Why do we allow the West to tell our story in its own way?

The high cost of making films may explain why Kenyans shy away from big-budget movies.

Monday March 21 2016

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Recently, my fellow columnist, Charles Onyango-Obbo, wondered why a foreigner, rather than a Kenyan, was making a film about the September 2013 Westgate terrorist attack and concluded that because films are very expensive to make, and because Africans tell their stories in layered ways, filmmaking is not something they venture into easily.

Apart from the fact that the film on the Westgate attack will most likely be told from a Western perspective and will have a plot that clearly separates the good guys from the bad guys (like the propagandist film, American Sniper, based on the Iraq war), without exploring other aspects of these guys’ personalities, my fear is that this film will reinforce every stereotype there is of Somalis, terrorists, and Kenyans.

Sadly, the local media has not done enough either to provide a more nuanced and informed picture of terrorism in the country or in Somalia. During and after the Westgate attack, for example, one TV presenter told viewers that Al-Shabaab was formed after the Somali state collapsed in 1991.

It is generally agreed that Al-Shabaab is a more recent phenomenon. While some historians and analysts believe that Al-Shabaab has existed in inchoate form since 1993, it is generally accepted that this group came to the fore in 2007 after US-backed Ethiopian forces pushed the Islamic Courts Union out of Mogadishu.

While local TV channels did a good job of giving a blow-by-blow account of the four-day siege on the Westgate mall, they fell terribly short on in-depth analysis, investigative reporting, and historical background.

The high cost of making films may explain why Kenyans shy away from big-budget movies, but what explains their unwillingness to tell their stories in other types of media, even when these stories are staring them in the face?


For instance, why was a story about the US drone that killed 150 Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia a couple of weeks ago buried in the inside pages of this newspaper instead of displayed prominently?

Why was no Kenyan security analyst asked whether this drone strike will have an impact on Kenyan forces on the ground in Somalia or whether Kenya is unwittingly waging a proxy war on behalf of the US?

It is not just the Kenyan media that made light of this significant story; the American media was equally mute, according to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who says that this strike did not get much attention in the US media for four main reasons: it is election season in the United States, so such stories do not make the news, Americans care more about Americans than about foreigners dying abroad, Somalia is not a place Americans are interested in, and the Obama administration has “normalised” drone attacks to such an extent that no one thinks that they might actually be illegal.

Somalia is complicated and so local journalists can be forgiven for getting it wrong some of the time or for focusing on other less complicated stories.

However, why did the local media underplay a story about child abuse in Kenya that made headlines internationally? Recently, a 20-year-old American missionary called Matthew Durham was sentenced to 40 years in prison in the United States for sexually abusing children aged between five and 14 in an orphanage in Kenya.

This case, and others like it, such as that of British pilot Simon Wood, who was also accused of abusing Kenyan children and who committed suicide before his scheduled court appearance, are extensively covered in the British and American press but not locally.

Why? This is a question that Britain-based journalist Samira Sawlani, who takes a keen interest in East Africa and the Horn, asked me on Twitter. I do not have an answer to her question.

Is it because child abuse has become so commonplace in Kenya that it is not considered worth reporting? (Yet, when a white helicopter pilot physically assaulted a female Kenyan police officer recently, there was outrage in the Kenyan press and on social media.)

The child abuse stories also generated debate on whether charities based in Kenya are being used as a cover by paedophiles. No such debate took place in the Kenyan media.

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