approach the global media narrative on your African country with caution

I AM writing this in a bit of an angry state, after more than thirty hours of flight time and one hour’s taxi time travel, because once again I have been starkly shown the difference between the narrative our imaginations see in the world of media and entertainment, and the reality on the ground in this world of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
During the lengthy flight time, quite at random, two movies stood out on my mind – the first was titled, “Hector and the Search For Happiness” and took us through the whimsical, fictional journey of the British psychiatrist Hector seeking for the meaning of happiness on an impulsive journey through Asia, Africa and North America.
Leaving, according to the movie, a very orderly and organised life in the centre of Britain, the hero Hector goes to Asia which is depicted as full of colour, whimsical and modernistic night-time fun, svelte and well-dressed men and women, tasty food and drink both on the streets and in expensive hotels, and simple but good living.
And of course, he goes through a Buddhist monastery and meets a white-haired mysterious and wise old monk with a satellite dish and worldly views on top of a snow-capped mountain where the sun shines bright and colourful flags somehow show up.
When leaving Asia, however, the ‘pretty’, well-dressed female Chinese staff at the airport verbally prepare Hector for his ongoing flight to ‘Africa’ by detailing the different levels of flight comfort from a level where the hand is held up high in the air (First Class) to a level where the hand is held near the floor and her expression causes her eyes to disappear in her face (even I was licked by this level).
Indeed, in the next shot, Hector is in an aeroplane that can only exist in the minds of a movie designer whose understanding of science is as warped as his knowledge of reality.
The aeroplane to Africa is practically held together by cellotape and occupied by livestock-cradling Africans, except for the lady Hector is Hector in Africaseated next to, who is well-spoken and has even read a book which she readily donates to Hector – a refreshing departure from the usual narrative.
But then he gets to Africa and the narrative is back so all we see is pestilence, dust, thuggery and warlordism and crime, interspersed with dancing ululating African families in shanty towns and villages.
Hector gets carjacked and abducted by rough, ugly, dirty criminals but is saved because he had earlier met, in the same ‘Africa’, a suave European criminal whose home, in the very same ‘Africa’ is a well-lined mansion tastefully decorated!
After he ‘escapes’ from Africa, he goes to Los Angeles in the United States where, I swear, he only meets white people in clean settings (even the beach does not raise any sandy dust on-screen) and generally spends time only in university theatres and medical labs.
By co-incidence, the next movie I caught was Will Smith’s “Focus”, because of a scene I spotted as my neighbour was watching it.
In this movie, Will Smith is a thief, but the glorified type of thief who, again, is suave and debonair and touted as clever in the way he runs his pickpocketing gangs of nice-looking Americans, including his newest recruit – a ‘beautiful’ white lady.
The scene that caught my attention was a shot labelled ‘Buenos Aires’, where my flight was heading to.
In the movie Buenos Aires we see Formula One tracks and cars, beautiful houses, cafes and mansions, filled with glamorous people hosting rich parties,  and bright, shiny supercars whizzing about.Scene From Focus
But the reality was very different from the minutes the airport doors opened up to me, and I was amused to see that the taxi service that picked me up had had their car radio stolen!
And as we drove through the city to my very nice hotel, I could clearly see the signs of this ‘emerging market’, being very, very different from what the movie label made it out to be.
The number of garbage bags standing on the roadside just metres 20150625_114226from the doorway to the Sheraton Buenos Aires, next to cracked pavements and streams of questionable looking fluids reminded me starkly of some spots I have seen in Hector’s Africa.
There were spots I drove through in Buenos Aires that revealed the type of Argentinian you never see when you are watching movies or following the news. The probability of spotting a poor, dirty, struggling Argentinian is extremely high on most streets in their capital city, but quite rare in the media – more rare than the equivalent from any African nation.
Overall, the experience reminded me once again how we must approach global media and entertainment with caution – especially those of us from these nations in Africa…the real Africa, not Hector’s idea of it.

Social Media & Radio Katwe: what’s your source and how seriously do you take it?

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 Katwe Workersdevices, 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.

westgate mall: tragedy, irony and anger

The tragedy is as obvious as day; the irony, on the other hand, keeps slapping us in the face as events unfold.

I found the tweets by @HSM_Press, said to be the Twitter handle of the Al-Shabaab fellows, callous and hateful; to declare reason for killing innocent civilians just doesn’t make sense, but to hear the Al-Shabaab people and all the so-called “Islamist” terrorists when they erupt in violence of the nature attributed to them today, the free world does this all the time in Afghanistan, Iraq and nowadays, Somalia.

It is an uncomfortable position to be in, trying to weigh their reason with their irrational actions, and ours with our rational actions, and one even feels hypocritical just beginning to listen to the likes of Al-Shabaab.

Yet when their Twitter account of today was suspended (the third time they’ve had this happen to them) a little bit of irony flashed across my computer screen at the thought that “freedom of expression” and “tolerance” has its limits.


As indeed it should – because these despicable fellows today have attacked and killed innocent civilians, traumatised children – including mine who are in another city and country but are now sleeping restlessly as I type this out sitting on the floor of their room where I have been forced to camp so they feel safe.

If God were running things like Twitter, then Al-Shabaab as a group would be suspended, what with all the comments thrown up about them that finally got them suspended after just ten or so tweets today (and about 50 in all since they opened this particular account), because they are too self-centred to be allowed to exist alongside other people. Their actions keep showing that they don’t believe anyone has a right to exist if they don’t agree with what they think, say or do. 

But then here’s irony again – if God were running things like Twitter, then even the US would probably get suspended, because then perhaps all the angry chaps wearing bomb-vests and whatnot would simply sign up numerous Twitter accounts and ‘Report User’ till the deed got done.

God (the real one in the real world) knows that I looked for a ‘report’ button when I came across the USAToday report of today’s (yesterday’s) attack in Nairobi, because I could not believe the self-centredness in it.

Read the headline, “Americans among injured in deadly Kenya mall attack“.



By the time that was up, we were all lamenting that more than 30 people had been killed and 300 were injured – and none of us had talked about the nationalities of these people. Actually, we had heard reports that the attackers had singled out non-Muslims as legitimate targets for their shootings, and we had expressed a range of emotions running from anger to hatred – and then this headline flashed at me off my computer screen.

Americans among injured…

If an American had slipped and grazed his knee while fleeing the scene of the attack, it was more important than the pregnant woman reportedly shot and declared dead on arrival at one Nairobi hospital (and I don’t know her nationality yet!).

And you know why that is all the more ironic? Because that’s the kind of thing the hateful Al-Shabaab people keep saying about their mortal enemies, the “Kuffars” (to quote their earlier tweet) or kafirs, as we used to say.

We, on the other hand, are so selfless that hours into the siege at Westgate, @newvisionwire reported confidently: “Breaking News: 3 shot dead in Afghanistan…” with the usual irrelevance brought on by gobbling up ‘international’ news and forgetting what is all the more important to us here, at home in East Africa.

Up to now, 0100hrs, thirteen-plus hours after the attack began, we are wondering whether there are any Ugandans on the list of dead and wounded…or are there only Americans?

Either way, we are angry. Very ANGRY at the self-centredness of people who only care about themselves…