|African Cultural Project
The Mass Media in Rwanda: Stereotypes Revisited
by Ikaweba Bunting
This is a Paper presented at a Conference: Aid Agencies, the Media and Emergencies - Lessons from Rwanda which was held in Dublin, Ireland
I was in the audience and heard Dr Bunting present this paper. He was allocated a time to deliver his paper; a time he exceeded, in my estimation, by about 100%. Yet, there was not a stir from the audience, whom he held spellbound throughout his delivery. There was also not a single challenge to the contents of the paper in the question and answer session. Please, read on ...
On one occasion I was visiting London. I was in a taxi with my bags, obviously a visitor. The taxi driver asked me where I was coming from and what I was in London for. I explained that I was working for Oxfam. To which he acknowledging replied, "Oh yeah, they're the ones always asking for money!", he continued, "so what do you do for them?". I told him that I was just coming from one of the Rwandan refugee camps and I was on my way to give a talk about what is happening.
After a brief pause in our conversation he said, "You see the problem is that there are too many tribes killing each other. No offence, you see, but that's all Africa is — a lot of small tribes all killing each other. Even in South Africa that is what the problem is. They call them parties, the ANC and what have you but they are really just tribes fighting each other for the power". Here I thought I would give him something to think about so I commented: “I guess you could look at it like that; even the white South Africans as a tribe”. He quickly said, "No, now they are different, they are from Europe ... ".
I will not speak to you today using statistics about how many minutes of news footage was used covering the activities of relief agencies, and how few minutes were used to cover what had happened in Rwanda to bring about the emergency though, I must confess, I started to prepare such a presentation. Later, I thought better of it. I do not want to bore you and I am sure your organisation, if it has not already done this type of documentation and research, soon will.
Rather, I will share with you my thoughts, concerns and opinion in a broader context of what is happening in respect of Western portrayal and interpretation of Africa and African events. It is a phenomenon which I personally view as a serious issue and central problem affecting the peace and stability and prosperity of the world.
I am extremely concerned about the way in which the media in Europe and America portray the Third World. For starters, I am concerned about the term ‘Third World’ and its implication. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the legendary Nigerian musician, was also concerned about this term so he wrote a song exclaiming that Africa was not the third world but rather the first world. He sang about Africa being at the centre of the earth, it is the birth place of humanity and it is ignorant to say [Africa is] Third World.
I am concerned about cultural and economic imperialism and the power relations between rich and poor, strong and weak. I am extremely concerned that the role and activities of the mass media in its portrayal of ‘majority world peoples’ is not critically linked to the culture of domination that has been cultivated over the past 500 years by an expansionist capitalist industrial Europe and America.
This absence of critical analysis regarding the significant and influential role the international mass media plays in the political, social, economic and cultural domination of the majority world people by Europe and America is symptomatic of occidental cultural and racialist arrogance.
I am concerned that when someone raises these issues he or she is labelled a conspiracy theorist.
I am outraged that we are not doing enough to stop what is happening.
The world system of international institutions, including educational, financial, political and cultural, is built upon a racist concept of inferiority and superiority. The superior are Europeans and their culture and the inferior are the majority world peoples. Throughout the European portrayal of their encounter with the majority world they have denigrated and defined all others as inferior. Peoples, nations and kingdoms have been categorised as backward peoples, uncivilised savages, Third World, Under-developed World, primitive, etc.
Images are made in the mind. The image of savages killing missionaries and eating them has long and complicated story behind it. It is an image that has had centuries of concentrated propagation into the collective unconscious of both black and white peoples. How much effort has gone into eliminating that cultural stereotype?
When it is reported in the Western press that the Zulu 'tribal' organisation, Inkhata, is fighting against the ANC in a frenzy of black on black violence, this is a gross over-simplification being presented and also gross stereotypes are being reinforced! Five million Zulus are a 'tribe'. Five million is the population of Denmark. Are Danish people referred to as a tribe? When the Prince of Wales visits the Midlands I would love to hear it reported that a British sub-chief visited his tribal homelands.
As early as 1989, the countries of the European Common Market had worked out a code of conduct regarding the portrayal of images of the so-called "third world". It placed responsibility upon western journalists to be very conscious about images in respect of photographs, films, television, books, articles and news reports. With such a code there is also an implied commitment to honesty, truthfulness and consent from people whose images are being portrayed.
Here we are today, seven years later, discussing the same problem. Is it better or has it become worse? Have people followed the code? We definitely do not consent to the image being portrayed about Africa and African people to the world! But where are our voices of dissent to be heard?
What is difficult to come to terms with, even amongst well meaning persons who try to portray the fair image, is the power relationship that legitimises and gives authority to Euro-centric cultural conceptualisations that are imbued in the created images and culture for the whole world. What must be addressed is white supremacist cultural hegemony and the consequent power relations. This must be done in order to understand why images of black people are portrayed as they are and how to bring an end to the distorted and negative image portrayal.
The image of Africa as dangerous, primitive, helpless and corrupt is accompanied by a sparse understanding of the geography and an even scantier understanding of the cultural and socio-economic realities. To cover up their ignorance, Europeans reporting on Africa historically have made up and created stories, fictitious events and images. The biased and distorted images are largely due to the media and sometimes the NGOs themselves.
The media in collaboration with NGOs and international relief agencies during the Rwanda crisis reinforced the inferior and superior myth, the Hamitic myth, the myth of tribal savages. I am so sick and tired of hearing about the so-called Hamitic Tutsi. The Black people who are not black but rather dark Caucasians.
Contained in the majority of reports about Rwanda are stereotypes of morally, and technically superior White saviours rescuing helpless and brutal Africans from themselves woven like a tapestry throughout what on the surface seems like even-handed and compassionate reports.
One article written by Colin Smith published in the Guardian in August 1994 begins: "Connie Bass, a Dutch nurse extraordinaire... Bass, a wiry, blue-eyed woman (my emphasis) who has spent most of the last twenty years in the world's trouble spots saw a mortar bomb land in her (my emphasis) emergency ward and kill at least seven of her patients.
The story goes on to describe Connie's heroics, of how she improvised traction weights out of plastic water containers, delivered 54 babies, (one would think she did it all single-handedly the way the report is written), and after delivering them all she presented the babies to their mother in cardboard boxes that she had ever so sensitive and compassionate decorated with pink bows made out of toilet paper wrappings.
What is missing from the story is that hundreds of nurses and medical assistants from the host communities and from amongst the refugees are there with Connie showing her how to cope, what to do and working just as hard and just as skilful.
It is left out that for years before Connie arrived in Africa water filled containers have been used by rural African nurses and hospital attendants in situations where there is no war or conflict, just the everyday reality of poverty and the improvisation it necessitates just to survive another day. It is not Connie's invention. However, it is Connie's story, not a story about Rwandan refugees. Rwandans are a backdrop, a cyclorama in front of which the NGOs and relief agencies and the UN performed for their audiences in their living rooms in Europe, America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
What is the difference? Why don't we hear or read about the sacrifices and heroics of Africans, victims, refugees helping themselves and their fellow beings in conditions much more demanding than Connie's and for hundreds of times less financial rewards or recognition? The difference is that Connie is white, she is European and she comes with a tradition. By emphasising her as the central figure the tradition of a superior civilisation and culture capable of saving the Africans from the ravages of their uncivilised selves is handed down through another generation of explorers, adventurers and missionaries.
The same piece by Colin Smith continues building the issue of White superiority. He writes: "... few would deny that the French who were the first Western troops in Goma have done an excellent job". There is of course no mention of the French army's role in creating the situation in Goma, nor of their particular interests in working with those particular Rwandese in Goma as opposed, for example, to those in Karagwe.
After reciting the plaudits of the French and American armies, Colin Smith mentions the Zairean Army contrasting civilised, moral, efficient armies with a corrupt, uncivilised, savage one. He states "... Both military and aid workers are beset by banditry and corruption of Zairean troops and officials whose greed and brutality keep central Africa's largest country locked in its heart of darkness ...". Locked in its heart of darkness! The phrase is loaded with racial overtones and images of Darkest Africa, savage, corrupt and dangerous.
Regarding the issue of power and control, we wonder if well-intentioned communicators from the western world are willing, and are they in a position to take direction. That is, be managed by Africans regarding the portrayal of the image that is propagated in Europe and America of Africans? Are journalists and communicators ready to relinquish editorial control to majority world peoples, to Africans? Are they willing to give the power to define and to decide to Africans about how Africa is portrayed in the western media or in reports to NGOs and donor agencies?
I have raised these questions before and, defensively, European aid workers and journalists have rebutted my questions with statements like: "The Chinese won't be honest about what is happening in China and if they do tell the truth they will be persecuted"; I have heard retorts that, "African governments are repressive so only puppets get access to education and to media so their reports won't be accurate or independent".
These all may be so but it might also be the way I, together with many other people in the majority world, feel about European and American journalists and reporters that come to create their stories about what is happening in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
But the reality is that those of us who question or doubt are few and far between. So ingrained is the belief in the superiority of what comes from Europe, African newspapers quote reports straight off the international news wire services about news events that happen in our own countries or region rather than from regional or local sources.
African writers, journalists, film-makers, artists do not come to Ireland or Britain for the world media or international news networks. There are no analyses on the international wire services based on the African perspective or interpretation of British people or European culture. Chinese investigative journalists do not go to the US and investigate what goes on in prisons in the USA and produce documentaries that are shown on CNN or Skynet.
We speak often in idyllic terms about co-operation. However, if you have all of the resources at your disposal and under control, the faxes, the satellite phones, the technology, the wire services, the broadcast stations and the power to deny me access even when I do have the technology to send my message, we cannot be co-operants but rather there is a relation between either a beggar and a master, or a rebel and an oppressor.
Where there is a power imbalance, where does co-operation begin? Upon what can it be based? There is a political and cultural dimension that must be addressed. These dimensions of power and control are disseminated and propagated via the mass media and educational institutions and development institutions.
Throughout Europe, as a result of the way Africa is presented not only in the media but in text books and literature, Africa is associated by a majority of young people with hunger, famine, poverty, under-development, war, dictatorships and apartheid to a lesser extent.
Images most universally accepted as typically reflecting the condition of Africa is that of the mother with a sick child. Another typification is the arrival of aid for refugees or famine victims, and the white emergency relief nurse or sanitation engineer amidst crowds of suffering and destitute needy giving the grim statistical realities of the enormity of the task they (the relief workers) are faced with in saving these people either from natural disasters or from themselves from "savage blood letting".
Images and pre-conceived notions are implanted at early ages. For example, some Danish children living in Tanzania with parents who were working as development assistance volunteers were shown a picture of an African child standing among some sacks of maize-meal. When asked what they thought the majority said it was a small boy whose family had just received some food aid or development aid. The reality was that the boy was waiting in the market to sell the maize from his family's farm.
In relation to Rwanda's troubles very little was mentioned about the political dynamics or the class dimensions of the conflict. Most reports, then as now, begin with the lead-in "Tutsi dominated ..." or "the extremist Hutu militia ...". Why don't we hear instead each report repeatedly begin with the lead-in 'the French-trained militia who carried out acts of genocide ...'?
It was reported that amongst the original 3000 RPF cadres that first entered Rwanda there were 400 persons with doctorates. That is a very high percentage in any given population. However, we never hear very much mention of this in terms of its influence on the RPF. It was reported as something freaky, as an amusement point. We don't hear about the intellectualists-dominated RPF government! Why not?
Amongst the refugees were workers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, professionals, journalists and farmers. There were people who are multi-lingually fluent speaking French, Kirwanda, Kiswahili and English. Very seldom were these people used or interviewed to give an opinion or an analysis of what their situation was. I believe I was told that about 83% of the interviews by the media covering was of white emergency workers.
If there were a survey to determine what people remember most about the Ethiopian Famine of 1985, there is no doubt that most people in Ireland would remember Bob Geldof and the Live Aid concert. In America it would be Michael Jackson singing We Are The World. What will they remember about Rwanda?
The major players in Rwanda were the UN, France, RPF, the former Rwandan government, the UNHCR and the mass media. The media plays a major role in the international humanitarian industry. This is especially so for those organisations that are dependent upon charitable contributions for their income and existence. No concrete study has been done to determine precisely what that role is and the degree of influence.
I can recall in Ngara, situations that deserve mention here. As an early Oxfam contingent in the camp in Ngara, we had to set up a house/office and establish logistics, etc. Things were happening fast. After the second or third day we received a message that the BBC was sending a correspondent named Ben Brown from Moscow to Ngara. This person who had been covering Moscow was sent to Ngara, Tanzania, to cover the Rwandan genocide and refugee crisis. He had no knowledge or understanding of what was happening.
The report was a "scoop". The scene was a river crossing in canoes by refugees at a place that had been inaccessible to news teams. We managed to get the BBC crew there. The focus of the report, much to my disappointment, was the canoe operators charging money for the crossing. They were asking for he equivalent of 10 pence per living being, person or animal, and 5 pence approximately for any piece of luggage, bicycle, sewing machine or bag of beans. I was actually interviewed by this correspondent who was looking for a story line. He asked me what was happening and I explained to him what was going on.
This BBC correspondent then twisted the question on me to ask if I thought that it is cruel and exploitative for the canoe operator to be charging for the ride across the river. I was taken aback because I had asked him previously what questions he would ask me and this wasn't one he said he would ask. I was angered as well. Here we are witnessing one of Africa's most tragic historical moments and our BBC top correspondent started with "... the Tanzanian river touts are turning the tragedy of Rwanda into a real money spinner ...".
How could ten pence become the focus of this river crossing? Were these men more exploitative than air charter companies charging thousands of pounds to deliver food, blankets, etc.? Or again more exploitative than the NGOs who raise millions of pounds from broadcasting the images of the suffering victims?
The second incident happened after we had viewed and filmed corpses floating down the Akagera River. Upon our return to the campsite I reported that we had seen bodies in the river. The person I spoke to then asked what ‘colour’ were the bodies? After a pause, I told him that they were grey! Embarrassed now he turned red and dropped the subject of colour!
The third, and perhaps the most sinister, was the creation of Benaco as a place on the map in Tanzania. The real location of the camp was at a place locally known as Kasulo, Ngara and Rusomo. BENACO is the acronym of the Italian construction company building the road connecting Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. Most journalists and TV crews, especially from major services, stayed at the luxurious, by any standards, Italian compound. It is here that the satellite phones and real time broadcast facilities were set up. It had a bar, restaurant and video theatre.
In the early days of refugee camps, local people were still calling the place either Kasulo or Ngara and the foreigners were calling it BENACO. One evening some weeks later, I was in London watching a news report on CNN or BBC and they showed a map of the region and there, marking the towns was a dot on the map for Nairobi, another one for Kigali, one for Bujumbura and one marking the newly created and named town of BENACO. We had been renamed once again!
Concerning Rwanda, much has been said about the role the media played and much remains to be researched and said. Rwanda offers a contrast as to what media attention and concern and reportage can do. In April 1994, when the genocide gained full momentum, most journalists of the international media were covering the South African elections.
I have, in fact, heard journalists expressing guilt and even shame at covering the elections in South Africa enjoying the euphoria of that situation while people were being slaughtered in Rwanda. But even the reporting of the South African transition from statutory apartheid to de-facto apartheid was distorted. It has been said in some reports that one of the reasons the Rwandan genocide did not get much attention as it should [have been] is that the South African elections overshadowed it as a media event!
In contrast, however, the response to the exodus of Rwandans to Goma after the RPF took power was a media event. This situation received much more attention than did what happened inside the country. The results were the massive media coverage, horrific images on international TV and in newspapers, and a world frenzy to send and be seen sending assistance! The military involvement of the USA sending relief to the refugees can in a great degree be attributed to the role of the media.
The disparity in the level of response has in fact caused quite a bit of bitterness amongst the survivors of genocide who see those whom they feel are perpetrators of genocide being given more attention and assistance than the victims, survivors and those who halted the genocide. Host communities in Zaire and Tanzania also have expressed similar feelings. It is not sensational to show how host communities have supported the refugees much to their economic, environmental and infra-structural detriment.
Addressing issues honestly, I would like to offer a bit of criticism regarding how the situation of South Africa is being portrayed. We should avoid being caught up in the euphoria of media hype. An example is how the media now describes the transition from apartheid (white) political control to the establishment of a black bureaucratic political bourgeoisie as non-violent.
This is a gross distortion of history, whether one looks at the four hundred years of Dutch/Boer/British colonialism, National Party policy of apartheid from 1948, post Sharpeville massacre, or the one year leading up to the 1994 elections where more than 1000 people a month were being killed in political violence, that is, 30 people per day. Colonialism, apartheid and the dismantling of it, have been and still are extremely violent.
Non-violent? Not unless, of course, what is meant, and is at least implied, that black people did not kill large numbers of white people and therefore it is a non-violent power-sharing exercise. In fact, because of the gross inequalities of the economic apartheid, which has not been dismantled, hundreds of people are still being killed through acts of violence. It is called crime but the root cause of this violence is the inequitable arrangements of employment, wages and resource distribution and is therefore political. The media very seldom, if ever, goes into this analytically.
We must not lose our understanding of the fact that apartheid was a socio-economic system designed to maximally exploit black African labour. The separation of social amenities was only the cosmetics of that system. We must remember that black people in South Africa were not fighting to integrate into the existing system but rather they were fighting for economic, political and cultural self-determination. What is really being heralded and celebrated in South Africa? Once the novelty and euphoria of having black politicians diminishes the struggle will pick up where it left off. How will this be portrayed by the media? As 'Black on Black' violence?
Why, pray tell, isn't the conflict in Bosnia or even the conflict between the Irish nationalists and those who want to remain part of the British kingdom called 'white on white' violence?
The media raises public awareness at the same time it influences politicians and public policy positions. This might be seen as a positive affect and it can be. However, we must ask the question in what politico-cultural context is the story presented, how is the social, economic, political and cultural situation portrayed in which the story takes place?
In the world of business and politicking for election the media is one of the most important assets and tools. Its significance and centrality to the humanitarian industry is a known phenomenon and a subject of hot debate. It is in fact part of the reason we are here today. The role the radio played in inciting people to kill their neighbours in Rwanda is also a testament to the power of the media.
I have one last simple question to ask. Considering the power the media has to influence and stimulate change, why then when we speak of empowerment, do we not give the people free access to the media? When people in the West speak of free media they do so from the perspective of consumers. They mean a person should be able to buy, read, listen to or see anything that is produced or published. However, in this case that is not what I am talking about. Consumption is not empowering even if the television advertisements tell you that it is.
By free access, I mean the access to produce. Ordinary people should be trained in how to produce films and videos and radio programmes at an internationally accepted broadcast quality and be given access to and profits from the international networks of information and entertainment distribution. Those who are producing should be published and made internationally renowned like so many western "cultural ambassadors".
This would be a million times empowering than all of the participatory workshops that are run in a year in Africa, Asia and Latin America combined! And you know that is a very large amount! This is not as far fetched an idea as it may sound. Aid and donor organisations, if you sincerely want to contribute in a spirit of solidarity, you must support expressions and world views, perceptions, and analysis of the world coming from the majority world. Insist on reports and studies being designed, compiled, produced and controlled by majority world people. The results cannot be any worse than they have been for the past 500 years.
Through the years since the days of being conquered and enslaved and colonised, much has been taken from African people. We have had to look for ways of communicating with each other. At times it was a crime to converse in one's own mother tongue. The language of the conqueror was the only language — all else was gibberish, ooga-booga. What was not taken, however, was the gift of the drum, for the drums speak. The drums are our broadcast media, the rhythm of life. Let us speak! The message is in the music. So, won't you help to sing these songs of freedom?
Relinquish power to the impoverished people to define the world. Oh! Seems I'm talking about a revolution! Poor people gonna stand up and take what's theirs!
This is a Paper presented at a Conference: Aid Agencies, the Media and Emergencies - Lessons from Rwanda in Dublin, Ireland on 16 February 1996, organised by Comhlámh - the Irish Association of Returned Volunteers
© Ikaweba Bunting
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