There's more to Kenya than hungry lions

African-American and Kenyan journalists are setting up exchanges to promote better US coverage of African issues.

The black Americans call their Kenyan hosts "brothers." The Kenyan journalists call their visitors wajungu - Swahili for whites. It was a telling detail in a recent meeting of American and Kenyan journalists designed to shed light on what these groups have in common.

The Atlanta-based National Association of Black Journalists has long espoused a responsibility to improve US coverage of Africa. In an effort to build the first cross-country association of black journalists, NABJ representatives traveled to Kenya to meet with members of the Kenya Union of Journalists.

From the start, their work was cut out for them. "When I first told my youngest son I was going to Africa, he said: 'Don't get eaten by a lion.' ... That's the only association that came to his mind," says Keith Hadley of the NABJ. "Misperception of Africa is so widespread," Mr. Hadley says, "and so we are here because we would like to change that."

The groups talked about matters ranging from press freedom and censorship to the shortage of phone lines in African newsrooms. By the end of the visit, they had planted the seeds for an exchange program and promised to visit one another's bureaus.

US reporting on Africa is unbalanced, Hadley says. "Not only is there a meager amount of news," he says, but "it is all negative."

One way to change this, Hadley says, is to push for more top media positions for African-Americans. Once this happens, he believes the news agenda will shift.

"We are always trying to make a connection with our past - with the art, the religion, the culture, etc. of Africa - and therefore we are naturally more identified and interested in this continent than others may be," he says.

But some of the African journalists disagree with what they see as a misguided focus on race.

What Kenya needs in order to change people's perception of it, argues Mark Thomas Lwande, a member of the African journalists' union, is simply more journalists writing about it.

"We want journalists to cover what is going on here, not because we are their brothers and they love us, but because that is professional journalism," Mr. Lwande says. "We don't care about color. We need objectivity."

Lwande also complained about the way this professional exchange was arranged: with the assistance and support of the Ministry of Tourism.

A trip that was supposed to foster independent thinking about the problems and needs of the country looked more like a holiday promotional package, he says.

"They see trained Masai dancing for them, have breakfast with executive businessmen at their fancy hotels, meet with top politicians, and drive to the game parks in sturdy land rovers," Lwande says. "None of this is a reflection of this country ... nor of the stories we are dealing with as journalists."

Ezikiel Mutua, the national chairman of the Kenyan journalist union, grins when he hears the criticism.

"The Americans can find out all the bad things about this place on their own - we are not hiding anything," he says, suggesting that the visitors can't miss the potholes even in their nice cars, just as they can't miss the street kids outside the hotel doors or the stories of corruption that fill the morning papers.

"Okay, so they are tourists of a sort ..., but that does not mean we do not have an underlying connection with them or that we can't find ways to support one another's work."

Pressed on the nature of that connection, Mutua compares networking with the African-Americans to a similar effort to build bridges with a Chinese journalist association.

"It took forever with the Chinese. We were constantly turning blankly to the translators for help," says Mutua. "Here, they are our kind. We have the language in common," he says.

And the skin color? "Oh, yes, and that, too, I suppose," Mutua says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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