THIS week two ‘stories’ filled up the online conversation on Twitter and Facebook in Uganda, and both made me think of the Katwe area at the start of Entebbe road.
Actually, referring to the two as ’stories’ is to elevate them to a level that used to be respectable, reliable and trustworthy.
Back in the days when we relied only on traditional media, a story was something you read in a newspaper or heard on radio or watched on TV and had the confidence to discuss, analyse or even repeat.
If we heard about a story from a third-party we tried our best to go and read it ourselves, or to catch the next radio or TV bulletin. Such was our need for story validation that libraries stocked newspapers for people to go and refer to, and there was even a thriving business enterprise behind Uganda House that sold old newspapers.
I remember checking with that business enterprise to establish whether the old newspapers were mostly being sold as kabalagala and mandazi wrapping, and the proprietor telling me they weren’t. Many of them were bought by people who had missed their personal copies or needed to double-check one story or another.
That was then.
Back then, you were respected if you could hold a conversation about current affairs or a topic on which you had knowledge and withstood any challenges to your quantity of knowledge. I even recall quiz games played in school corridors in which people showed off their knowledge of different topics and current affairs – one such game was called ‘Bwino’, which in some vernacular means “ink”, further testimony to the level of respect we had for print as a concept. The participants, school children, took themselves quite seriously and dreaded taunts such as ‘Radio Katwe!’
The term ‘Radio Katwe’ meant you had just made up a fact in your head; it originated in the days when the official media was forced to go underground due to the politics of the day, and we relied on unofficial information – the grapevine or rumour mill – ‘akatwe‘.
The name was a play on the Katwe area of Kampala where ingenious artisans fabricated things locally out of metal and other materials. In those days of scarcity and shortage, it was impossible to find new devices, gadgets or implements such as we needed in homes and even offices, and that led to the rise of Katwe. Similarly, with official news sources being scarce, we were forced to rely on word-of-mouth as a medium, ergo Radio Katwe.
And in Katwe they fabricated these things quite well without any professional training, it seemed, but just by looking at or studying an original and then copying its parts or altering it.
But that absence of professional training is an important factor, because whereas you could get a locally fabricated machine that did the basics of what it was intended to do, because of a small omission such as earthing you could kill yourself while making popcorn or ironing a handkerchief…
And that’s why I was thinking of Katwe, because that absence of professional training is what differentiates a journalist from any character with access to a Facebook, Twitter or blogging account. Professional training that gives a journalist the ability and skill to double check facts and present information in a clear, lucid, accurate manner, for instance.
Which is why anybody who gets their news from only social media sources should be as careful with it as the person who buys a popcorn machine fabricated in Katwe. A nail could come loose and shatter your teeth while you munch away at your salty snacks.
It may be accurate, and might work just fine, but there is a high likelihood that it’s not all safe.
Both of the stories that caused excitement this week contained major inaccuracies that didn’t make sense right under the surface, but the chatter on social media was torrid, angry and spread like a wildfire amongst people who didn’t even read them fully but just took the headlines and developed strong opinions.
And this is not about the media; rather, it’s about the consumers of media. Radio Katwe should continue fabricating stuff, but when you buy a device fabricated there, please use it carefully.