The Challenge of Writing about African Coups

The Challenge of Writing about the Zimbabwean Coop

(when the Chickens came home to the Old, Stubborn Rooster)

African Coups – the Zimbabwean one being a good example – give every journalist with air-travel-abilities the opportunity to meaningfully transform the confusion of the third world into the light of truth and send this clarity from a ‘rocked by instability’ region, to the rest of the world (African coups are like earthquakes, after all – mysterious, sudden, unpredictable, inhuman.)

The journalist will find that once they land in Zimbabwe, the biggest hassle they will encounter is that traffic police who had been supplementing their meager earnings with roadblocks, stopping cars for such grave offences as not having their fire extinguishers securely attached near the driver’s seat, have been recalled, and so the roads are disconcertingly clear. Since the U.S. and British embassies have advised their citizens to stay indoors, the journalist can only conclude that the roads are in fact, currently very dangerous, and the lack of roadblocks is further proof of instability.

Once safe in their hotel, the journalist jots down some facts about the dictator’s life taken from Wikipedia, and then looks out of the hotel window to find a palm tree or a purple jacaranda which will offer the piece that exotic African flavor. After extolling dramatically about the complex tragedy of the dictator’s life, and the poor policies that destroyed a nation, the journalist sips their beer, and decides to support this epic story with some wholesome opinions from the locals – the so-called, ‘everyday people.’

A journalist who writes has the upper hand – they can find groups of distressed people at kombi ranks, and clothes selling markets. The drunk youngsters who steer passengers onto their kombis by yelling and slamming the doors of their buses so hard that eventually some of them fall off, are clearly in a lot of distress. The clothes sellers who stand vocal watch over piles of shirts and shoes are also not doing well. After all, why are all of these people yelling, running, and throwing things? They must be in the throes of a political panic they can express no other way, clearly. The television journalist has a harder job, but they can always supplement vague images with telling subtitles. One news channel reporting from Zimbabwe transmitted images of people walking the sidewalks like any other day, with the headline below reading: ‘political turmoil grips Zimbabwe.’ The people in the images don’t seem gripped by anything, and what does ‘political turmoil’ mean, really? In Zimbabwe, it is business as usual – what the world refuses to admit, is that the politicians have been so out of touch with the people for so long, that everything goes on as always when those politicians roll in army tanks to settle their domestic squabbles.

(Thieves, the lot of them.)

In any case, when writing about Africa, it’s the wording that is most important – every African story has to be appropriately dramatic. The Dark Continent bristles at too much complexity (no reader abroad will want an in-depth story). The strength of African journalism is in access to local people (aka real people, or starving Africans). Hence, the journalist must find a local person. How can they do that? Luckily, in Zimbabwe, as in much of Africa, locals are easy to find – they seem to be walking or sitting outside all of the time. The unemployment rate is 90 percent, the journalist will note sadly – this is what economists say, though none of them are brave enough to come and see the ways in which people employ themselves. Clearly these people have nowhere to be, the journalist writes. Fruit and vegetable vendors are the best people to interview since – first of all, they can’t run away (they are sitting with their piles of mangos and avocados), second of all, they are very much salt-of-the-earth people (poor people, of course, meaning real Africans), and third of all, they are everywhere, which means the journalist does not have to walk far to find one. In addition, they offer a nice, politically correct, gender balance – vendors are both men and women. The journalist will ask in low tones, how the vendor feels about the current situation, and the vendor will say something friendly, hoping to make a sale, while chatting away their real opinions on whatsapp in shona. Any mention of maprophets or TB Joshua should be ignored – this is only the vendor portraying their ignorance, and it is up to the journalist to maintain a strict separation of Politics and Religion. Too bad the journalist doesn’t realize they would learn more if they looked up a few facebook groups and used google translate to figure out what people say and how they feel – but then again, Africans aren’t supposed to have easy internet access.

Not that the vendor is all that important – the true story that the journalist came for, is the shadow in the eyes of the ruthless dictator who has spent his life stealing money from the people. The characters are drawn, and the stage is set – the dictator and his mad family, the army and whatever allies they may have, and the people. The people are one desperate, writhing mass, whose feelings the journalist has come to mine in order to discover what is really going on underneath the surface. The world is watching, the journalist feels as they drink their beer, I have a responsibility to understand the political maneuvering of this ruthless man (ruthless is a word every journalist must use when writing about African dictatorships).

Journalism on Africa is politics without a context, a spider web strung from cloud to cloud. The zombie Zimbabwean president who refuses to move, leave, retire, enjoy the rest of his life, or die, has long ago ceased to be relevant to a country full of people who want life, and not constant battling against death. These people live stories going beyond colonialism, beyond the West, beyond politicians, beyond crises, beyond illnesses, beyond one-line opinions meant to represent their whole selves - beyond the systems that they are now supposed to gratefully fit themselves into. 

We would do better than throw up old stories in a new context – let’s give Zimbabwe a chance for a new beginning. 

Klara WojtkowskaComment