“It is a mistake to explain Africa through the prism of NGOs”

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Source: El Día / The Dawn News / March 2, 2018

Interview with Xavier Aldecoa, journalist specialized in Africa.

There’s another way of talking about Africa. For over a decade, journalist Xavier Aldecoa has been giving a voice to those who live in this continent covered by stereotypes, but also opportunities.

Is it difficult to sell (publish) good news about Africa?

There are a lot of good news in the continent, but it is always more difficult to get that point across. It seems to me that we have to tell about the war and the hunger, because these are facts and I think it would be a mistake to tend to sugar-coat things, but we can’t forget about the positive part, of the natural day to day which allows us to get to know traditions or a culture, which is fundamental if we want to explain the continent in an honest way.

In your reports there are always personal stories besides data and context. Is this your way to get readers to empathize more?

Yes, that is the key word: empathy. Too often we get stuck on the wound, on the traumatic aspect (a woman who has been raped or kidnapped by a child soldier) and what draws us in the closest are the human aspects that we all share. Sadness over the loss of somebody, the dream of a better life, missing another person or love for our children. All of those things, that happiness, that joy, that sadness, bring us closer to the other person, and in the end we see we are not all that different. It seems to me that this is a positive way not only of learning from others, but of getting to know ourselves.

In your first book, “Ocean Africa”, you quote Kapuscinsky to say that Africa doesn’t exist: what does exist are Africans. Do you think Spain has learnt more about the fact that Africa is a very diverse continent?

I would say that opportunities have increased. There are more opportunities to get to know what is on the other side because we have a generation of young journalists reporting it (some of us are rooted here and others travel to the continent often) and because the internet has opened the door. But I’m not sure, I’m doubtful whether these opportunities are really being seized. What I do believe is that there is more interest in this subject than media reflects. I don’t think this reflects the real interest there is in the people of Africa.

Why is there a media blackout on this issue?

It is an issue of Western influence. A tweet by Macron saying a minor thing can cause 111 girls to be kidnapped in Nigeria. we think that we are the protagonists of history and everything else is less important than us. That’s a mistake.

The matter of the girls that were kidnapped in Nigeria (the first one of these events, because it has happened again) was viralized thanks to a hashtag that spread around the globe. Are we more sensitive now towards issues taking place in Africa?

I have my doubts about that too. I think that concern is rarely followed by action. In the case of the Chibok kidnapping, 100 girls have still not been released. It is dangerous to act like that, because if you give this issue political relevance, you turn this girls into an instrument of pressure for the jihadist group to use, but if you forget about them and abandon them, the girls are left in a more vulnerable position than before the hashtag emerged. Activism also requires responsibility. If you get involved in something, you have to take it until the last consequences, you have to fight in order to change things and not just as long as it is viral. This armchair activism leaves us in the middle of the road.

How has the crisis affected the way in which Spanish media speaks about Africa?

It has meant an important change: practically no media has correspondents in Africa. there’s a generation of young correspondents, most of them working freelance, who are investing a lot of effort, money and even their health in order to report about the continent in a positive, fair and honest manner. The other problem is that I think information about Africa is becoming humanitarianized. Since media don’t send correspondents, journalists frequently go as part of NGOs, and their work is good,and it is important to explain it, but if we only explain Africa through the lens of the NGOs I think we are making a mistake, because in the end we get a parcialized and unclear image of what is really going on. If we always see the continent as a source of problems where the West (in this case a foreign NGO) has to come and help, we perpetuate the notion that Africa is a lost continent that needs to be saved. And that is mistaken.

It perpetuates the idea of paternalism, that Africa needs to be tutelaged by the West

Exactly. Of paternalism and savagism. The fact that no context is provided, that no empathy is generated, causes this sort of problems. Just now we were talking about the importance of saying the names and last names, because I think we have to go beyond giving Africans a voice. In interviews, Africans are often the victims or the criminals, and the savior is a member of a foreign NGO. This perpetuates the same idea.

The change in the manner of speaking about Africa and viewing Africa relates to the goal of the forum, which aspires to “decolonize thought”.

The forum is wonderful in that sense. Brilliant African minds speak in it. There are people who are foreigners, like me, who work on the continent, but the bulk of the forum are top African intellectuals. And this points towards a fact which is that the continent is moving forwards. Of course there are terrible situations of violence and hunger, but in general it is moving forward, and proof of that are the amazing people who come and talk at this forum.

Are climate change and demographic growth the main problems that Africa is facing in the mid-term?

These are two problems, indisputably, but I don’t know if they are the main ones. There’s also poverty, hunger, jihadism or violence—all of these are problems that need solution. I’d add more: an increasingly educated population (this is on the rise and it is wonderful) that is going to challenge governments that don’t care for that freedom. This population is better educated, but don’t have jobs, and if they don’t adjust to the lack of opportunities and education, governments are going to fight against people on the streets.

What are the main differences between Europe’s colonization of Africa and the new economic colonization by China?

European colonization was preceded by a brutal slave trade and ideological racism for many decades. It established mechanisms of control and exploitation that still remain. Chinese colonization is dangerous, but we should make a distinction between different African countries. If we look at it globally, we will arrive to the wrong conclusions. For example, in countries like Zimbabwe or Angola, China has entered in a disruptive way. This hasn’t caused many problems in the human rights field, because they pact with an elite that has never been too concerned with the wellbeing of the population. But other countries have put limits on China’s ambitions, like Senegal and Gambia. There are countries that have firmer state structures and society is able to express its opinions. They stand up against abusers, be it China, the US or Europe. But it is undoubtable that China has arrived in the continent to bake business and it doesn’t care much with whom nor what consequences this brings onto the population.

You’re a part of a group of journalists who founded the 5w Magazine in order to  publish “Long-Distance Chronicles”, as you call them.

This magazine tries to valorize a form of journalism that is very expensive to do: pieces that give pause, that are made on the territory, with our feet covered in dirt, having conversations with the people involved. The crisis of journalism has caused many of our colleagues to disseminate around the world, doing a great job, and we’ve all come together around this project. These pieces are made with as much love, honesty and time as possible—which I think are the most precious goods, but hard to find in our time.

How much is a freelance journalist paid for a piece on Africa?

The answer is “little”. Many colleagues and myself have had times when we were happy if our pay covered the travel expenses, because you might be reporting on a key event, like the fall of Gambia’s dictator, and even make the front page of the publication you work for, but your salary only covers for the expenses, because the media outlet didn’t pay for the airplane fare. Not only is this a poorly-paid profession in Spain, but also media doesn’t usually have a regular section for news on Africa. If there’s a coup d’État, they explain it, and they may run news on it for a couple of days. Meanwhile, a shooting in the United States runs for a week. That’s why I said before that there’s a generation of journalists who are sacrificing their own health and money in order to tell the stories, but the passion and the drive to talk about things are intact.


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