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What is ailing Kenyan journalism Part III?

Spurred on by more comments…

I’d like to start be revisiting a line in Gukira’s post that inspired Pt. I: “We have long complained that the Western press presents “rubbish stories,” indifferent to “real issues.” Is the Kenyan press no less complicit?” It’s been interesting to see some of the comments citing the same reasons that mainstream Western media houses raise when challenged about their poor/biased/stereotypical coverage of Africa i.e. our readers are not interested/don’t care/that sophisticated, we have a business to run, this doesn’t sell, we don’t have the resources to cover Africa “well” etc. If we easily “pooh-pooh” (yeah, I just wrote that) these excuses when they are put on the table by CNN, Reuters, NY Times etc., we should also be reluctant to accept the same excuses when it comes to African journalism. I’m not saying that they are not valid challenges and that running a paper is easy (hell what do I know), just that we shouldn’t accept complacency and mediocrity so easily.

Then there’s the issue of what the mwananchi wants to read…

In Acolyte’s view: When you say that you want to read hard hitting journalism with a social agenda you are not speaking for the common man but an educated elite. The newspapers try to cater for the lowest common denominator the mwanainchi and the people have voted with their pockets that they like what they are being served. Mymmoh adds: “I have to point out that I think the general Kenyan audience is not ready for “good journalism”. Kenyans prefer random excitement. Sensationalism and not really fact.”

I would challenge both these statements given that they are coming from the educated elite :-) Not sure that any of us are well-placed to speak on what the “common” Kenyan wants to see in a paper…but here’s my two cents anyway 😉 Yes, people (not just mwananchi) don’t want to read “dry” papers…there should be a balance between “hard news” and other stuff…all papers have that. And yes, there is an interest in sensationalist stuff…that’s why you have tabloids (and if they were that popular they would be more than the rag-tag affairs that they are). But there is also, I think, a deep need for information and “good journalism”…that’s why when the Daily Nation and Standard sell out it’s usually because of some great investigative journalism or really good reporting on an issue that resonates with people. I’ve traveled a lot and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a country like Kenya where papers are read voraciously…there’s literally a compe in the office, in the house, at the school library, in the matatu (where the guy next to you will almost stop you from turning the page because he hasn’t finished reading a storo) etc. for the paper. I think if more people could afford to spend Kshs 35 on a paper everyday, readership would be higher (that’s a whole other issue). I don’t see the same thing going on with more sensationalist papers.

Moving on…

What would I like to see? Exactly what Gukira suggests: Think Jua-Kali. Instead of a full-blown paper, how about a weekly or fortnightly zine? Short, very short–20-25 pages. Perhaps two to three “article” length piece, but then a lot of occasional writing–100-150 word pieces that “report” on specific locations, constituencies, initiatives, that draws from a wide pool of writers. “the people. He adds: zines! zines! zines! I know I seem obsessed. But I keep thinking about taking school magazines as a model for how to think about networks of locally-driven, relatively inexpensive zines, fortnightly or monthly, that could speak to local concerns, while also achieving some sort of national forum. I think Aco is right on “official” reporters. But what about the power of unofficial reporting. Biased, true. Partial, true. Perhaps inflamatory. But also, at times, a spur to action (at least in my ideal world). Think about how small zines could actually begin to develop civic responsibility in local high school populations, offer chances for small workshops from established reporters and journalists. Did I mention that international foundations, especially those dedicated to democratic causes, would absolutely leap at the idea of a people’s press? I know we have issues with accepting international funding, but it could be one way. Locally-run, high-school and radio-based zines. Short pieces. I think very jua kali.

I LOVE this idea…particularly the part about using local high schools (did your high school have an “informal” paper…mine did and there was a lot of talent reflected there…until the administration shut it down) and perhaps journalism students who want to gain some experience. Maybe a newsie Kwani? I think if internet access was not an issue both in terms of publishing and readership, blogging could be one way to harness the power of unofficial reporting. Since we don’t have this option “zines” would be the next best thing…only problem is that is so hard/frustrating to get Kenyans involved in anything that requires a bit of volunteerism, that doesn’t reflect an immediate personal gain, that is perceived to involve “idealism” etc…trust me, I’ve tried.

And ideally beyond the Jua Kali, a Kenyan version of this (The East African comes kinda close).

OK, I think I’ve exhausted this topic for now, no?

37 comments to What is ailing Kenyan journalism Part III?

  • I’m aware that I’m joining this discussion at the very end but, two things this post just reminded me of especially re the Jua Kali communication tools:

    One, when I was younger, living in Buru, some young men had started a zine of sorts, for Eastlands complete with advertisements from local business. I wonder what happened to that? Maybe I don’t see because I moved away, but methinks it died a premature death.

    Two, it was in the news, I think, the other day, a young boy in western Kenya was broadcasting on Radio from his hut, yes hut, to the rest of his village. It was very rudimentary, but very inspiring at the same time.

    Bottomline, I think there are alternative voices out there in the community but they’re choking on something before they’re grounded.

    Perhaps an umbrella body that encourages the formation and supports the existence of these ‘jua kali’ ventures would be the way to go?

  • Mymmoh

    OK. Let me start by acknowledging I agree the “zines” would be a good tool and a good start.

    That having been said, Ory has suggested that myself and acolyte being of the ‘educated’ group may not be able to comprehend what the average Kenyan wants to read. While there is fact to this, here is something to chew on. Watch the newspaper sellout dates. Don’t they do best when there is a gossipy tale of a looming, suggested or active war of words? Which means that the average Kenyan is reading about a war they have no history or background on, because they haven’t been reading the papers until there was drama in them. Ory I think my best point would be made with the constitution vote. How many Kenyans actually, to this day, know what they avoided or gave up by not passing the constitution? The people followed the drama not the news. Not the information.

    Blogging is a great way to get, spread and hear views on news. But it brings us back to the same issue. The people that are informed are the same ones that keep looking for information. They are probably blogging or reading blogs. Back to a point I made earlier. We need to change the attitudes of the general reader. We need to enforce a forum where we edify people on the benefits of knowing what’s going on. Basically the goal: convincing people to shun ignorance.

  • Aware that you are almost done with the topic, please accept my peni mbili.Imagine a paper or zine that comes up with an expose of why for example pyrethrum farmers have not been paid. I dont think the farmers, educated or not, would ignore the story. Rarely will I read in a Kenyan Paper, a hard hitting, gut wrenching, haki ya mbungu lets do something, kinda of story. I doubt that the ‘average’ Kenyan is a mudsill. I suspect that papers in Kenya lack the resources and the creativity to engage Mwanainchi.

  • Here I am ready to give fodder for part 4.As for what Keguro suggests regional zines or papers.Sounds good in theory but unless you have funding forget about it coz many areas in Kenya cant provide the advertising revenue plus in areas that are sparsely populated ie maasai land, how will you distribute it?Carrier pigeon?Kenyans may seem like voracious readers but you will note what they usually run to read are the political soap opera,commentaries and the obituaries.Segments like horizon in the nation that deal with important issues like public health get a very low readership.Like it or not Kenyans are sensationalist readers but they do appreciate a good piece of investigative journalism dont get me wrong. Yes the press in Kenya can do more but not to patronise the common mwanainchi, I dont think the people are more news and drama hungry but not information hungry enough.I mean so few people even read the draft constitution or went to give their views but when the drama came everyone was on the front lines agitating from very uninformed positions in most of the cases.
    Forget about regional ‘zines Keguro.The way to go is community radio.This is a tool that has so much potential.Most comon wanainchi have radios and may not be able to buy a paper daily but can spare 30 bob for batteries that will last a whole month or more.Radio also has a wider audience and costs less to run.Think about it………

  • Osas

    I am afraid I have not quite gained the same bad impression of “Western press coverage” as you have, Ory; but that might be due to fact that I presently enjoy the undeserved privilege of living in a country with real press and excellent television, unlike the United States.

    In fact, the quality of reporting on Africa here is amazingly high, and what the media really do is in stark contrast to what the critics presume that the media would be doing.

    However if you want to persist with an anti-critique, I recently got across a link and thus to an excellent article by Binyavanga Wainaina. Brilliant sarcasm… you might love it as well. 😈
    “How to write about Africa”.

    PS: Your remarks about the voracious reading of newspapers (actually, of the two main papers; for you’ll rarely see somebody reading the Kenya Times or the People openly) by Kenyans of all classes and strata, even the poorest, is very perceptive and right on target; I have always wondered why not more visitors are aware of this. What a contrast to the USA, again !

    PPS: The ElMolo line had planned to introduce free complimentary newspapers in their Nakuru-Nairobi shuttle (basically, a nicely pimped-up matatu) when I rode it in February. Don’t know whether they have already done it… but a fine idea. And I won’t always have to give on my papers to the passenger who has already been asking, and tearing impatiently at the pages… 😉


  • Sorry for taking you to the beginning, I am the middle of a little fight on the very topic western media bias, I would like to share. Thank you for great comments and references.
    November 24, 2005

    The Editor
    Metro Ottawa
    1541Stittsville Street Centre
    Ottawa, On

    Dear Sir/Madam:

    RE: Why Can’t Bigots Like Julia Dimon Just Stay Away From Africa?

    I feel compelled to respond to Julia Dimon’s narrow-minded rant, titled “Battling Creepy-Crawlies on African Safari” in Metro Ottawa (Wednesday, November 23, 2005).

    First of all she should stop calling herself “road-warrior”. Road-weepy” or “road-whinny” would be more appropriate

    Being an African living in Canada (not African-Canadian), I know how racist the Western media is towards Africa and African people. Your readers also love these kinds of stories because it helps feed their little egos if they would learn that there is a continent teeming with creepy crawlies, and little Ms. Dimon can’t wait to get out, to return to the safety of her perfect place, inhabited by perfect people, leading perfect lives.

    After living in Canada for 17 years, I fully understand why Canadians, or Westerners for that matter, cherish these kinds of stories. I am therefore not naive to expect any change of editorial policy in regard to Anti-African racism. I gave up on such futile expectations a long time ago. I am writing simply to expose the likes of Dimon for the types of hypocrites they are.

    Secondly, Ms. Dimon, tell us please if you may, which part of Africa were you in? Which country? When did you arrive there? How did you end up in a bush? Who else was there? I am asking these questions because Africa is a huge continent, as big as the entire American continent. Unless your intentions are other than to inform, but are more focused on the intention described in the preceding paragraph, your readers can gain more if you were more specific.

    And I am sure if you were more specific you will be exposed as a fraud.

    Why are you a fraud? Because you are lying. You made up the story from reading bits and pieces about Africa from the media. You did not experience what you are alleging you experienced for the simple reason that these creepies and crawlies do not exist at one place.

    Your first paragraph betrays you immediately.
    “Camping in Africa’s great outdoors has made me paranoid. I check under toilet seats, inspect my sleeping bag, pick through my food, and scan the corners of my tent before surrendering to sleep”

    Toilet seats? You had toilets? In the outdoors? In the tent?

    Then you jump immediately into your intended mission:to slander and disparage Africa:
    “Africa has a long list of potentially fatal creepy crawlies: scorpions, spiders, snakes, ticks, mosquitoes, and microscopic fresh water parasites. The list of disgusting diseases they carry is even longer.”

    Ms. Dimon, if you go into any wilderness in any continent, you are bound to encounter creepy crawlies. Who are you complaining to anyway? Why are you complaining? Were you forced to go to the bush? In any case, where do you want creepy crawlies to migrate to so that you can have a peaceful night’s sleep in their habitat?

    Canada also has its lyme disease-carrying ticks, virus carrying mosquitoes, encephalitis, mengetitis, etc. North America has its share of venomous snakes including the deadly rattle snake.

    “I feel like things are crawling on me. It turns out the tickle on my cheek is a strand of my own hair, but the visual image of a huge fanged spider is permanently stamped in my mind’s eye”

    Whether it is all in your “mind’s eye does not matter. What matters is that if you take a safari in another region, especially Africa with its battered image, it would be a sign of grace and civility to point a positive thing or two. It may justify your calling yourself “road-warrior”. But more so, it may save Africans one less attack arising from baseless prejudice.

    Tegi Obanda

    Hello Tegi,
    I’ve been thinking a lot about your email and have been waiting until I
    had more
    time to respond.

    I value all feedback but name calling isn’t necessary. Calling me a
    bigot, a
    fraud, a liar is not only insulting but just plain wrong. Clearly you
    are a
    thoughtful individual who is proud of Africa…your opinion is
    valued….noneed to resort to name calling.

    Let me address some of your concerns:

    In my column I try to convey my experiences in each country and how thoseexperiences make me feel. I try to give a portrayal to the readers at home, whohaven’t had a chance to yet visit some of these countries.

    While camping, bugs were a big concern. I wrote about it because it wasbothering me at the time. Every night my camp leader would tell me to becareful of this thing or that. Bugs while camping is not Anti-African racism –
    it’s a fact. Yes there are bugs and killer wildlife all over the world but I’mtravelling through South Africa and Namibia, the other parts of the worldaren’t relevant at this point.

    You ask: which part of Africa were you in? Which country? When did you arrivethere? How did you end up in a bush? Who else was there? – True these were not
    mentioned in that particular article (should have I guess) but in the previousone, it addressed that I was on an overland tour camping through South Africaand Namibia.

    You say: Why are you a fraud? Because you are lying. You made up the storyfrom reading bits and pieces about Africa from the media. – No, I camped inSouth Africa, Namibia and Botswana. These bugs exist in these locations
    although bilhazia exisist more in Malawi. These are my real experiences and I’mnot making it up.

    You say – Toilet seats? You had toilets? In the outdoors? In the tent?It’s not bush camping, but camping in well established camp grounds. These arequipped with flushing toilets, running water, sometimes even pools.
    Yes therewere toilets.

    You say- especially Africa with its battered image, it would be a sign of graceand civility to point a positive thing or two. – I agree with this statementand will do so in future articles. The countries I’ve visited so far have beenamazing. I was supposed to stay 2 months here but I’ve extended my
    stay. Peopleare wonderful, culture fascinating…I agree that such positive images arelacking in Western media.

    I don’t think it’s based on racism (but if you havemore thoughts on this feel free to enlighten, not accuse me) but it is
    truethat most of the images you see are war, famine and poverty. These socialproblems exist in the places I’ve visited, I will talk about them, but will besure to talk about the positive as well.

    A few questions for you:

    -What part of Africa are you from?

    -Are there any stories within your country that might make a good story
    for one
    of my columns?

    -As I travel through Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda – are there any
    activities or stories that you think I should cover in my columns?

    -What stories are relevant to Africans living in Canada?

    -What type of stories do you think your average Canadian, reading about
    needs to hear?

    I am open to any suggestions you may have.

    Thank you Tegi. Hope this email explains where I’m coming from…

    Looking forward to hearing your response,

    I am sending her Binyavanga Wainaina ‘How to write about Africa’ courtesy Kenyan Pundit. Any other suggstions how a westerner should erite about Africa?

  • Osas

    *Nod* I can only warmly recommend B.W.’s satire again; you are most welcome. Thanks for picking up the hint, and spreading the word !


  • Osas

    As to Julia Dimon:
    I am right now browsing through her columns at MetroNews,
    and in sequence also through her very own website: http://www.thetraveljunkie.ca

    Her creepy-crawlies article from 23rd November 2005, to which Tegi O Obanda had reacted above, does not seem to me quite as bad as to Tegi; I just find it superficial. Julia saw right what she *expected* to see, because everybody KNOWS that Africa must be teeming with insects, spiders, millipedes, snakes, safari ants, flesh-eating slugs – okay, maybe omit the slugs, but you get the picture. The Dark Continent, where dead tourists are transported on the roof of your expedition landrover (reality check: more people probably die in the USA and Caada as a result from an allergy against wasp and bee stings, than Africa tourists from spider bites, but it doesn’t make such juicy news). And ticks are *’far* more dangerous e.g. in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, than in Africa, but again that won’t suit Bimbo’s expectations.

    Fine. Now I have said it. Dixi et salvavi animam mean. Julia Dimon is nice, probably very friendly, presumably she thinks of herself as being open-minded (which in comparison to US Americans she definitely is), she writes an entertainingly superficial style, and her idea of “quality world news” is probably CNN; so excuse me for a second while I retch…

    Yes, in one world, she is a just [b]bimbo[/b] (of the migrant species). In the full US slang meaning of the word.
    And in my eyes, a world with more sympathetic bimbos, and with less George W. Bushes, William ole Ntimamas, Emmanuel Ngugis, Condoleezza Rices would be a better place.

    And if you want to help the amenable Bimbo to creepy-crawl upwards, onto a higher status of consciousness, why not pool together instead and hold a harambee, so she can subscribe to a good newspaper (e.g. NZZ), a decent weekly or monthly (Le Monde Diplomatique; Black Commentator and G21 in way of good online journals), and even, gasp, some scholarly books on Africa?

    That was my allocated share of arrogance for today 😀 – signing off now, I remain yours


  • I’m amused that Kwani is mentioned, since it founder and editor is a former writer for G21:The World’s Magazine. I’m gratified that Osas mentions us but doesn’t supply an URL. I’d so so here: http://www.g21.net/

    We’ve featured robust writing on and from Kenya for nearly seven years now. The late Robert Odoul was one of our first Kenya writers. I’m sure you remember him, KenyaPundit?

    Rod Amis

  • Osas

    And you do damn, damn good at it, Rod.
    G21 has impressed, enriched, and endowed me, like countless others. With brilliant Kenyan writers like Binyawanga Wainaina, Aamena (once Aamera) Jiwaji, Moraa Gitaa (or X.N. Iraki, whom I esteem a lot less); and with such an absolute miracle as the South African Mp(h)uthumi Ntabeni, whose articles every single time set me in awe and joy.
    Once again: thank you, Rod.


  • Osas,

    Thanks for the kind words. (I thought I was the ONLY one who had problems with Iraki. :cool:) Well, as you know, I try to be heterodox, so I have to allow him to express opinions that seem to be only his own.:smile:

    Ouch! You caught me on misspelling Mpush’s name on occasion, too. Good call!

    Considering that article a few years back in The Nation, where I was accused of subverting African writing, I’m glad to here that people like you know what I’m REALLY about.

    Expect more (and better) from us in future. AND do tell your readers about AFRICA FRESH! one day. (Hint!) Just so you know, our plan is to publish a new anthology every year from now on. If you know quality writers who are interested, send them my way. Unlike the Web site, which is totally devoted to journalism (non-fiction) the anthologies will always include fiction, as well. This year, God willing, we’ll do two; one fiction, one non-. Keep that in mind.

    Keep up the great work!


  • X N Iraki

    As a matter of curiosity, whose opinions am I supposed to express if not mine?

  • davidson

    You are all quite correct about the paucity of good travel writing, however you must complain to the editors if anything is ever to be done. There are scores of us who want to /try to write larger, more informed pieces, but until the editors are made to stand up and take notice these will continue to be very difficult to place. Most of Dimon’s work appears in the Toronto Star and its Metro affiliate. The travel editor is Robert Crew.

  • Derek

    You guys are attacking the wrong type of journalism… this is travel journalism and not a social/political editor’s comments. I think it’s BS that you can through out such terms as bigot defining a person on such a narrow bases for opinion. Your completely out of context and your opinions reflect your lack of scope for the world around you. Julia’s articles promote awareness that these places are safe to travel to.. ie: people travel to northern ontario inspite of the bugs, snakes and dangers. If you want Africa to survive and flourish you should not be attacking travel writers. I think that you should apologize to Julia and focus your attention and effort on something more positive like aid to African Countries through the Canadian government.

  • Olenna

    I’m coming upon these postings a little late but I would still like to express my shock at the character assassination of Julia Dimon. I am astounded that such well-written people are taking low blows such as name-calling and accusations of racism. Julia is clearly a young journalist trying to open the door for tourism to different places. I hope that you tried to follow her other articles, as you will see that she is not you typical European Vacation “bimbo”. You judge too quickly and come across as callus and jaded. Please try to follow what Robert Nesta Marley tried to teach us, “Judge not, before you judge yourself”.
    If you are still perturbed by what she has written, I hope that you have been courageous enough to answer her emails or provide her with suggestion rather than seethe in anger and loathing. As for what Davidson wrote, I encourage you to write the political piece you desire and present it to the Editor of a newspaper. If you have done so and have been turned down, then it is unfortunate but, if this is a mere observation and how you wish your travel section to be written then I’m sorry, I really don’t think an editor will have time to respond to whining.

  • Jon

    The attacks on Julia Dimon’s character and intentions on this site are outlandish. In her own words (taken from the following link: http://www.bravenewtraveler.com/2006/12/10/road-warrior-becomes-globally-aware/)
    “My trip has given me a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world and where I fit within it.

    Now when I read the newspaper, I feel a connection to the stories being covered. I’ve been there, seen the country, met the people and know, first hand, that “they” are just like us. The similarities between nations and across cultures far outweigh the differences.

    With new understanding of world events comes new frustration. In print and TV, important news features seem increasingly overshadowed by celebrity gossip. Why do the extra-marital affairs of Tie Dome get more media attention than rebel violence in DR Congo?

    It’s frustrating to see that mainstream media isn’t enlightening, it’s sensationalizing and dumbing-down. After witnessing extreme poverty, homelessness and child labor, I’m finding it awkward adjusting to a society that reads People magazine and watches shows like “Deal or No Deal.”

    Clearly you guys were a little off target in attacking her character because she didn’t enjoy a few insects while camping. I think you owe her an apology.

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