Washington, DC — Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the best-known and most award-winning journalists in the United States, has focused her recent career on covering Africa. After nearly two decades as a correspondent for the Newshour on public television, she moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, working successively as Africa correspondent for National Public Radio and CNN bureau chief, before leaving CNN last year to pursue independent projects. This month, her interview with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appears in Essence magazine. She talked with AllAfrica about her latest book, New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance.
Your interest in Africa dates from childhood?
My initial interest in the continent goes back to my childhood in the segregated [U.S.] south where, on weekends, the big activity was to go to what we called "the show." It was the little segregated movie theater in my town of Covington, Georgia, and it was always either "westerns" or Tarzan movies which somehow captured my imagination. At that time, there wasn't a lot of discussion about Africa, either in my household or in the community. I was so struck by the adventures of Tarzan that I used to play in my backyard, where there were lots of trees and vines hanging, and I called myself "Nyoka, Queen of the Jungle."
So something in my primal memory must have been stirred by all of that - although in retrospect those Tarzan movies were so racist. They make me sad, because the victim was always some hapless African or the villain was some African terrible guy, and the white Tarzan was always the hero. But that didn't really register much.
In later years, I encountered the poem, "What is Africa to me, scarlet sky or copper sea?" [by Countee Cullen] It is a beautiful poem. But when I was in college, I began to see Africa as more than a poem, as more than a Tarzan movie, more than adventure. Robert F. Kennedy came to my university at a time when the south was resisting the law of the land requiring desegregation. I think that he and his brother, President John Kennedy, were concerned about the black vote [in the United States] and also viewed Africa as a potential bulwark against communism.
Speaking at the University of Georgia, Robert Kennedy said that the graduation of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes would be a major milestone in the fight against communism. I was shocked. There I was sitting in a room of hostile white people, and they said, "What was that he said?" But it was indicative that Africa was emerging on the international scene and making its making its way ever more deeply into the consciousness of African Americans like myself.
Why do you think that coverage of Africa in major U.S. media is so limited?
I am constantly confounded as to why American media don't find Africa an exciting place to report from and about. I think there's a perception that audience interest is limited. That's certainly not been true in my experience. I lecture on college campuses, before businesses and corporations and other venues around the country. And I always find receptivity to the 'new news' that I bring from Africa. Interest - and ignorance to be sure - because people aren't getting the information they need to understand Africa.
Reporting is dominated by the four 'd's I talk about in the book - death, disease, disaster and despair.
Has coverage changed during the three decades you've been paying attention to Africa and working as a professional journalist?
I don't think so! There are moments when journalists descend on the continent - when Mozambique floods and a baby is born in the tree, etc. I don't have a problem with that. I don't have a problem with reporting death, disease, disaster and despair, because all of the above exist.
But that is not all there is to Africa. And when you have crises to which the international community should respond, increasingly there is a reluctance to do so because, after all of this negative reporting, there is a feeling: What's the point? If all you hear about year after year is hunger, drought, disease and conflict, people conclude that Africa's problems are intractable and that nothing in Africa ever changes.
The "new news" that needs to be shared includes the fact that in 1998 there were 14 wars being fought on the continent. Today there are three, because Burundi's last guerilla movement has now signed on to the peace process. And in Congo, the first contested election in 40 years was held in relative peace. That's "new news," even though many people still focus on the unrest that continues in some parts of the country.
You've reported from Africa for both NPR and CNN. Were you frustrated by what you were able to do?
The whole time I was at NPR, and subsequently at CNN, I got the stories on the air that I went after and thought were important to do, sometimes to the frustration of editors. My stories were often longer than they wanted them to be, and I kept pushing the envelope. But I walked away from CNN quite proud about what I had been able to do.
I think a lot of journalists self censor, because they don't think there is going to be receptivity to their Africa reporting. That self-censorship becomes a self-defeating and self-fulfilling prophecy. Journalists who are invested in trying to get news of the continent out just have to keep slogging, keep on fighting for space. They have to be creative in the way they propose and sell stories.
As I say in the book, they have to go there to know there. Let them go there and spend a little time there, as opposed to parachuting in for a specific thing and leaving. If you go to Niger to cover the famine, go next door or go somewhere else in the country where there is no famine. Or if you go to Darfur, go to southern Sudan and see how they're rebuilding after decades of war. See what is the sprit of the people.
We have to understand that the audience is not tuning out on Africa. It's the media decision makers who decide that Americans aren't interested. After I left the NewsHour, many people in the United States thought that I had died! They so rarely saw anything I did on CNN domestic, or only episodically or occasionally, and those people who watched the NewsHour didn't watch CNN domestic.
Not a lot got on CNN domestic, and yet all over the continents of Africa and Europe - and everywhere else that people get CNN International - people were watching. But a decision had been made, or was made on a regular basis by the domestic side, that there wasn't sufficient [audience] interest [in Africa].
Now, I have to say, that's changing a little bit. I have friends who still work at CNN and who've been doing great work, people like Jeff Koinange. He's getting more things on CNN, and Anderson Cooper is becoming more and more interested in the continent.
Some of that has to do with, again, the death, disease, disaster, and despair, but the point is: let them get interested.
I've been working with a group called My Sister's Keeper. In fact, I reported on them from southern Sudan in December. I went over there to follow them because they were going to see if it was feasible to build a girls' school. It was an amazing eye-opener. Here was a part of the country that was put back into the Stone Age by war; there's nothing there, not even anything to make bricks. So the task of these women is going to be daunting.
I agreed to have them come over to Martha's Vineyard this summer and talk to people about the school, and see if there'd be people willing to contribute. They sent out emails to people whose names I gave them and others who are working with this project, and the response has been amazing. People want to contribute - and they don't know anything. So when you give them a little bit of "new news," the response is invariably positive.
In your reporting, you strive to make the people you are covering come to life for your audience. So do you think it's not just a question of finding the stories that are beyond death and destruction, war and famine, but it's also what you do when you're reporting on those crisis situations?
Yes, it's how you look at things. For a five-part series on poverty in Africa for NPR, I went to look at the conditions, but in each instance to the extent that it existed, I wanted to also see if anybody was doing anything about it.
In Tanzania, for example, where the face of poverty is a woman, you go to the rural areas and she's the one who's out there tilling what little land is left in the face of drought. She is the one who is trying to provide for the family because often the men are off in the mines or doing some other migrant work, somewhere way away. She's the bread-winner and the one who keeps the family together. But she's also the one who gets infected with HIV, when the husband comes back from months and months away in the mines and has contracted HIV from sex workers. She's having a rough time, and so that's the story you tell.
But you also tell the story of the women who are meeting under the tree and have availed themselves of one of the Care International programs called Village Savings and Loans. These are providing loans for women, and some men, but they're mostly women, where there are no banks, and where credit just wouldn't be possible. And yet the small amounts of money that they've been able to pull together and put into a common pot have generated businesses and expanded businesses.
One of these women has a vegetable stand. She's selling vegetables and dried fish and dead worms and all kinds of things, and she told me that her business has expanded five-fold in two years. Now she can buy clothes for her children. She can send them to school, she can feed them, and she can reinvest the profits to further expand her business.
That kind of thing gives the impetus, perhaps, to the international community to want to contribute, because in the midst of dire poverty all around, here's this little mound of hope and the prospect that these women, who are involved in this thing, won't be forever poor.
Why don't stories of determined efforts by so many people across Africa generally get reported more frequently? Is part of the problem that editors misperceive Africa and don't see the drama in those stories?
Yes, but let me say that I also think the NGO community, and governments themselves, need to rethink their approach to communication. I've been ranting about this for some time now. Nepad [the New Partnership for Africa's Development] and the peer-review mechanism that African leaders have developed are two of the most important things that have happened on the continent since the end of colonialism. But you say 'Nepad' and everybody goes, "uhhhhhh, what is that?" I often say that I wish I could have been in the room when they came up with this, because I would have said: 'OK, let it be the New Partnership for African Development in its ideas, but let's call it something user-friendly that people can embrace'!
When you download background information from international agencies, who are doing one hell of a job, it's all bureaucrat-speak. I've had to call them up and say, "Excuse me, but what does this mean?" It makes eyes glaze over.
There's a responsibility on that end to have information that's more accessible, more understandable. I'm not saying gimmicky, necessarily, but certainly information that is interesting and exciting. Because who wants to wade through pages and pages of acronyms?
People need jobs. They need work, but in 'UN speak' it's "building human capacity." What does that mean? I appreciate those people who are laboring in the vineyards to bring about these things, but if you want to attract attention, it's got to be a little bit more user-friendly.
What do you recommend to people in newsrooms who want to bring more "new news" about Africa into the coverage?
They just have to go there. They have to be willing to go there. This is not always glamorous. Everyone wants to come to South Africa, because they can stay in nice hotels and run out to the townships and get a little bit dirty and then come back and take a nice shower in the five-star hotel.
But you have to go beyond that. You have to be willing to do it again and again, willing to take chances and be uncomfortable, and you also have to be willing to be unpopular.
It's not the job that gets you the anchor position on the news. You have to be realistic about it. You have to realize what you're up against and be prepared to give it your all to get it there.
It's not unlike the 1960s here [in the United States], when we tried to get more people of color into the major media. And when cities erupted in flames, everybody in newsrooms was surprised. Finally, they realized that the reason they were surprised is because nobody who knew those places were there in those newsrooms. That's when people of color began to be recruited, to come in and cover - first of all - where they lived.
After a while, they wanted to do other things too! They wanted to do foreign affairs. They wanted to write editorials. They wanted to cover energy, and the environment and politics. They've advanced.
I challenged the National Association of Black Journalists meeting a few years ago. I said: you changed the face of American journalism. Now you need to concentrate your efforts on the international side. Who better to do it?
In the book, you talked about 'coming in right.'
That's part of good coverage anywhere you go. I went to Harlem in the early '70s, when the [Black] Panthers were reinventing themselves, or at least trying to. They were presenting a breakfast program for children, and when I showed them my credentials, my New York Times press card, this Panther said, "No you can't come in." I said, "Why is that?" And he said, "Because you work for 'the Man,' and the Man is not going to allow you to tell the truth." The New York Times in those days was referred to as the Grey Lady, but I knew what he meant.
I said, "Ok, let's make a deal. You let me come in here and cover this one, and if what is in the paper tomorrow is not an accurate reflection of what has actually taken place then don't let me come the next time." And he said, "Alright, on one condition, that you come in right." He didn't have to spell that out for me. I knew what he meant. Don't come in here with a lot of preconceived notions about who we are and what we are. Come in and see what's happening and let the story dictate.
The next time I saw him, he said, "Right on sister," and I said, "Power to the people." We got past that.
It's not a bad way of preparing to cover anything, but especially those places, and people, and things that have been so misrepresented. I was reading an interesting interview with [South African President] Thabo Mbeki and an international correspondent. No matter what the president would say, this guy would come back with an argument. The president kept having to say, "But you're not listening to me." You know, we may or may not agree, but we journalists are not policy makers; we're there to get information.
Sometimes you have to press and press and press and press, but I think a lot of times, reporters have formed their opinions about something. No amount of facts or explanations is going change that, especially if they've been conditioned over the years, maybe by wrong information, to see things in a certain way.
Which is why I tried to be very sensitive as I went into Africa, even though I came out of an environment where I became sensitized very early on to how you can get misrepresented, because I was the subject of news myself. [Charlayne Hunter and fellow student Hamilton Holmes integrated the University of Georgia in 1961, amid violent protests against their admission.] I was able, at 19-years-old, to separate the good ones from the not good ones.
I understood that, but still, even with my own background and perspective, I was a product of Western education, where there was very little information. And it still is the case that there's very little information about Africa that is truly informative.
So you go with your bags packed with pages and pages of background research and material, but it's all from a particular perspective - unless it's allAfrica.com! (I'm not just saying that gratuitously. I'm saying it because it's true.)
You have to be willing to open up. I've been in Africa almost 10 years now, and this poverty series opened my eyes to things I hadn't seen - some astounding, astonishing things. Cultural practices that violate young girls and things like that. In this case, I was able to find a group of people who had actually been able to prevail upon some of those who were doing these things to little girls, to change their way of ushering young women into womanhood.
But, there's always something to be learned, especially on a continent with 54 countries and over 800 million people: multifarious, multifaceted, multi-varied, multiethnic. So you have to always be open to new things. You just have to be a good journalist.
What about quoting African sources - not just outside experts - and getting to know local journalists?
I think it's very important to liaise with African journalists. For all of the difficulties that African journalists have faced - not the least being oppression by many governments and countries where most of the media has been state-controlled - many have shown great courage and determination to try to tell the truth.
As I said in the book, local journalists tell you where to get the best coffee, and on the way, they give you the run down. As a journalist, you check out your sources. But those are the people who live there. They find ways of helping you get things you wouldn't see, just popping in and popping out.
Having said that, they will be the first to say they need more resources and more training, because they haven't had access to a lot of it. They talk about needing more courses in economics, so that they can figure out where Africa is within a new global and globalizing economy. Many of them don't even have computers, but they utilize Internet cafes. They work with minimal resources, against great odds, and yet they're out there. And they're getting better and better at what they do.
CNN has the Africa journalists awards, and when I was a judge back in the early days, the entries would be fairly pedestrian. Over time, not only have the numbers of entries increased, but the submissions have become increasingly more sophisticated.
It used to be that South Africa would take all the prizes, because they had the most advanced media on the continent. Now you are getting submissions that are of great quality from Nigeria, from Kenya, from Ghana. Francophone Africa is now in the contest.
Journalists want to help build their democracies, and they are seeing that constructive, critical reporting is as important to the building of democracy as writing stories about how wonderful everything is. They understand that part of their responsibility is to keep the feet to the fire of governments who have made promises to the people.
In Ghana, for example, in the last two elections, journalists fanned out across the country and saw to it that the ballots that were being counted were being counted properly and accurately. They made it impossible to cheat, because they were calling the results in, and it was being announced on the radio.
I recently went to Ethiopia, as a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, to talk to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi about those dozen or so journalists who are in prison, charged with treason and facing death. I went, hoping to get some of them released. We weren't successful in that, but we had a very good exchange with the prime minister, and it's clear that there needs to be more communication between the government and the media. Not so that the media do good stories or so that the government gives them scoops, but just so you improve the communication.
Those journalists were accused of working for the opposition, because most of what was contained in their news reports were the words and positions of the opposition. But what they told us from their prison cells, as well as others who weren't in prison and came to visit us surreptitiously, was that the government wouldn't talk to them, so they only had one side to report. We told this to the prime minister, who acknowledged that his government needed to do a better job at communicating with the media.
It's also important, not just in Ethiopia, for both sides to be responsible. Given the woeful lack of compensation to journalists, it's not too surprising that there might be lapses in ethics or practice. There has to be a consciousness on the part of journalists, as well as on the part of governments, that everybody has to assume responsibility for the quality of their work, and the quality of their communication, and the quality of the information that they convey or purvey.
Looking back, is there anything that you that you had had a chance to do or that you wish you'd done differently?
I don't think so. I'm still there and still trying to do a good job at what I do. You go to an interview, perhaps with someone you have tried long and hard to get, and you craft all the questions and you go and ask them, and you leave and you say, "Oh I forgot to ask X!" That's the nature of this beast. But aside from second-guessing like that, I don't think so.
I've tried to be ethically correct, and morally correct, and professionally correct. There might be people who might have objections! The Zimbabwean government says I'm an enemy of the state, which I think is fine. It's not true, but if that's how they want to perceive me... It's pretty much like the situation in Ethiopia. If they won't talk to me, despite my repeated attempts to talk to them about a particular situation, then I only have the other side to report, but I've made my best effort.
I happen to think, and this has long been a tenant of my own journalism, that I don't have to be an advocate. I happen to believe that most people are capable - if they have good information - of making good decisions. Even if, in my heart-of-hearts, I have a position, I try to present both sides fairly. I don't think people need me to tell them what to think. I think they're capable of making up their own minds. Just give them facts, as you see them.
The public is very sophisticated. I think that it's unfortunate, in America, that there is this perception that you have to dumb down information in order for people to understand it. That's a wrong perception.
I think that, increasingly, people who want good quality news are turning away from these talk shows on TV and these shouting matches. I don't know how many people have asked me, since I've been on this book tour, "Where can I get good information about the continent?" It happens all the time.
Fortunately you know what to tell them.
I know what to tell them.