Last week two distressful incidents struck different parts of the world in very different circumstances. Barcelona saw the Islamic State claim a terror act on a favourite tourist haunt which had the perpetrator plough his van through a road thronged with pedestrians. Sierra Leone, on the other hand, was visited by a huge mudslide which washed away homes on the edge of its capital. An involvement with humanity does mean that one is that much reduced each time the bell tolls to announce another’s death.
Accordingly, it borders on the irresponsible to hazard emotional equivalence in such situations. It ought not to matter how great the death toll is, if we are each diminished by another’s death. Yet, it was not just that for each life lost in the Catalan capital, Freetown lost 35. It is as much a function, too, of how difficult life has been of late for most Sierra Leoneans — one of the world’s more forlorn locations, and only just emerging from the ravages of the Ebola virus and (before that) a war that eroded the country’s already thin capacity for self-government. In part, however, the enormity of the disaster in Sierra Leone is an abiding symptom of the failure of the state in these parts.
Whereas, concerted policing efforts in Western Europe and North America (and, to be fair, considerable ineptness on the part of would-be terrorists) have made the motor vehicle the terrorists’ preferred weapon of choice. And the ubiquity of the vehicle and the anonymity it confers on its driver have made events like the one at Las Ramblas almost impossible to prevent. In Africa, much of the provenance of disasters such as took place in Sierra Leone reflect our leaders’ poor ordering of domestic priorities. Which circumstance, read differently, means that most of the natural disasters that the country suffers from, may, with proper governments in place, have been prevented, or made less punishing to the people.
Off this background, a part of the discussion of these two events on social media had me scratch my head most vigorously. At the heart of the conversation online was the way both disasters were treated by what one of the discussants called “big media”. Apparently, the likes of CNN had not only given much more airtime to the incident in Europe, but had put a slant on its Sierra Leone reportage that was “less than acceptable”. According to this friend of mine, writing on Facebook, “Every time they (big media) talk about Barcelona they play this sombre track and show us how world leaders and superstars sympathise with Spain. They show us the Eiffel Tower going dark for the victims. Everybody is sad. Flowers, pictures, memories. They manage to evoke public sympathy no doubt.
“Then, they show Sierra Leone, and show us the red soil, grave diggers and mass graves, etc. Somehow, this tragedy is reported as yet another piece of news. Somehow, your eyes remain dry unless you are African. Most will focus on the poverty than they would the tragedy”.
From there, the conversation moved on to how Africa was not “owning” its narrative. Obviously, this requirement to repurpose “our story” is not simply a function of who the storyteller is. It seems also to be about the “metrics and standards” that educate such narratives. Even this dimension of the problem, we also have to domesticate. Arguably, there is a great deal of truth in all of these. But no more than in the response to the question “Why are tales of want and extreme suffering out of Africa invariably the result of acts of God, or (what is in the end, but the flipside of the same coin), acts of omission and commission by unusually inept governments?”
The truth is that the dominant narrative out of the continent is not positive. Of course, this is not the same as arguing that there are no positive stories out of the place. It is instead a different way of saying that those who pay for the news media in Europe and North America have come to expect a people to be governed according to certain basic principles. It is, thus, newsworthy when people are not thus governed, resulting in the kind of tragedy that befell Freetown last week, or when those who would challenge those governance norms strike out at innocent citizens, as happened in Barcelona.
In this sense, an essential requirement for “domesticating our narrative”, in order, that it plays well on media anywhere in the world, is to move our governance practices (both in the public sector, and especially in the private sector) past the median measure for “normal” countries.