Ordinary people’s stories can change the world’s views about Africa

A train passes through the Kibera slum of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Representations of Africa tend to focus on these kinds of depictions. Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi

We cannot see salary data in the faces of others, but most of us have similar mental images that structure how we think about poverty in Africa. Search Google Images for ‘African poverty’ to see how yours match up. Dilapidated housing. Tattered shirts. Blank stares. Bellies protruding from parasitic infections. Skin clinging to bones from starvation. Tears.

The visit to South Africa by French economist and author of Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty, should lead us to reflect on how we understand poverty.

To speak of poverty in monetary values, such as living on US$1 or US$2 a day, is to view it as an absolute concept. To approach poverty as a relative concept is to recognise that poverty is contextual – US$1 a day in London is not the same as US$1 a day in the South African township, Diepsloot – and relational, shaped by the expectation gap between the those deemed impoverished and those writing the definitions.

For decades, scholars have criticised media representations of African poverty. Disease, disaster, conflict and poverty have long been hallmarks of global media coverage of Africa and, therefore, have coloured how the rest of the world views the continent.

While more nuanced coverage exists within Africa itself, poverty is still a topic defined by difference. The poor are different from the rest of the public. The poor are different from the journalists who cover poverty. The poor are different from us.

But media coverage of poverty does not reflect how the poor see themselves. There is a gulf between mediated poverty and the lived experience of poverty. So how have journalists and the public gotten it so wrong about African poverty?

Tales of doom and gloom

Members of the press have always struggled to tell the stories of those who do not look, sound, or live like them. While it is easy to blame individual journalists, there are structural explanations for this problem.

Journalists would love to function on an anthropologist’s time table, spending years getting to know the communities they discuss. Instead, most journalists must quickly file stories on deadline while chasing their latest editorial assignment. The daily news cycle does not leave much room for reporters to challenge preconceived notions and question personal biases.

In stories about poverty, journalists typically rely on local nongovernmental organisations to provide local sources and basic information. Resource-strapped nongovernmental organisations are pleased to oblige because any outside attention offers the potential for increased funding and support.

Though most nongovernmental organisations are hard working and well meaning, the nonprofit industry incentivises organisations to continue spreading tales of gloom and doom about African poverty. Donors respond to stories about extreme needs and the good work being done to address those needs. Stories which emphasise community features that locals value are not great avenues for fund raising.

Poor residents also recognise that they can benefit personally from magnifying their struggles when speaking with reporters. In Kenya, for example, journalists regularly compensate slum residents for interviews. The more tragic the tale, the easier it is to play upon the reporter’s sympathies.

That said, we should not criticise the poor for benefiting from their struggles. Interviewees offer value to journalists and news agencies, who turn around and sell their stories to the public. Considering high unemployment rates throughout the continent, being interviewed can serve as a profitable source of income.

Another worrisome trend in poverty coverage is the first-person travel narrative, in which journalists claim to understand poverty by experiencing it for themselves. In these stories, journalists embody pseudo-anthropologists, sharing their newfound experiential knowledge with the public after spending only a few days in poor communities.

The BBC has invested heavily in first-person travel narratives, first with Famous, Rich, and in the Slums, then later with Slum Survivors and Reggie Yates Extreme South Africa.

Though first-person travel narratives reflect the reporter’s experience, these stories fail to question the privilege of the storyteller. Such reporters see themselves as a bridge between the audience and the impoverished, but their stories overshadow the voices of those who understand poverty through living it every day.

Celebrating common humanity

During my research in Kibera, a densely-populated low-income community in Nairobi, residents criticised the gap between how they experienced life and how the media covered their community.

Residents were deeply concerned about insecure employment, disease, and other hardships unfamiliar to those living outside of poverty. But they also voiced great frustration that the media only reported negative stories about their community. Kibera’s media narrative did not capture the fullness of day-to-day life as they experienced it.

Residents told me stories that were complex and contextual, where the homes were of substandard quality but the cost of living suited their lifestyles. They spoke about the vibrant community in Kibera and the kinship they felt with their neighbours while dismissing the isolated nature of Nairobi’s wealthier neighbourhoods. They presented stories in which poverty constrained but did not define their lives.

Journalists who cover poverty would be wise to remember these lessons. They should view their interactions with nongovernmental organisations and local residents with healthy scepticism. They should acknowledge their biases and restrain themselves from projecting unwarranted expertise.

Journalists also should find out what works in poor communities as well as what doesn’t work. They should look beyond the familiar images of dirt, disease, and despair to seek out the mundane. Not to diminish poverty, but to celebrate our common humanity.