James North writes:
Those of us with experience in Africa are regularly annoyed by the mainstream media coverage of the continent. We do not object in general to the reporting about war and hunger, which is sometimes accurate and has sometimes prompted genuine help. What disturbs us is that the African people we knew during our sojourns – in my case, 5 years – are usually left out, along with their courage, persistence and humor. Instead, we are briefly shown one-dimensional evil, warlords and child soldiers, alongside a sea of faceless, often nameless victims.
One counter-argument runs like this; the routine is not news, and the U.S. press does not run headlines like ‘Everything Normal Yesterday in Dubuque, Iowa.’ The key difference is that the average American knows without being reminded that Dubuque is not peopled exclusively by murderers and refugees. But most people, even the better informed, will be surprised to learn that Ouagadougou, the capital of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, where I just spent a pleasant week, has a lower crime rate than New York or Chicago.
It is one more example of the failure of the mainstream media that Wangari Maathai (left) is not much better known here. Americans may recognize her as the Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize back in 2004, which prompted a smattering of coverage then and not much since. They may vaguely associate her with massive tree-planting campaigns, making her sound like a well-meaning but boring do-gooder, unworthy of further attention.
In fact, Wangari Maathai is a fascinating, colorful, brilliant, courageous, humorous 69-year-old woman, with a sophisticated understanding of Africa today. She was the first East African woman to earn a PhD, and she has spent her entire adult life teaching, talking, persuading, and demonstrating. She was just in the United States promoting her new book, The Challenge for Africa, which is dense with personal experience and larger insights. She is also the subject of a just released documentary film, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, a version of which just aired on the PBS program Independent Lens.
It is true that Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement she helped start have planted 35 million trees, in an effort to slow deforestation, erosion and the drying up of precious water sources. But she skillfully links the environmental crisis in Kenya, and in Africa generally, to the history of colonialism, the rise of undemocratic rule and corruption after independence, and the continuing gross unfairness in the international economic order.
She is hard on most current African leaders; after all, a previous Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, is shown denouncing her in the film, and she was beaten into a coma after a nonviolent demonstration in Nairobi in 1992. But she is also careful to show the larger reality. For instance, she explains that the rich nations have been commercially overfishing Africa’s waters, and she points out that "the increase of piracy off the coast of Somalia has been blamed on reduced opportunities for local fishermen due to the lack of fish and increased competition from foreign trawlers."
Another instance of the bigger picture: during more than a decade of war in central Africa, in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo, millions of people – possibly as many as 4 million – have died, (most of them from disease and hunger rather than the war itself). This conflict, when covered at all, is usually portrayed as a fight among primitive local warlords. Wangari Maathai reminds us that a U.N. Security Council study found that up to 85 multinational corporations from the United States, Europe, and South Africa were doing business with criminal networks in the area, smuggling out riches including coltan, a mineral indispensable for manufacturing cellphones, and helping to keep the wars going.
Wangari Maathai lived and studied in the United States when she was younger, and so she is completely familiar with how Africa is misrepresented here; you shudder at how many silly questions about cannibalism and witch doctors she has probably had to fend off over the years. She says that much press coverage of Africa risks "stereotyping all countries south of the Sahara as places of famine, death, and hopelessness."
She continues: "These depictions fail to capture another reality, which is that every day, tens of millions of African women and men go about their business, live their lives responsibly and industriously, and look after their immediate and extended families, even if they lack certain material possessions, higher education, or access to the range of opportunities available to the wealthy in other countries, or even their own. These are the real African heroes, and it is these images the world should see more of."