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Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the “New News” from Africa

September 29, 2006

With a career spanning more than four decades, there is nothing Charlayne Hunter-Gault “hasn’t done, covered, said, influenced,” said Women’s Media Center President Carol Jenkins, introducing the veteran reporter at a recent WMC lunch for journalists. Her coverage of Africa in recent years for CNN has made her well known in the airport lounges of London and Paris, but relatively little of it was shown domestically. “I don’t see where the U.S. media gets the idea that people here aren’t interested in Africa,” said the Peabody and Emmy award winner.  When speaking to people about her career—which includes years at the New York Times, PBS, and NPR as well as CNN—and her book, New News out of Africa, she has seen this idea disproved wherever she goes.  Recently, she arrived to speak at a university only to find herself scheduled against Al Gore promoting his hit documentary on global warming. “We had a packed house,” she said.  “I was amazed!” In the U.S., media coverage of Africa, said Hunter-Gault, is filtered through what she calls “the four Ds of African Apocalypse”—death, destruction, disease and despair.  A constant rendering of such tragedy and suffering as synonymous with Africa, she believes, ultimately leads even the most generous audiences to switch off and consider whether their attention—and their charity—might do more good elsewhere. Yet Africa has changed immensely over recent years, said Hunter-Gault, who has spent the past 11 years living in Johannesburg. As recently as 1998, 14 wars were raging Africa. Now there are only three, and the democracy in place in South Africa is fuelling transformations in surrounding countries. “There’s a second wind of change blowing across the continent,” said Hunter-Gault, pointing out that “more African leaders are leaving through the ballot than through coups d’etat.”  Indeed, she wryly noted, recent events in both Thailand and the U.S. show that neither coups nor flawed elections are exclusively African problems. She notes in particular regional initiatives that most Americans hear nothing about, such as the NEPADframework, which, said Hunter-Gault, represents “an African solution for African problems.” Adopted in July 2001 by the African Union, NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) lays out rules of the road for African countries, prioritizing fiscal responsibility, human rights and, crucially, women’s equality. While there remains, she conceded, much debate over where NEPAD will and won’t work, it is undoubtedly a promising step. Several countries have signed on to its principles—including what could be an uncomfortable peer review of leaders and governments. With such scrutiny, she said, future leaders “might not have so easy a time oppressing and repressing their people.”                 A limited view of Africa hampers not only Africans, said Hunter-Gault, noting that the continent is rich in natural resources, including gold and the mineral cassiterite that is used in modern PCs and cell phones. As a global player, she said, Africa has much to teach the rest of the world. South Africa, in particular, has negotiated hatreds as deep as those in the Middle East through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its experience could be of value to that region’s peace process. Most important, said Hunter-Gault, is investment in the future of the continent’s women, citing an African proverb that if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation.  Across Africa, women are “the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick,” she said, yet in places where women become empowered through microfinance projects for example, these dynamics are totally changed. “It’s no coincidence that the face on my book is a woman,” said Hunter-Gault, holding up the cover.  “Because this is Africa.”

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