Any Western journalist who’s spent time in Africa knows the usual reaction when a local bumps into one of us: “Why don’t you report any good news about Africa? Can’t you find something to talk about beyond Africans starving or killing each other?”
There’s also a Catholic version of the complaint: “Can’t you do any story about the church in Africa other than condoms and AIDS?”
This came home for me in 2009, when Benedict XVI visited Cameroon. The trip was rich in content, including a dramatic challenge to corruption under the country’s strongman president Paul Biya and repeated expressions of the dynamism of a young and growing church. Yet the lone storyline in the Western press was the pope’s comment aboard the papal plane that condoms make AIDS worse.
As I wrote at the time, I’ve never covered a papal trip in which the experience on the ground and the story being told in the international media were as starkly in contrast, and it left a lot of African Catholics fuming.
At one stage during the trip, I was invited to speak to 30 or 40 young Catholics in Cameroon. They peppered me with questions about why journalists seemed almost deliberately to be distorting the story. Where I grew up, we would have said these folks were “spittin’ mad.”
Frankly, I can’t really say I blamed them.
It’s not that the Western press never does positive stories about Africa. In secular terms, we’ve covered the largely peaceful transition from apartheid in South Africa, the birth of a new nation in South Sudan, and the reputation for good governance and economic development enjoyed by Botswana. In the church arena, I’ve written that Africa in many ways is the Catholic future so often my hand threatens to cramp.
Nonetheless, too often we sweep into Africa, do some story that happens to coincide with our own interests and agenda, and leave everything else enveloped in neglect. As strategies go for understanding the continent — well, I probably don’t need to finish that sentence.
This preamble is by way of introducing a new initiative that deserves to draw interest around the Catholic world: the Catholic News Agency for Africa, or CANAA, a new media initiative designed to allow African Catholics to tell their own stories. It’s been established under the auspices of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
The idea is to do for Africa what outlets such as the Union of Catholic Asia News (UCAN) and AsiaNews already do for Asia and the Middle East, which is to report the news of the region from an in-the-trenches perspective and with a particular eye on its Christian communities.
Plans call for the agency to have a trial run from August 2013 to August 2014, with its initial base of operations in Nairobi, Kenya — a strategic choice, given that Nairobi tends to be where most Western media outlets with a footprint in Africa set up shop.
According to organizers, CANAA won’t just peddle sweetness and light. The people behind the project are media professionals who understand that sometimes they’ll have to stir the waters, but their aim is two-fold: first, getting the facts right, in contrast to the sloppiness and stereotypes that often dominate journalism about Africa; and second, injecting some balance, so misery and conflict aren’t the only narratives.
The first coordinator of CANAA is Fr. Don Bosco Ochieng Onyalla, a priest of South Sudan who was previously the director of Radio Good News Radio in that country’s diocese of Rumbek. Given high illiteracy rates and low television access, radio is about the only form of media in South Sudan that reaches ordinary people in their local language, and many observers credit Catholic radio with being the voice of civil society.
The first chair of CANAA’s board of directors is Archbishop Charles G. Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana, by consensus one of the sharpest and most impressive prelates on the continent.
The agency had a sort of trial run at World Youth Day in Brazil, with a veteran Nigerian media worker, Fr. Patrick Tor Alumuku, on the ground in Rio de Janeiro collecting African stories that CANAA edited and complied. One such piece quoted African pilgrims calling for the next WYD after Krakow in 2016 to be held in Africa, since every other continent’s now had at least one. The leading candidate seemed to be South Africa.
There’s not yet an Internet presence for CANAA, though Ochieng is working on developing a website and blog.
Organizers say over time, they want CANAA to be self-sufficient. Right now, however, they need a minimal set of resources to get the ball rolling. Readers interested in learning more or who might be in a position to offer support can contact the communications secretariat of SECAM at this email address: [email protected].
Here’s hoping the project gets off the ground. Given the church’s demographic realities in the early 21st century, the more we know about Africa, the more we’ll know about the Catholic future writ large.