African viewpoint: Flirting with fiction

Guineans line up to cast their ballot at a polling station in Conakry, Guinea, Sunday 7 November 2010 The West was more interested in the US polls last week than those in Africa

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers African story-telling and the reporting of the continent in an age of cuts.

Robert and Grace Mugabe (right) attending a funeral in September 2010 at Heroes Acre Robert Mugabe, pictured with his wife Grace, is calling for elections in Zimbabwe

In the 1975 Ousmane Sembene film, Xala, a powerful politician and businessman is cursed by a beggar on the occasion of his marriage to his third wife in the setting of Dakar, Senegal.

Following an outrageously extravagant wedding, the curse deprives him of his ability to consummate his marriage to his new and beautiful bride, and every night the new bride remains irritatingly untouched - to the amusement of the elder wives and the ridicule of the politician's community.

And the problem consumes the old man, denting his confidence so much that he begins to neglect his duties to his business, his family and his hold on power.

Soon the vultures begin to circle, the back-stabbers emerge, the friends and the power evaporate and the money melts away leaving our hero a shadow of his former self.

Far fetched

I was reminded of Sembene's tale of corrupting absolute power in his 1970s clash of culture and modernity when I read in the southern African press the other weekend, that the president of the republic of Zimbabwe - now a sprightly 85 - had been cuckolded by his Reserve Bank governor - and that his beloved wife was now allegedly offering her graces to the charming and moneyed hands of Gideon Gono, the architect of Zimbabwe's one-time trillion-dollar note.

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The world is now less interested in Africa than it has ever been despite the yearly charity galas and the actresses and the fat DJs climbing Kilimanjaro to aid our orphans”

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That there was no truth at all in this far-fetched weekend musing soon became apparent by the speed with which other news organisations ignored it, and how the facts had resolutely failed to stack up.

Instead, we were offered such generalisations as "they would meet on Mrs Mugabe's farm and in expensive hotels in South Africa, all behind the aging president's back" - and all this from the alleged confessions of a dead presidential bodyguard.

Real news seems harder to find despite the digital and internet revolution.

And we can expect more of the same manufactured stories designed to make one point or another because news gatherers are getting scarce on the ground.

There is no end of novelists writing about Africa in this way.

As a literary theme, it would be fascinating to imagine how a man in the sunset of his years deals with the onset of age while his younger wife is in the prime of her physical needs.

In any case, the book shelves are heaving with more words based on fact and fiction, all purporting to tell the story of this nation as if it were an undiscovered African North Korea, with all manner of literary prophets claiming to be describing the last days of Robert Mugabe; when, in reality, the old man has been calling for fresh elections in which he will, of course, be his party's presidential candidate come 2011.

The curse of celebrities

But shoddy information does not end with Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Even with so many elections happening around the world - Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Brazil and Guinea - the information was hard to come by here in the UK.

Somali residents drag a body through the streets of Mogadishu on 6 October 2010 Somalis were recently seen dragging bodies through Mogadishu's streets

As the world becomes more of a village, it is difficult not to notice that the budgets for newspapers and broadcasters have become pitifully restrained, and where once the public would know all about Julius Nyerere's Tanzanian forces overcoming Idi Amin of Uganda in 1978 and even where their two nations are on the map, a Sunday reader now would be lucky to see pictures of the two men beyond the internet archives, and even luckier to read an in-depth piece that hasn't been lifted from the news wires and whose images have not come via YouTube or the humanitarian organisations.

This is the argument put forward by Martin Moore in his report for the Media Standards Trust in which he bemoans "the decline of international reporting in the British press".

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A man listens to a radio in Sierra Leone

The programmes that once made rebels in Sierra Leone and Liberia put down their weapons to hear the views of their leaders and their enemies, are grappling with an uncertain future”

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But it can be worse than that, as African reporters who have left trouble spots will tell you.

Our reportage has been taken over by the humanitarians, by the United Nations missions, by the star journalists flying in from London or Washington or Doha on reporting holidays; and the stories that we may want to hear, can now be found by word of mouth only.

The world is now less interested in Africa than it has ever been despite the yearly charity galas and the actresses and the fat DJs climbing Kilimanjaro to aid our orphans.

Our news has become more about those horrendous creatures called celebrities than about the issues.

And it is an irony of the Western world that foreign correspondents reporting in foreign parts are never really foreign.

The issues are still out there - the dire prevalence of rape in Joseph Kabila's eastern Democratic Republic of Congo; the gruesome pictures of Somali extremists dragging the lifeless bodies of African Union peacekeepers through the streets of Mogadishu; the unrelenting grip of Aids; the constant search for a new African paradigm of leadership and priorities - and it is a question of trawling through the nonsense of modern day news about Africa to get to them.

And those reporters still giving us news about Tanzania's first albino MP, about the floods in Benin or the fight for human rights and the wars the world has forgotten, what's to become of them?

Credit crunch
Salum Khalfani Bar'wani Salum Khalfani Bar'wani became Tanzania's first elected albino MP last week

As I write this, great upheavals are under way at the BBC World Service.

Not only are my former colleagues going on strike over pensions, but they are also under new management in this age of credit crunching and cuts.

So the programmes that once made rebels in Sierra Leone and Liberia put down their weapons to hear the views of their leaders and their enemies, are grappling with an uncertain future.

And will the BBC language services that broke the news of Sani Abacha's death in Nigeria or gave us the thoughts of Somali pirates survive a new management that is as unschooled in African affairs as it is uninterested?

Still, we will always have the novelists and the movies.

I think I'll watch Sembene's film again, and take in that final scene when the once powerful politician can only get rid of the curse by letting all the city's beggars spit on him with all their contempt for the rich and undeserving.

Would that work for any cursed politician or president?

Perhaps the curse is really on the news gatherers with their newfound liking for fiction and Big Brother Africa.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please use the form below. A selection of views will be published.

At the end of the day there are some things no amount of social networking or outsourcing can replace. Iranians, accustomed to organizing themselves in internet cafes, soon discovered that it takes considerably more than twitter feeds to overthrow a dictatorship. Kyrgyzstan on the other hand relied on such unfashionable methods as Molotov cocktails to considerably greater effect. I appreciate there must be cuts. Something tells me sports and celebrity gossip will emerge largely spared while field offices that actually matter will not. We got into this mess because of intellectual laziness. Getting out will require rigorous thinking very much at odds with what I see happening at the BBC and elsewhere.

Jude Kirkham, Vancouver Canada

Farai eloquently sums up the enduring need - in an age of ceaseless twitter and facebook babble - for independent, resolute, trustworthy reporting from the ground. The kind of journalism that needs financial backing, and which with cuts to the great World Service, we are about to get far less of.

Laz Cohen, London

Well most people who live in Zimbabwe have long noticed that there is a culture of fantastic lies about Zimbabwe and President Mugabe coming from the Western media outlets. It's not a secret that if you want a visa to Britain or work permit or easy money, just cook up an anti Mugabe story... My home area is only 32km from Chiadzwa and I have to say I am just amazed by some of the stories the Western media are cooking up about this area. I used to believe everything I read from the BBC, CNN, AFP etc. but not anymore.

Mwana WeVhu, Mutare Zimbabwe

If you want your news for free then the quality is going to fall...simples

Martin Smith,

Farai has summed up the demise of quality news world wide. I for one do not trust what I read on BBC, CNN, FOX etc because of the many fictions they report. These once reputable news giants have turned into big jokes because they of the celebrity culture on one hand and pressure from politicians for them to write what the politicians want to hear rather than what the reporter has investigated. The other thing is too much reliance on arm chair-reporters who trawl for gabbage on ther internet and download it and pass it on as news. And to think that at the end of the month that so-called journalist gets paid a lot of money as nauseating. Journalists the world over need to call a conference and seriously discuss ways to enhance their reputation before its too late.

Roger, Leeds

Great story, Farai. Although you raise a fair point, the internet has also allowed people to write blogs and release twitter feeds, so less formal means of mass communication are possible. SURE this means that the news will be less accurate as you have correctly pointed out, but there are also some stories that will find an audience and be heard far and wide that might never have had a chance. By the way, if it makes we Africans feel any better, the news is not only being distorted in Africa. The most popular US news, when it's not about celebrities, is being spewed from television shows like Glen Beck that are more about a platform for ones own opinions that about the actual facts.

Ann, Geneva, Switzerland

Farai. I couldn't agree with you more. Having lived in the US for last 25 years I have observed the steady erosion of true news reporting. Every single large media outlet thrives on sensationalism. The more sensational a story, the more likely the smaller outlets will pick up the story. Hence, since the majority of Americans are receiving their news via these small outlets that becomes the news of the day. The driving force behind all of this of course, being money. The problem is that informing people with real news reports costs money but doesn't make money. So those that want to be truly informed are left to their own devices, likely searching the internet.

Allen Chiura, Klamath Falls,OR

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