A month since Hurricane Harvey wrought destruction over the Caribbean and United States, the 75-billion-dollar natural disaster is now a household name. While Hurricane Harvey, Maria, and Irma were dominating international news headlines, what people may not have realized is that Africa faced disasters which killed and displaced thousands more than those three hurricanes combined. The tragic aftermath of these hurricanes is not to be diluted or dismissed. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the ways in which mainstream media prioritizes natural disasters. Class and race hierarchies often affect the varying degrees of international solidarity and aid a country receives in response to catastrophic events.
Many know that over 75 people were recently killed in Texas by Hurricane Harvey. Fewer know about the mudslides in Sierra Leone, which have taken over 1,000 lives since August – and this number continues to increase. In Benue, Nigeria, over 110,000 people have been displaced due to severe flooding. It makes sense that events occurring within one’s borders would be given priority in the media. But the fact that these floods killed 25 times more people than Hurricane Harvey but received exactly 25 times less media coverage makes considerably less sense. What is perhaps most confounding is the fact that, at this time, “Harvey received more than twice the coverage of the floods within Nigeria itself as well [in English-language media].” Some attribute this to the difficulties of reporting and obtaining data in regions facing various conflicts -- whereas information about the US is made readily available by mega newswires such as Reuters and the Associated Press who are predominantly based in the US. This factor definitely comes into play, but staggering statistics like these have been around long before foreign newswires replaced print journalism.
The under-reporting of natural disasters is but one aspect within the larger, and problematic, portrayal of Africa in mainstream press. The simple fact that so-called “first world” countries occupy disproportionately more media space than those in the “third world” is enough to show the hegemonic control Western countries have in journalism. This hierarchy is rooted in the idea that Western countries most closely reflect the values they deem as ‘ideal’ -- and thus view themselves as superior, and project this belief outwards. As a result, the events in these countries are seen to be worthier to report. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, therefore, it was seen to be relatively more catastrophic than other natural disasters because of its location, firstly, and secondly, because of its unexpectedness. Another reason that some natural disasters are underreported, is the underlying idea that such events are “commonplace” in Africa – and thus are less shocking, since they fit in with an Afro-pessimistic narrative: the perception of Africa as “one country rife with corruption, ‘tribal’ conflicts, [and] natural and humanitarian disaster.”
Though many of these disasters in Africa are, in fact, preventable - unlike that of Harvey - Afro-pessimism mitigates the possibility that they could be avoided. Moreover, Western countries are at least partially responsible for these events. The effects of mudslides – such as those in Sierra Leone and the DR Congo – are worsened by widespread deforestation through resource exploitation, thus leading to soil erosion. What is needed is an increase in preventative infrastructure. In response to the Nigeria’s floods, Benue writer Collins Uma said, “If we had working drainage systems, this would not happen.”
With little international support, most of the response initiatives have been locally-based. What is notable, moreover, is that many of these strategies simultaneously challenge the stereotype of Africa’s ‘technological lack’ through innovation. A team of 20 students and young professionals from OpenStreetMap Niger are in the process of creating an app, GeoODK that displays a map of Niger’s flood-prone areas. Farmers have been especially impacted by the floods, so this app locates electric poles and other useful information to help them determine the least vulnerable places to plant their crops.
To combat the disasters in a way that is large-scale, proactive, and preventative, altering the way we approach journalism is more important than one may initially think. All human lives must be represented and rendered equal as we move forward in combating the climate change endemic.
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