how cocktails can shape news from africa

NAIROBI They picked up the bodies from the streets of N’Djamena on Wednesday, when the fighting stopped.


They picked up the bodies from the streets of N’Djamena on Wednesday, when the fighting stopped.

If you didn’t hear about it, thank a drink called the mojito.

On the weekend, opposition rebels trying to overthrow president Idriss Deby marched on N’Djemena, the capital of Chad, and held him captive in his palace before being pushed back to the outskirts of the city by government troops.

At least 100 civilians were killed in the fighting, and thousands fled to Nigeria or Cameroon.

Aid to more than half a million refugees holed up in the country after fleeing war in the Darfur region of nearby Sudan has been cut off by the strife.

France, the former colonial master in Chad, has about 1,000 troops stationed in the country and declared itself “neutral” when the rebels attacked.

It then abruptly reversed by backing Deby, who came to power in 1990 by leading a coup staged from Sudan, just as the rebels attempted to.

This lightning-bolt war in Chad is a great story, with death, refugees, intrigue, blathering French foreign policy and a president trapped inside his palace wearing his white general’s uniform as rebels surrounded him.

But like so many events in Africa that you read about years afterwards in academic journals, Chad didn’t make it to television screens in North America. If it did, it was towards the end of the newscast. “And finally tonight …”.

The reason why, can be found by comparing Chad to Kenya, an African story that has dominated international headlines in 2008.

That’s where the mojito enters the discussion.

Made with mint, sugar, lemon, soda and rum, my mojito was going down nicely on Tuesday night as I talked about Kenya with Rob, a journalist from the Calgary Herald sent here to write stories.

After dinner at a trendy Cuban restaurant, we laughed at the sheer laziness of much of the journalism coming out of Kenya over the past month. Then we ordered another drink.

Rob said he had seen news photographs of protests taken from the hotel in Nairobi where he was staying.

“They didn’t even go outside. You could see they had taken the picture from the balcony of their room,” he said.

Kenya’s recent meltdown has the potential to pull a region home to about 400 million people into chaos. It’s clearly news.

Still, the sheer amount of coverage is a product not only of Kenya’s importance to the world, but the ease with which the story could be retrieved.

Nairobi is already home to most of the correspondents who cover Africa. And there are lots of chic hangouts here to feel like you never left home.

The teargas-heavy protests in Nairobi happened within walking distance of the city’s $200 per night hotels.

Kibera, the biggest slum, is a $6 cab ride away. And there are six flights to choose from per day to get to Kisumu, the western Kenyan city that burned much of itself to the ground and saw graphic police violence.

Kenya is an easy story with amazing images. Who isn’t mesmerized by images of people in Africa holding machetes, or burning buildings or police in riot gear?

Who wouldn’t prefer to wash away the memories every night with an expensive scotch at a hotel with wireless internet?

Contrast this to Chad.

There is no media circus and very few expats.

Ordering a mojito in N’Djamena will likely get you nothing but a blank stare.

And you’d better learn to enjoy eating goat, because that’s all that’s on the menu.

Have you heard much news about the wars in Somalia?

Or the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has claimed more lives than any conflict since the Second World War?

How about the genocide in Burundi in 1993?

No, not the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that claimed nearly one million lives, but the clash between the same groups — the Hutus and the Tutsis – that killed up to 400,000 a year earlier?

Apparently Bujumbura, capital of Burundi, doesn’t have as good a drink selection as Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

Clearly I jest. But books have been written exploring the very peculiar ways of international journalism.

British writer Evelyn Waugh, a world traveller and visitor to east Africa, penned Scoop, a satire of African war journalism in 1938.

It is set in a fictitious African country that appears to be preparing for civil war; a London paper called the Daily Beast sends bumbling nature columnist William Boot to cover the conflict, after a case of mistaken identity.

Bloodthirsty journalists who write invented stories to scoop one another in the daily headlines surround Boot, who has little interest or talent in news journalism. 

Corker, a correspondent from the Universal News agency, gives Boot advice, telling him of Wenlock Jakes, a syndicated American reporter who is the envy of all the others.

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below …” Corker tells Boot.

Even though none of it was true, every paper sent a reporter to the country, who in turn sent a thousand words of “blood and thunder” a day like James.

Stocks in the country fell, a state of emergency was declared and a famine began. “[A]nd in less than a week there was an honest-to-God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you,” Corker informs Boot.

The attempted coup took about four days to peter out in Chad. Kenya’s political deadlock and bloodletting has dragged on for more than a month.

In part, I blame the mojito.

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.