Tuesday, September 22

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: In the news

It's a real shame that print journalists rarely ever make the news instead of just cover it. When your name is Janet Cooke or Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair, it's pretty bad for the profession, but as unsavory as those stories are, they are still a far sight better than those about the likes of Daniel Pearl and Stephen Farrell.

It's a shame those are the only two cases because if reporters found their names on the page and outside the by-lines more often, they might approach their stories with a bit more tact. They would better realize just how foolish one can appear when their quotes are taken out of context and how embarrassing some personal details can be. Reporters might treat their sources more respectfully then and generally be more careful in their coverage. They might spend more time considering why they are writing their article.

So I find it rather important to be in that situation now. The article isn't exactly about me. It's more about a situation that I find myself in. It's kind of like claiming that I voted in the last presidential election and thus am an authority, but the article does reference Pokot and is about a national drought that I am seeing the effects of, even if Nakuru is safely inside that slice of western Kenya not afflicted by the worst of the drought according to The New York Times' graphic. In fact, heavy rain clouds have reliably drifted through the sky every afternoon for the past month and, more often than not, have let loose a short drizzle. Not that it helps much since the principal growing season is well past.

"Lush Land Dries Up, Withering Kenya's Hopes" is in that unfortunate class of famine-and-coup stories which are the only way the developing world ever receives any news coverage in the West and plays that angle for all that's worth. Through the personal stories of Turkana villagers waiting for the delivery of emergency food, Jeffrey Gettleman does not miss a chance to describe the most dramatic effects of the drought. “[T]he picturesque savanna is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones.” A starving man begins choking on his porridge, “the color and texture of sand,” and only stops when his granddaughter offers him a “capful of water.” Children are starving to death, and government officials readily deny the most obvious reasons. And all of this is happening in one of the most developed nations in Africa. By the end of the article, the reader cannot help but feel further depressed about the chances that Africa, if one can ever refer to such an immense and diverse continent in the singular, will be separate from the euphemism “developing.”

To his credit, Mr. Gettleman, to use the very proper style of the Times, does point out the inability (or is it unwillingness?) of the government to deal with its own problems, but I think he misses their greatest failure. It's not just that the Parliament appears more interested now in minimizing the power of President Kibaki by denying his political appointments than in feeding the people but that the water supply should not be a problem in Kenya. The Mau Forest is an abundant source of water, but the Moi administration more than eagerly sold off huge tracts of it to settlers and shell companies owned by family and friends. The Kenyan government has been so ridiculously corrupt that it has put more effort into protecting and growing the fortunes of politicians than the lives of citizens.

And I would like to point out that the reports of ethnic conflict, as least as described by Mr. Gettleman, are exaggerated. When things go bad in Kenya, sides will form along tribal lines, but that the Turkana and Pokot are fighting is evidence of nothing. Even in the best of times, the Pokot will still steal the Turkana's goats and the Turkana will steal them plus some right back. It's what they do. Forty years after independence and no government has demonstrated or attempted an effective way to deal with it. You may as well say tensions are high in Europe because the Greeks and Turks don't particularly care for each other.

I wonder why this article was written and received placement on page A1. To make those Americans who read the Times feel better about their own situations and realize how much worse it could be? A part of me wants to say that there is a call to action contained within this article, a plea for food and water aid to keep the people alive, but Mr. Gettleman seems plenty ready to deny the possibility of that. When the United Nations and World Food Program are unable to raise the funds to protect some four million Kenyans from starvation because donor nations are no longer certain of the viability of the state, who can help?

I only hope that it wasn't written as witness to yet another catastrophe.

1 comment:

adventures north said...

Hi there - I don't know you, but we are transports to your hometown & someone recently shared your blog with me. I've really appreciated your perspectives, esp. given that our family includes 2 E. African children. Most people don't understand the complexities of children in various stages of need in that region and thank you, thank you! for addressing the issue of media coverage.

Enjoy your time in Kenya!