Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Thursday, April 19

Pissed off at Kristof

If you meant to send in your application for Nicholas Kristof's second annual "Win a Trip" contest—sorry, you missed your chance. The contest (the deadline for which was April 6) offers the lucky winners—an American student and, this year, a teacher too—the opportunity to travel with Kristof and report alongside him from a "bedbug-infested mattress in a malarial jungle as hungry jackals yelp outside," on scenes such as "a boy dying of malaria because his parents couldn’t afford a $5 mosquito net." But at least one person who would otherwise make a strong candidate for the job opted not to apply, and she explained her reasoning in a letter to Kristof.

In his columns, Kristof has a penchant for painting moralized pictures of unadulterated suffering, but on his NYTimes.com blog he—to his credit—posted the letter, which is critical of this tendancy, the mission and parameters of the contest, and, more generally, his seemingly one-sided perspective on the developing world, Africa in particular.

The author is identified only as "Loren," a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, but, since many people don't have access to Times Select, and because the letter is thoughtful, well-written, and very much worth reading, I thought it merited reproducing, in its entirety, below:

Friday marked the deadline to enter The New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s second annual “Win a Trip with Nick Kristof” contest. Open to students currently enrolled at any American college or university, as well as middle and high school teachers, the contest offers one student and one teacher an all expenses-paid trip through Africa with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to gather stories on the impoverished continent.

The winners will not simply be explorers, but also reporters. The prize includes the chance - more accurately the expectation - to detail the experience on a blog on NYTimes.com.

Because I am currently a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I qualify to enter this competition, and have many reasons to do so. I enjoy writing, which would potentially place me at a slight advantage since Kristof acknowledges a preference for applicants with journalism experience. I maintain a persistent interest in Africa - I met my boyfriend at an event to raise awareness about the genocide currently raging in the Darfur region of the Sudan. And I’m broke and have never been to Joseph Conrad’s “dark continent,” so a free trip to a strange land is appealing. Yet, I refuse to apply. I think the way Kristof has cast this trip is a disservice to Africa. Because I believe it the wrong way to motivate action, I am opting out.

Kristof insists on telling the story of a failing Africa when instead he could report on its ability to overcome. On the competition’s webpage Kristof has posted a letter to potential applicants that provides this explanation: “Frankly, I’m hoping that you’ll be changed when you see a boy dying of malaria because his parents couldn’t afford a $5 mosquito net, or when you talk to a smart girl who is at the top of her class but is forced to drop out of school because she can’t afford a school uniform.”

Apparently, Kristof wants to find two Americans who he has decided do not understand how bad things really are in Africa, and rid them of their ignorance. It could work. Last year’s student witnessed the death of a woman during childbirth despite the fact that both Kristof and his traveling companion donated blood in an attempt to save her. Though the doctor promised to help the young woman, he apparently ducked out the back door as she died. That was Kristof’s story of Cameroon, a West African nation with tremendous ecological diversity and a per-capita GDP higher than that of most other African countries.

No doubt, such an experience would educate a student about a poverty that is more cruel and creative than our worst fears, and likely foster inspired journalism. But the story of Africa in turmoil is the African narrative that many Americans - and certainly those who read The New York Times - already know. It is virtually the only type of reporting that Western news outlets broadcast about the continent. Every American student who has to listen to National Public Radio in the car when Dad picks her up from soccer practice, or has had to read The Economist for a school assignment, or has read in a church newsletter about a local youth group’s spring break trip to a rural African village knows that people in Africa are hurting. Maybe we haven’t smelled an understaffed health clinic that cares for HIV-positive orphans, or walked through rows of coffee trees with a farmer whose young son was beaten into serving in a youth militia in a civil war between tribal groups whose names we can’t pronounce and whose agendas we can’t keep straight. But we know they are poor, and that Africa will break your American heart if its contaminated water doesn’t kill you first.

Even those Americans who avoid the news have heard stories of Africa in crisis. Bono has told you. Or Angelina Jolie. Or George Clooney. We have seen something about helping to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa by purchasing a red T-shirt at The Gap. Or we’ve caught a sound bite about Bill Gates turning his attention to sick kids in Africa.

Americans don’t need any more stories of a dying Africa. Instead, we should learn of a living one. Kristof and his winners should investigate how it is that Botswana had the highest per-capita growth of any country in the world for the last 30 years of the twenty-first century. Report on the recent completion of the West Africa Gas Pipeline that delivers cheaper, cleaner energy to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Tell us about investment opportunities in Nigeria’s burgeoning capital markets.

Sadly, it’s impossible to report on Africa’s successes without relaying its tragedies. Virtually every African victory is somehow also a story of malnourishment and malaria, misogyny and malevolence. That’s important because Africa’s horrors are massive and crushing, and demand attention. I agree with Pope John Paul II, who said “a society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members.” Clearly Africa will be the judgment of our global community.

Kristof knows this, of course, and I am certain he means well when he writes that his original purpose for the contest was because he thought that “plenty of young people [who] tune out a fuddy-duddy like myself might be more engaged by a fellow-student encountering African poverty for the first time.” But they would also be excited to encounter African hope, something equally unknown to most Americans, students or otherwise.

So I’m asking Kristof to refine his summer travel itinerary to include a tour of a thriving organic farm owned and operated by a local Ethiopian cooperative. And the Ugandan health clinics that are reducing the number of AIDS cases despite a continuing guerilla war. And the wonderful “PlayPumps” scattered throughout the continent that provide safe drinking water via a pump system powered by children as they play on a playground. Brilliant idea. And something many people don’t know about.

Africa needs a lot of things. It needs money and aid workers, vaccines and functioning governments. Some of those things can be provided by outside donors, and other can’t. But universally, Africa needs us to believe in it. And that is something we have to be taught.