport'' he said. 'We want to bring in different perspectives. How do we have this conversation so that everybody can relate to it?'

Dumor said that while Africa is huge and varied, there are experiences that unite its people on the continent. The borders between countries were drawn often without the input or consent of the people who lived there and the legacy of colonial stratifications remains.

'Africans are connected through common historical experiences. There are challenges that face working people across the continent and they are the same challenges. The same conversations are being had by Ghanaians, South Africans, Nigerians. They're all trying to get by, do business; they're all trying to hold their governments accountable.

'And sometimes we are connected by an emotional bond we don't always recognise. In the 2010 World Cup, Africans would connect with the African teams. I was told that Nairobi fell silent during the game [between Uruguay and Ghana]. West Africans watching the New York marathon were rooting for other Africans, people from a different geographic space.'

Indeed, Africa needs to be united if it is to compete in the global economy, says Dumor. 'As an economic bloc, we need to recognise that these borders were not created with the input of Africans' Ghana on its own can't negotiate with Europe, but as a bloc, Africa has more power.'

For Dumor, there was no one story that defined the African narrative. 'I've met Africa's wealthiest people, powerful politicians. And I've met ordinary people who have told me a great story. There's not a single story that defines Africa for me. All of these things come together to create a perpetual optimism in me.'

But one story that fascinated him was the development and role of social media and how it was changing conversations among young people.

'Social media has this transformative power. Powerful conversations and trends are developing on these platforms. Young people are having a very different kind of conversation and deciding how to approach these new issues.

'I interviewed Desmond Tutu recently and he told me that he can't get over how young people are speaking out, how they are prepared to question everything. He said that in his day, people listened to their elders! And the kind of conversations taking place on networking sites are driven by an African agenda.'

The subtleties in these agendas are difficult to grasp outside of the continent, said Dumor. 'You go to a party [abroad] and someone says they have some great African music, they've put it in their world music section. But as someone who has been, when off duty, to every nightclub on the continent, I can tell you that this is not what young people are listening to at all!'

Dumor saw a link between this spread of popular culture and social media and 'movements that serve political agendas'. His example was Occupy Nigeria, a social movement organised in response to the Nigerian government stopping petrol subsidies in 2012. Occupy, characterised by protests and strikes, was largely organised on Facebook and Twitter.

Was it like a Nigerian Arab Spring then?

'That interview with Tutu was very revealing. He said Africa had already had an Arab Spring in [the South African youth movement of] 1976. Why then be afraid of challenging the status quo? Young Africans are very vocal about what's happening, about what's wrong.

'And social media present a good opportunity for smart entrepreneurs and marketers because it's so easy to engage with people in that way. The online population of Africa is growing.'

Another story that stood out for Dumor is that of Manu Chandaria, a Kenyan businessman and one of the continent's wealthiest men. Chandaria is a highly successful entrepreneur and award-winning philanthropist ' and immensely humble and unassuming, said Dumor. Or that of Jason Njoku, whose online film distribution platform iRoko is transforming the way Nigerians consume media.

Dumor laughed as he recalled interviewing an Angolan woman for a story on economic disparity in Luanda. After the interview, she insisted that he 'pay' her by fetching water for her in a wheelbarrow. 'You just realise how the things people deal with day-to-day are the same. There are people who are three hours away from their nearest water. It's a common human experience.'

Faced with this sort of story, how did he try to represent them fairly, and not as abject victims?

'You have to be honest and truthful with yourself. I'm good at expressing my emotions while working. While I don't let them rule me, I think it's important that I tell a story with compassion and understanding. You must be honest with the people you are interviewing. And you must ask yourself: Are you telling their story, or are you telling the story you think needs to be told on their behalf?'

And the proof of telling authentic African stories is in the viewership, said Dumor. 'The ultimate judge of quality of reporting is the viewer. They will vote with their eyes. African audiences are sophisticated. They know patronising material when they see it.

'I am proud that we are able to tell more than one narrative about the continent. A big story may not be one of political relevance. It could be interviewing an actor or a musician, or maybe a science story. People who are changing the way the continent is perceived' What we've done successfully is changed the narrative. But there is always opportunity to tell more stories.'

Source: This story was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine. by Joanna Wright, 8 April 2014