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(c) Andi Weiland Heinrich Bll Stiftung (CC)

A report from the AfriqUPrising conference hosted by the Heinrich Bll Foundation in Berlin, April 26 27, 2017.

The slogan rising was used by the Economist magazine in 2011 to promote the theory that Africa had begun a period of seemingly unstoppable economic growth. As the New York Times wrote five years later in a critique of rising, so long Africa had been associated with despair and doom, and now the quality of life for many Africans was improving. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were getting clean water for the first time. In Kenya, enrollment in public universities more than doubled from 2007 to 2012. In many countries, life expectancy was increasing, infant mortality decreasing.

But the sunny narrative has a counter narrative. Not only has growth failed to be the smooth upward curve that some predicted, it doesn’t seem to be correlated with democratic gains. Many countries grew economically but remained dictatorships.

This is where AfriqUPrising comes from. Admittedly inspired by a book with a similar title by an Zachariah Mampilly, who was also attending the conference, it is the counter narrative to African rising. It is the hypothesis that democratic gains in African countries will be achieved through collective struggle, which is ongoing in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the DRC, Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, among others.

The Heinrich Bll Foundation in cooperation with Deutsche Welle organized the workshop as a way for German journalists and African activists to meet face to face, establish contact, try to understand each other. While that certainly did occur, most of our time was absorbed by a discussion about the central problem with international coverage of African affairs.

(c) Andi Weiland Heinrich Bll Stiftung

The central problem with international coverage of Africa

First of all, press freedom isn’t an problem. Ghana, Namibia, South Africa, and Burkina Faso are all ranked above the US on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. But in countries like Ethiopia, the DRC and Burundi, activists often rely on the international press to tell their stories.

But that’s a problem for activists, too, to be dependent on former colonial powers to report on the problems in Africa. The conundrum surfaced repeatedly throughout our two day discussion. I, as a member of the German media, have the freedom to tell the story of anti government protesters in Zimbabwe. But do I have the experience and insight to tell it?

And there’s the problem of the audience. People don’t tend to care about stories unless they affect their lives. Somalians might read about Washington politics to find out if they can expect aid or a drone strike in the coming days. But the Americans who read the Economist’s extensive coverage of Africa tend to be investors. Protests appear on their radar as a hiccup in the stock market.

Our homework as journalists is to find a way to report on African struggles in such a way that the international community recognizes itself, its own struggles, and perhaps can even see the way their own countries may be responsible for the repression that is mistakenly characterized as native to the continent.

(c) Andi Weiland Heinrich Bll Stiftung

Who was there?

It wasn’t clear who was part of the journalist camp and who was an activist because at least four of the activists are working as journalists. This makes sense if you consider that in countries without freedom of the press, journalists become the target of state violence. So journalism is activism, and in a large part, activism is journalism.

At the first coffee break of the first day, Emery Wright introduced himself to me and handed me a pamphlet about the work his organization does. The lesson I take from that: If you’re a journalist and you believe that writing about protests entails more than counting heads and knocking out a couple of vox pops, you part of a pretty small world.
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