Last week, my work week got off to an unusual start. I arrived in the big blue bus at eight o’clock, yes, but that was where the similarities with other weeks ended. I was surprised to see another expat– a gentleman of a certain age, five feet tall with a German accent and Buddy Holly glasses, wittering around looking for the boss. Since Robert is on paternity leave, the current boss is the managing editor, a bulldog-faced man named Samuel with a loud, echoing voice. The visitor exchanged pleasantries with Samuel, using the informal “tu” even though Samuel is a managing editor in his forties and a complete stranger. He then launched into a welcome speech of exaggerated chirpiness, introducing himself as “Mr. George,” a trainer from a German NGO. Not “George” but “Mr. George.” He was so chirpy that he could have been a recurring character on The Big Comfy Couch (anybody remember The Big Comfy Couch?). He made a few unnecessarily general comments about the state of the press in the region, particularly ripping the Congo, which of course put him immediately in Paul’s good books (Paul is Congolese). Then he asked us to ask him questions. “You’re journalists! Go on, go on, ask me some things!”
The new interns and a few of the staff reporters jumped into the game. “Where are you from? Do you have any children?” He never asked their names. The others looked around in bewilderment. Paul sent me a Facebook message from across the room.
“I’m tempted to slap this guy. I really, really want to say something really mean. That behaviour is called paternalism, it comes from the colonial era and it gets on my nerves like nothing else does. And what’s just as bad is that Samuel puts up with it.”
Thus followed a ridiculously orderly editorial meeting, held entirely in French. When Paul, who speaks Swahili and French but not Kirundi, was the only foreigner on staff, legend has it, a borderline-physical broke out over the use of French versus Kirundi in meetings, and Kirundi won. When I arrived, that didn’t change. But for this guest, Samuel wanted us to pretend that we always had orderly editorial meetings where everyone spoke French and no one was on Facebook or talking about their plans for the weekend. “Mr. George” and his Burundian assistant completely took over the meeting. “Hey hey hey, what’s this side conversation over here?”
“Hey hey hey?” To grown men and women?!
There followed an unnecessarily chirpy training session. It began with a 30-minute German lesson, “because this training is given by a German NGO.”
“Allez, tout le monde! Viens viens! Guten tag! Wie geht es ihnen?”
The visitor then spoke to us a little about our own radio station and how to go about our own jobs. “So, how are you going to speak when you interview a peasant woman? Are you going to use big words?”
And on and on it went, the two guests teaching journalists with 15 years’ experience how to write intros, and picking apart their scriptwriting clause by clause– all the while without soliciting our opinions or acknowledging that a lot of what the station has done for the past 12 years has worked. And maintaining the chirpy, gee-whiz-let’s-go-kids tone.
I took an informal survey of my colleagues. One person felt she was getting something out of the training– “It’s always useful to get new ideas”. Other responses ranged from “Those guys are so tiring!” and “I’m not learning anything” to “Who do they think they are, telling us how to do our jobs?” and “How many training sessions with white people do I have to sit through before they consider me a professional?”
“They have money, so they think they are the belly button of the universe,” said somebody.
I spoke to some colleagues at a print publication who had had a similar training stuffed down their throats. “They think we don’t know anything,” said one reporter. “I was at a training session on economics reporting and they asked us if we knew what inflation was. To economics reporters. Imagine!”
Now, I’m sure this Mr. George (who had, to his credit, at least visited the region before) parachuted in here with he best intentions in the world. But I couldn’t help wondering, what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot? How would Western reporters react to Africans who showed up unannounced in their newsroom and used that sort of patronising language with an editor? Or if there were two shoes? Why not a knowledge exchange instead of a training session? If a bunch of reporters from Le Potentiel de Kinshasa parachuted into the newsroom of Le Soir or Ouest-France, wouldn’t the European reporters also learn something?
These kind of unidirectional North-South training sessions have their place– I’m thinking of training sessions like the one my friend Jean-Sébastien ran at Lumière, where there was high-tech video editing software involved.
But why is it automatically assumed that a retired German television anchor knows more about writing French-language radio scripts than a Burundian radio station manager? Why is it assumed that a Swiss or Belgian print journalist knows more about conflict reporting than a Congolese or a Palestinian? Wouldn’t you think the Congolese or the Palestinians, people living in conflict zones, would have something to teach their colleagues about conflict reporting– whether the colleagues are Ivoirian or American? Why *don’t* we have journalists from Congo or Gaza training other journalists on how to go about reporting war, or poverty issues (the best writing in and about rural journalism has been by Palagummi Sainath, a guy from India) or even political or business investigations? I learned more about investigative reporting when I was in the field with Pascal, here in Bujumbura, than from any of my Canadian or European professors.
I don’t want to attack well-intentioned people or their initiatives. But everyone would win if “third world” journalists were taken seriously as professionals by their Western colleagues, and if said colleagues recognized that knowledge, unlike a river, doesn’t always flow from up to down. Everyone would win if there was more back-and-forthing and less Northern Hemisphere evangelizing.
What would it take to start a true north-south knowledge exchange project?