Chris Blattman

Why women make better foreign correspondents

What’s the root of self-indulgent African journalism? Men, says Michela Wrong, journalist and author of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz:

My ambivalence peaked last month when a youngster with the accent and confidence of the public-school-educated British male rang. In the wake of Congo’s first democratic elections, he said, he was planning to travel across the country and thought it would make a good book. Any advice? Did he have much journalistic experience, I asked? Not really: a couple of years wandering East Africa, the odd bit of freelance. Had he spent much time in Congo? Nope. Had he thought of learning the trade as a journalist first? He waved the idea away: too banal. When I put the phone down, I was seething. Since then, I’ve been trying to identify the source of my fury.

There is a graceless human tendency to wish upon others the ills visited upon oneself. Instead of pointing successors towards short cuts, you relish seeing them clambering through identical hoops. I’m as prone to this as anyone, but I don’t believe it explains my bile.

No, it was the sheer bumptiousness that did it. A book must be the biggest act of presumption it is possible to commit. If you’re a white westerner writing about Africa, that arrogance reaches dizzying levels. What gives a spoilt bourgeois, who didn’t even grow up there, the right to interpret the continent for the world?

The only answer can be: I have devoted years on the continent to listening and learning; I have done my homework as conscientiously as I know how; and it’s just possible, because I have spent so much time learning to write accessibly about foreign cultures, that I may be able to serve as a bridge between two cultural viewpoints.

My caller saw no need for any of this. With the chutzpah of the privileged young male, he believed he could bypass it all and still produce something for which the public would be duly grateful. In fact, there’s only one way of writing a book in these circumstances: you deliver a manuscript that is all about you, with Africa as a picturesque backdrop to your macho derring-do.

I realised that my conversations with aspirant writers, and there have been dozens, had one thing in common: they all involved the male of the species. Africa is full of female reporters who tramp through Darfur’s refugee camps and grit their teeth during Mogadishu firefights. Yet not one of these indomitable females has ever called me for the Quick Guide to Successful African Book Writing. I think I know the reason. It’s the same one that ensured I tried my hand at being an author only after 16 years of journalism. Women probably see an Africa book as featuring Africa first, their own exploits second. They fear they know too little, have nothing original to say. Even in this neo-feminist era, they have a sneaking suspicion they are not worthy.

I think she may be on to something here.

5 Responses

  1. I’m not sure one gender or the other does a better job, I posted a link to that article because I think one gender certainly does more of the job.

  2. Hm. Some of the worst books I can think of about Africa — full of shallow, new-agey Western conceptual impositions and awful writing — were written by women. Kiki Gallman, the text portions of the “African Ceremonies” books, “Looking for Lovedu” by Ann Jones.

    Women do have some built-in advantages as foreign correspondents, but one that ought to be considered is that powerful men tend to feel more comfortable talking to women correspondents. Masha Gessen has a great passage about how, as a small Russian-speaking woman, she was able to sit in the background at meetings between Serbian generals who discussed war crimes in her presence. Because they assumed she didn’t matter. (Wrong!)

  3. Wrong is dead right on this one. Don’t get me started on the blatently false things about the Conog that get printed in the NYT and other reputable sources of journalism…

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