Posted on January 26, 2005

Michela Wrong Breaks Our African Tribal Taboo

Michela Wrong, New Statesman, Jan. 17

Writing about Africa without mentioning the role of tribalism and witchcraft is like writing about British fox-hunting without mentioning class.

As I read the Kenyan newspapers in Nairobi the other day, two items grabbed my attention. The first was a story about the losing candidate in a recent coastal by-election. The candidate was challenging his rival’s victory in court, accusing him — among other things — of staging a macabre ceremony in which three cows had had their eyelids sewn together before being drowned in the sea.

The other story was about the contest for the chairmanship of the country’s Kanu party. It pondered whether it was desirable for both the president and the leader of the opposition to come from Central Province — a coy way of asking whether both positions should be filled by people from Kenya’s large Kikuyu tribe.

Both items triggered a familiar thought: what a terrible disservice we foreign correspondents do those trying to understand Africa. Our reports may vary in subtlety and seriousness, but one thing remains pretty constant: the continent we describe bears very little relation to the continent as it is viewed by Africans themselves.

Those two Kenyan stories, while full of meaning for African readers, will never reach a foreign audience. They contain the two tacit no-nos of western reporting on the continent, the two ingredients white reporters avoid whenever possible, for fear of being accused of racism. Unfortunately, they are two elements that hold the key to how Africans — even modern, urban, churchgoing Africans — see the world around them: witchcraft and tribalism.

For Kenyans, the notion that a candidate should stage a ritual sacrifice to secure an electoral win seems no more bizarre than the notion that he should bribe constituents. The supernatural is part of the fabric of daily life, particularly in the rural areas. An MP once lost his seat because he was spotted taking part in an oathing ceremony; a minister is accused of using witchcraft to stop voters choosing his rival. Magic has played a quiet role in every African election I have covered, with the victory generally regarded as going to the man with the most potent witch doctors on his team.

Similarly, political debate in Kenya, as in every other African country I have lived in, loses 95 per cent of its content if you remove the issue of which tribe, or coalition of tribes, gets a chance to “eat” at the state table. While western reporters know this, and most will talk over a beer about how the Luo have been boxed out of power in Kenya or how the Luba will never make the presidency in Congo, they barely breathe a word of it professionally.

I nearly fell off my chair at a talk that I once attended in Edinburgh, where a Portuguese writer who had traversed Angola told the audience that tribe had never come up in his encounters with amputees and ex-soldiers. God knows what they talked about. In my experience, the two issues guaranteed to trigger a knowledgeable and lively debate with a total stranger in Africa are the merits of Manchester United and the

tribal make-up of the current government.

This wincing delicacy is rooted in the colonial past, when our forebears shaped their policies on crude tribal lines and sneered at Africans for their primitive beliefs. The generation of university-educated Africans that came to power at independence rightly castigated the western media for stereotyping.

That correction has now gone too far in the opposite direction. It seems bizarre that a western culture which talks about feng shui and karma, embraces homoeopathy and hypnotism, revels in the cultural distinctions between Liverpudlian and Brummie and knows the difference between Serb and Croat should prove so squeamish about recognising such factors in Africa.

The result of this western hypersensitivity is bland, strangely unilluminating coverage, the equivalent of a reporter setting out to explain the furore over fox-hunting in Britain to his readers without allowing himself to whisper the word “class”; or writing about Afghanistan under the Taliban without once referring to Islam.

Edit out the supernatural and you are limited to describing the dull, flat surface of human behaviour, while leaving its motives and driving passions unexplored. Remove the tribal content, and events come stripped of their context and meaning. I remember hearing, when there was a bloody settling of scores in Nairobi’s biggest slum three years ago, a

despatch by a BBC reporter so determined not to mention the hatred between Luo tenants and Nubian landlords at its root that he was reduced to explaining the violence in the childishly simple — and misleading — terms of “rich elites” versus “poor masses”.

Given this self-censorship, which amounts to a form of inverted racism, no wonder most western readers can’t understand the continent and soon decide they couldn’t care less. With the very best of intentions, the professionals entrusted with communication have removed the pointers to understanding.