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Africa, and the Interest Gap

BlogAfrica is alive and kicking. At last count, there are over 70 blogs listed in the directory and more keep trickling in. I was lucky enough to visit my friends at AllAfrica last week and finally got to meet the extraordinary Akwe Amosu in person. She’s agreed to turn her substantial journalistic talents towards the blog catalog and has already posted a terrific first entry, giving an overview of some of the best submissions the project has received so far.

One of the entries Akwe mentions particularly caught my eye. It’s the crazy story of a diamond smuggling scam gone wrong in Nairobi, posted on the perpetually fascinating Unganisha.org. It’s the sort of story that would make an excellent Hollywood film, if only Hollywood made films about Africa. Think of a dark British drama like “Snatch” set in the Congo…

In my more sanctimonious moments (and I have lots of them), I’ve griped about stories like this one being the only views we get of Africa – stories about crime, corruption and the darker sides of life. I’m starting to be convinced of a counterargument, though, that anything that gets folks interested and thinking about Africa is worth celebrating and promoting.

The proponent of this argument is Joi Ito, international man of mystery and blogger extraordinaire. Joi’s provided a consistently helpful critique of my thinking on media attention. I tend to frame the problem in terms of newspapers not reporting stories from certain nations. Joi’s useful insight is that the other half of the problem is getting people to care about the stories that are (and aren’t) published.

I care about news from Africa primarily because I’ve spent large chunks of time on the continent and because my work with Geekcorps focuses on Africa. But why should the average news reader care?

Joi suggests that the solution to this problem is finding bloggers people can identify with – basically, figuring out who’s the Salam Pax

of Burundi or Ivory Coast. I agree entirely – indeed, that’s the reason I’m putting my time into BlogAfrica – but I find myself wondering about a larger problem: how do you get the mainstream mediasphere – including the entertainment media – to cast their gaze on Africa?

Maybe the answer is to focus not just on telling the important political stories and inspiring human interest stories, but also tell the fascinating, exotic and strange stories the continent is full of. Perhaps in trying to avoid discredited Africa cliches, we’re missing the Tom Clancy crossed with Jackie Chan diamond smuggling stories that folks could really get into…