I generally refrain from criticizing NYTimes coverage of African news, though for some inexplicable reason I now find myself unable to resist commentary. I suppose one can only read so many stereotyped and misinformed "news" stories before it becomes too much to bear. Texas in Africa, G. Pascal Zachary and the ladies at Wronging Rights, among others, have all been quick to stress the problems with NYTimes reporting on previous occasions (see here, here and here for instance), and if I may, I'd quite like to add my voice to theirs.
The story that has finally broken my silence is one written by Jeffrey Gettleman on the drought currently plaguing Kenya. Gettleman writes:
A devastating drought is sweeping across Kenya, killing livestock, crops and children. It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as pastoralist communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land.
The twin hearts of Kenya’s economy, agriculture and tourism, are especially imperiled. The fabled game animals that safari-goers fly thousands of miles to see are keeling over from hunger and the picturesque savannah is now littered with an unusually large number of sun-bleached bones.
I don't at all question the severity of the drought, or the fact that it is indubitably a cause of great concern for Kenyans dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. As Gettleman notes, the drought is also increasing conflict in some parts of the country, with farmers struggling for access to arable land. Such conflict, however, is not "ethnic," but rather an instance of basic survival, devoid of any ethnic undertones. Where ethnicity does factor, I would venture to guess that it is of secondary, rather than primary, concern.
Aside from this point, what I find most troublesome about Gettleman's piece is his suggestion that the Kenyan economy will somehow crumble - or is crumbling - as a consequence of the drought. While the Kenyan economy is certainly still highly dependent on its agricultural exports and land more generally, there is certainly more to it than what Gettleman seems to be suggesting. The unknowing reader comes away from Gettleman's piece with an image of a completely impoverished, desert-like country on the brink of disaster - a stereotype of a "typical" African country, if such a thing exists (it doesn't). While Kenya surely does have its problems, Gettleman's imagery is highly misguiding. Technology in Kenya is expanding at a rapid pace, heralding much opportunity for development. Emphasis is also being placed on the country's private sector as an engine for growth, as well as small-scale (often creative) manufacturing. One doesn't get any of this from Gettleman's piece; quite the opposite, really.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Gettleman's likely objective is to call attention to a problem which is continuing to cause serious trouble for the East African country. Doing so, however, shouldn't entail a complete distortion of the country in question. This benefits no one and is, moreover, poor journalism. Can we work on this, please?
* Image: NYTimes. Incidentally also the image accompanying Gettleman's piece.