I think it was perhaps unfortunate that the first question I heard on the Today programme as I woke up this morning was this one: ‘it’s hard for someone who doesn’t know Africa well to understand how … people who use the bush as a toilet and have no electricity, it’s hard to imagine them as becoming middle-class’.
John Humphrys posed that question (you can listen to it here about 2 mins 50 in) to a professor and president of a university in Liberia. This was all part of the Today programme’s surprising decision to focus on Africa for its programme this morning, and used Liberia as its magnifying glass into the ways of the whole continent.
I don’t think I was the only one surprised by this decision. The Daily Mail has a whole spread on it here. However I am rather perplexed by the question I switched on my radio to this morning. Did John Humphrys really think that?
Or was he trying to reflect the viewpoint of his likely listeners? If that’s the case, given that I’m a listener of Radio Four’s flagship programme, perhaps he missed the mark with regard his representation of what I’d be likely to ask this esteemed professor?
Further along in the programme Mr Humphrys admits that one cannot go to Liberia (meaning Africa) ‘with European eyes’. But in asking that embarrassingly insulting question to an esteemed professor, isn’t that exactly what he’s doing?
Richard Dowden – an expert in African affairs – it seems would agree. He writes here that approaching Africa with European eyes is ‘precisely what… the British media have been doing all this time’. As one who has worked on issues affecting sub-Saharan Africa (not just Liberia) for more than seven years, I would have to agree with Mr Dowden. It is rare to see a story on Africa in UK media which doesn’t have the words ‘conflict’, ‘famine’ or ‘aid’ in them.
And having travelled to a few countries across this majestic and breathtakingly inspiring continent, I can safely say that there is far far more to Africa than those negative and stereotypical comments.
Like all continents there are some strengths and weaknesses throughout the continent. Amnesty is certainly often among the first to call on some African countries to improve its basic human rights record. Take our comments surrounding the recent uprising in Mali, the anti-homosexuality bill proposed in Uganda and the need for greater respect of human rights in Sudan for example.
However it is also fair to say that Africa is probably not given the same media attention or space as other continents across the media to illustrate the strengths, dynamism and creativity emerging from that continent.
Which is why the Today programme’s decision to go off news agenda and to consider Liberia is to be fundamentally applauded. (I can’t quite believe I’m saying that given my feelings about the programme at the start of this morning). At the end of the day, for a flagship news programme to decide to consider the issues that don’t get reported in this continent can only be a positive step for the way Africa is seen ‘by European eyes’.
My only request is that Mr Humphrys would choose his questions more carefully and recognise that the majority of his listeners no longer have the 18th century viewpoint towards Africa, yet are keen to celebrate and recognise the strengths within the continent.
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