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Violence and cynical foreign news crews

Violence and cynical foreign news crews


Publication Date: 1/5/2008

As a Canadian, ARNO KOPECKY gives his impression of what he has seen in Nairobi during the riots this weekIn most of the television clips we see of the riots these days, it seems there are almost as many journalists in the frame as looters.

Daniel Muiruri Nduati, an aspirant for Dagoretti’s Mutuini ward, addresses supporters before the elections. Photo/ARNO KOPECKY.

Kenya’s election debacle has quickly become a world event, sharing the No. 1 news slot with Pakistan’s assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto and the occasional suicide bomber. 

Accordingly, the number of foreign reporters flitting around town in red vests has quintupled, their presence all the more noticeable for the lack of anyone else in the streets.

As one of them (minus the red vest), I’ve enjoyed watching the subtle interactions that take place between the growing pool of competitors for the most shocking photo, the saddest story, the most heroic reporting. We drive from one lynching to another, from burnt churches to dispersed rallies, like children chasing marbles. 

It takes a fair amount of cynicism to fly around the world just to watch people’s lives fall apart. 

I spoke with one photographer, for instance, moments after he’d returned from a riot in Mathare; he was heart-broken, not by what he saw, but because he had put his camera on the wrong setting and none of the bodies he had photographed turned out well.

My introduction to the circus came about an hour after Mr Samuel Kivuitu declared that Mr Mwai Kibaki had won the presidential election, late last Sunday afternoon. 

One of the first thoughts on many people’s minds was Kibera – they had already been rioting for two days, and it was painfully obvious that the slum would now explode. I volunteered to check it out along with a colleague who had grown up in Kibera, and spoke the right language to be there.

Twenty minutes later, Chris and I were standing on Makina road at the entrance to the slum. It was dusk, and the orange-glowing smoke of countless bonfires already hung over the brown rooftops ahead. 

Thousands of hoots and ululations mingled and echoed forth in a single high pitch from the mobs we couldn’t yet see, and we stood there contemplating the disaster among crews from BBC, Reuters, AP and the like. 

While we muttered and stalled, a steady stream of ragged young men marched past us en route to the flames.

One after another of the news teams got calls from their head offices ordering them to leave. I later learned that most news crews, when they do enter such scenes, work as a team, walking two ahead and two behind wherever possible and always identifying escape routes. 

But when Chris and I went forward, my only thought was to stay glued to his side and let him do the talking.

It was dark by then. Just as we began, an enormous fireball mushroomed brilliantly into the sky far ahead – Patrick Njiru’s famous gas station had exploded. The volume around us went up a notch. Young men and women dragged their machetes on the gravel, shouting “No Raila! No Peace!” and when they saw the mzungu reporter in their midst added “Tell them!” 

We kept a good pace all the way to Olympic primary school, where we finally paused to chain-smoke a few cigarettes. Stopping meant being surrounded by angry children, most of them drunk and spitting in your face as they declared that none of this was their fault.

That’s probably the last nighttime stroll I’ll take through Kibera, at least for the next few weeks, but the trip epitomised everything the West finds fascinating about Kenya’s situation. 

There is a certain helplessness motivating the destroyers of public property and innocent lives, as though they just can’t keep the demons inside them at bay. On the surface, it’s about taking the only available avenue of protest against what they see as a stolen election. 

But once those forces are unleashed, politics fly out the window and a delighted sort of rage takes over. You can see in many of their faces that some of these rioters are having the times of their lives.

Given their upbringing, that’s pretty understandable. But the outsider, whose own life is untouched by someone else’s tragedy, is mostly interested in the spectacle; he sees it as a movie. 

Wow, he thinks, these people really know how to blow up. What passion! What anger! It’s 21st century Shakespeare, written in the ghettos and produced by CNN, best watched with a bucket of popcorn.

But to be fair, there are plenty of viewers and readers, not to mention journalists, who are watching this through a more sophisticated lens. 

When crimes like the ones now proliferating throughout the country happen in isolation, the counterbalance of shame is hard to kick in. By recording these events, we put not just the looters on trial, but also the politicians who know very well they could put a stop to the madness any time they liked.

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About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.

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