Our picture of events in Afghanistan and Haiti

🌐 It's hard to know how skewed it is.

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It’s hard to find multiple sides of the story.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been following the political events in Afghanistan and the aftermath of another strong earthquake in Haiti. You’ll know this already if you’re a reader of the weekly Briefings.

As I picked up report after report, I registered an uncomfortable feeling: with the exception of this piece in the Haitian Times, none of that coverage was coming from sources that were based in—or had a strong association with—the countries themselves.

That got me wondering how skewed our picture of these events might be—especially in the case of Afghanistan, given the US dominance over global media.

Part of the problem is that without strong local media, it’s hard to know just how skewed our picture actually is. 

Oxfam’s Duncan Green, who writes the always thought-provoking Poverty to Power blog, chose to highlight the tropes that often accompany the coverage by turning a “blistering” Twitter thread by writer and academic Justin Podur into a blog. Titled ‘How to Write About Afghanistan: A Style Guide for Western Journalists’, the piece names and shames a litany of reporting stereotypes that US and British media fall prey to.

An excerpt:

Select other adjectives from this list: rugged, wind-swept, hardy, wide-eyed (referring to children), fierce (referring to independence, as in “fiercely independent”), proud, suspicious of foreigners, death and destruction.

When referring to any evil or atrocity committed by the US (or British or Canadians, etc.) against Afghans, you will use words like failure, mistake, blunder, error, or (a new and good one) debacle.

There is, in fact, a version of this satire that’s specific to Haiti. In ‘How to Write about Haiti’, published in HuffPost in 2017, multimedia journalist Ansel Herz says that as a survivor of the major earthquake that hit the country seven years earlier, he wanted to ‘help out’ the big-time reporters parachuting in and out of Haiti.

Here are a few gems:

For starters, always use the phrase “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere”. Your audience must be reminded again of Haiti’s exceptional poverty.

Point out that Port-au-Prince is overcrowded. Do not mention large empty plots of green land around the city. Of course, it is not possible to explain that occupying US Marines forcibly initiated Haiti’s shift from distributed, rural growth to centralized governance in the capital city. It will not fit within your word count. Besides, it is ancient history.

If you must mention Haiti’s history, refer vaguely to Haiti’s long line of power-hungry, corrupt rulers.

Better to report on groups that periodically enter from outside to deliver food to starving kids (take photos!). Don’t talk to the youth of Cite Soleil about how proud they are of where they come from. Probably gang members.”

It’s worth noting that neither of these pieces was penned by a local writer. But their lineage goes back to the late Kenyan author and gay activist Binyavanga Wainaina.

Wainaina, who is credited in both cases, published ‘How to write about Africa’ in Granta magazine in 2005. It’s one of the articles he is best known for, according to this obituary in the Guardian. Wainaina died in 2019, at the age of 48.

Let me take a little detour to tell you about the story of how this satire was born.

While looking into Wainaina’s piece and researching media representation, I stumbled on a follow-up piece he wrote a couple of years later in Bidoun—a magazine about arts and culture in the Middle East and its diasporas—which he called ‘How to write about Africa II': The revenge’.

Part of it is a recounting of how the original piece emerged: as “a long—truly long—rambling email to the editor” of Granta while Wainaina was a student in England. He was responding to a previous “Africa” issue of the magazine which, he writes, “was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known”.

The editor responded at once, a back and forth ensued about a contribution to the magazine, and eventually, they ended up where it all began: with an edited version of the original outpouring of anger.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey—chair of the Caine prize for African writing, which Wainaina won in 2002 for his short story ‘Discovering Home’—said about the writer, “he produced work in his short life that will have impact longer-lasting than those whose time here is twice as long”.

How did he feel about it? Well, here’s what he says in ‘The Revenge’: 

Now I am “that guy,” the conscience of Africa: I will admonish you and give you absolution.

So, how to write about Africa?

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. 

Wainaina continues:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

And finally:

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

This line of criticism around representation has intensified in recent years.

There’s now more awareness of racist tropes and how ‘parachute journalism’ reinforces unequal power dynamics that influence whose voices get heard. 

For the reader, it amounts to our sense of reality coming from one side of the story, often unknowingly.

This is a symptom of systemic problems and historical patterns.

One is the perennial issue of global stories told from the angle of US domestic politics, leaving a vacuum in the absence of Afghan voices—read more on that in this recent Columbia Journalism Review article by Jon Allsop.

Another is the allure of “disaster porn”, an example being the coverage of Haiti’s cholera epidemic about a decade ago by mainstream US media—read more, again in Columbia Journalism Review, in this piece by Maura R. O’Connor.

One reason for the imbalance in coverage comes down to the limited supply of homegrown journalism. The job can be extremely dangerous in conditions of political insecurity, and when infrastructure for the media sector is poor. It’s hard to miss the urgent efforts to evacuate Afghan journalists right now—here are some resources on how to support organisations trying to help.

Afghanistan and Haiti are on the extreme end of a wider problem of representation which readers of this newsletter know well. 

And even with good intentions and astute awareness, reporting with due care is just difficult in practice. Andrew Quilty, an experienced photojournalist who has been based in Kabul for years, writes with great candour and nuance about oversimplification in reporting from the point of view of an outsider reporting in Afghanistan.

It’s not enough to talk about the problem, of course. With that in mind, I’ve tried to dig for leads on where to go for coverage of both crises beyond Western media. Here are the examples that have come my way so far —if you have more to add, please share with a comment below.

Afghanistan International | Kabul Now | Le Nouvelliste | Al Jazeera

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Briefing Highlights


The growing risk of water problems was highlighted by the recent IPCC assessment of climate science: floods and droughts are expected to intensify. This isn’t really news. But we’re seeing water feature in a growing number of news reports, with wide-ranging ramifications. Looming hunger linked to drought in Madagascar and East Africa. Disruptions to drinking water, irrigation, and electricity that powers basic services as dams dry out in Syria and Iraq. Rising border tensions when dams are built to control water supplies, whether in Iran or Ethiopia. Limited access to water getting in the way of efforts to contain wildfires in Algeria. And a link to the rise in global migration.

More in the last Briefing, August 24

In November 2020, a mudslide triggered by Hurricane Eta buried the Guatemalan town of Queja, a disaster survived by about 1,000 people. These survivors are still living in makeshift settlements that the government has declared uninhabitable. That means they’re not eligible for electric poles, road repairs or an improved water supply. The survivors’ future is looking bleak. (WaPo + Guardian)

🎥 VISUAL | Guatemala mudslide survivors - Guardian

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From the week’s global soundtrack 🌐

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