Shortly after I posted a review of Mads BrÃ¼gger’s “The Ambassador”, a film that raised some interesting questions about what constitutes ethical and responsible journalism about Africa, I got a reminder about just how low alleged journalists can go in reporting about places they don’t know. I got a PR pitch from the folks at VICE:
Wanted to hit over a link to War Gin, VICE’s latest investigative news/travel piece on Ugandan alcoholism that I think you will enjoy for your readership. In the documentary, VICE correspondent Thomas Morton travels to Uganda and experiences â€œBrickellian pandemoniumâ€ in the drunkest country on the planet, to learn about the culture of Waregi, the country’s locally brewed moonshine.
You can watch the doc here: http://youtu.be/zL3UHF5SlEU
Ugandans are the hardest drinking Africans in the motherland, both in terms of per capita consumption and the hooch they choose to chug. Waregi, or “war gin,” is what they call the local moonshine, and it makes the harshest Appalachian rotgut taste like freaking Bailey’s.
Additional footage of a goat being slaughtered for a boozy feast can be viewed here, but warning! Graphic footage: http://youtu.be/_4GZDWk_xtQ
Let me know if you have any questions about this piece, or VICE’s news and travel series. Release attached.
Drunkest country on the planet, huh? Bonus footage of goat slaughter? Not the sort of “investigative news” I usually seek out, but certainly worth a quick watch, no? Particularly since Google searches weren’t helping me figure out what “Brickellian pandemonium” was.
The first seconds of the “documentary” aren’t promising. The narrator, Thomas Morton, begins by declaring: “Uganda’s had a pretty good spell the last 25 years. No major civil wars, a little bit of an Ebola outbreak every so often, including right now, and they are the alcoholism capital of Africa.”
So… let’s unpack that statement.
For the last 27 years, Uganda has been ruled by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who’s systematically silenced opposition and clung to power. Evidently the armed struggle between the Achioli people in the north against the government doesn’t constitute “major civic war”, though the conflict spawned the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for abducting and enslaving children as soldiers and sex slaves. And Uganda’s key role in the two Congo Wars, the deadliest conflict since World War II, evidently doesn’t take the shine off Uganda’s “pretty good spell.”
You’ll be surprised to discover that Morton’s analysis of alcohol consumption statistics is equally careful and sophisticated. He cites a 2004 WHO study that, allegedly, finds “Uganda as the top contender for per capita alcohol consumption in the world, making Uganda the drunkest place on earth.” He then asserts that Ugandans have been drinking even more since 2011. So I looked up the latest statistics from the WHO. Morton is right that Ugandans drink a lot, by African standards. Average per capita alcohol consumption is 11.93 liters per capita per year. That’s not as high as in Nigeria, where per capita consumption is 12.28 liters a year… which is especially impressive as nearly half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, while less than an eighth of Uganda’s population is. So Uganda’s not the most drunken nation in Africa.
And it’s not even in the running globally. Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, the UK and Ukraine all drink more per capita than Uganda. The most inebriated nation is Moldova, which at 18.22 liters per person per year, leaves Uganda in the dust. Uganda’s far closer to the UK, or to the US, which at 9.44 liters per capita, drinks 79% as much as Ugandans do per year.
So it’s obvious why Morton decided to film a story on Uganda’s “Moonshine Epidemic“. He was there already, doing hard hitting investigative reporting on Ugandan sex slang, and on storks, who are scary.
Or maybe Morton chose Uganda because those other harder-drinking nations, with the exceptions of South Korea and Nigeria, are in Europe, and filled with white people. And while poor Africans drinking moonshine makes for great video, who really wants to watch French people drink too much wine?
I watched the whole video. Don’t bother. Morton ventures a whole 40km from downtown Kampala and gets drunk in a village, where villagers slaughter a goat and share it. There’s lots of footage of people getting drunk and acting silly, and embarrassing, uncomfortable footage of people passed out. Morton goes back to Kampala, finds that people make alcohol there too, and also enjoy drinking it. There’s a wonderfully uncomfortable moment in an outdoor Kampala bar, where one of the drinkers Morton plans on documenting gives him an effusive and kind welcome, thanking him for coming to his neighborhood and honoring him as a friend and a brother. For Morton, this warm greeting is more evidence that Ugandans are really, really drunk, as he and his crew are there to make fun of them. He ends by walking through a red light district of Kampala, offering his insightful analysis: “This is sort of Britain’s lasting legacy here – Instead of rum, sodomy and the lash, Uganda opted for gin, no sodomy and hookers.”
It’s a good thing that Uganda exists, because otherwise Morton might have to prove his manhood (one of his Vice bios explains that “his nickname is ‘Baby Balls’ because he is a small man but absolutely fearless”) by exploiting people who are more likely to fight back against their misrepresentation. And, thank goodness, other exploiters haven’t found the comic potential of Uganda – an earlier piece by Morton decries the phenomenon of journalists descending on Detroit to engage in shooting “ruin porn”.
So I responded to the inquiry from XXXX from VICE. My note follows below.
XXXX, do you ever get embarrassed about working for a company whose approach to poor people in the developing world is to portray them in the worst, most shocking and exploitative light possible? Of all the stories one could run on Uganda – a corrupt autocrat and his attacks on the free press, a systematic campaign to persecute gays and lesbians and the role of US evangelical Christians in that persecution, the nation’s role in Central Africa instability – it’s really a priority to let us know that desperately poor people drink too much?
There’s not a prayer that I would run this story except to condemn it in the strongest possible terms. And most of the questions I have for you and your colleagues are about how you manage to sleep at night. War gin, perhaps?
PS: “Bruegellian”, not “Brickellian”. You’re trying to compare an impoverished Ugandan village to the scenes evoked by a Renaissance Flemish painter, not a neighborhood in Miami.
And while that was satisfying, it doesn’t address the real problem. Most Americans hear little about sub-Saharan Africa. When we do, we virtually always hear bad news. And most Americans haven’t traveled to Uganda or know Ugandans. So they often find it hard to relate to stories from these unfamiliar parts of the world. It’s a really interesting problem to develop new approaches that get people who don’t know about a country to spend half a hour thinking about it.
I suspect people like Morton justify their work by telling themselves that sensationalistic coverage is the only way to get people to pay attention to African stories. Bullshit. Watch Anthony Bourdain cover some of the same territory in his hour-long celebration of food and culture in Ghana. He visits a village, watches local moonshine being brewed, and drinks it. But instead of showing contempt for his hosts and their culture, he tries to understand it and celebrate it.
VICE gets a lot of attention. CNN has shown their content, as has MTV. Their online videos are widely viewed. That they are this racist, exploitative and disgusting is a problem.
Hey VICE: Your documentary is bad for anyone who watches it, and you should feel bad.