12 February 2013

Nigeria: Femke Becomes Funke - the Eagles and the Beast

"For once the Dutch would hear news with a positive angle coming from Nigeria."

Let me be honest. I don't give a toss about football. The religiousness with which some people adore a simple ball game is wasted on me, and, in my opinion, the astronomic amounts of money involved make a strong case that any news about football should be featured in the papers' financial section rather than the sports pages. I just don't see the point of watching 22 millionaires running after a leather ball. Needless to say the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) initially did not have me glued to the TV. Until all of a sudden I found myself learning the names of the Super Eagles' players by heart, reading up on pre-game analyses and googling the history of Nigerian football.

Had the football bug finally bitten me? Had I been engorged by a wave of patriotism for my new home and become an instant Eagles fan? Not really. My interest was professional: I had suggested an item about the AFCON and the growing success of the Nigerian team for Dutch public radio. On Sunday evening, right after the final game, I would be live on air. This is why I researched the topic I know least about. And I did so gleefully. For once the Dutch would hear news with a positive angle coming from Nigeria.

'Are you finally going to write something positive about Nigeria?' This is a question I often get from Nigerians when they hear I am a journalist. My answer might disappoint them: setting out to report just positive stories would be just as unfair to reality as doing only negative ones. Good journalism should strike a balance. Having said that, I do believe the news in the West about Nigeria tends to have very limited perspectives: if it is not the Niger Delta than it is Boko Haram or corruption. And all too often the reports seem to have been taken straight out of Binyavanga Wainaina's satirical piece 'How to Write About Africa.'

When I decided to settle in Nigeria as a freelance correspondent for Dutch media, I wanted to do things differently. I was not going to get up and perform every time a bomb exploded or a westerner got kidnapped. At least, I would try and add another kind of story, one that paints a broader, more human picture of society. My reports, I told myself, would not be blind to the problems this country is encountering, but would be aware of the richness and diversity of everyday life as well.

That was also my idea about my Super Eagles item. Of course I was not going to embark upon any post-game analysis, but I would use the African football tournament as a tool to speak of Nigeria. I was going to explain how eager Nigerians are for good news. How they are used to disappointment up to a level that even during the finals right up till the last minute many of the fans in my local bar did not dare predict a victory for their Super Eagles. And how Lagosians had been queuing for fuel that day to make sure they could watch the historical match on their TV sets even when light was taken. I would be telling a lot more about Nigeria than just the tale of 22 men running after a ball.

Sunday evening, a few minutes after seven, the game had just started, my phone rings. A Dutch number appears in the screen. The editor of the late night radio show calling.

'We decided to drop the item about the Africa Cup,' he informed me. 'We are going with news from the US. But should there be riots, then we would like to call you anyway.'

'Ok,' I said. Nothing more. I was afraid my anger would make me say things I would regret. My anger wasn't about my missed gig or my hurt journalist's ego but about the continuous violation of the rights of a people to be represented fairly in media. The radio's decision to go for a story from the grossly over-reported USA as well as its readiness to report about Nigerians only when they start behaving like 'proper' Africans and rampage through the streets did more than just irritate me. At that moment I almost felt ashamed of my profession.

The morning after the game, Dutch radio called again. A young editor--I think she was an intern--thought it a pity that Nigeria's victory had not made it into the show, and wanted to suggest it as an item again. I agreed, knowing fully well that nothing would come of it. Yesterday's news is no news. But I appreciated her trying, and in the evening I even called in to mention the controversy about Eagles coach Stephen Keshi's resignation. Giving in to the radio's preference for the spectacular, I reckoned a royal drama like Nigeria's hero stepping down would at least spark some Dutch attention.

In a way, I was relieved when I got just a polite 'Thanks for the update, but I don't expect we will use it' from the other end of the line. I had just experienced how easy it is to become part of the journalistic system that feeds the media beast, ever hungry for bad news.

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