gettleman does it again

Do not get me wrong. Jeffrey Gettleman’s story on the famine in Kenya is as important as any other article on a humanitarian disaster. It is his delivery that sucks. In typical Gettleman fashion (more about his style here and here), the article is full of sensationalism that does not belong in the Times. He goes way out of his way to depict all Kenyans as hapless, passive victims of the weather and their ineffectual government.

“The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.”

Lines such as these are meant to convey the message that ordinary Kenyans – meteorologists and even some civil society organizations or even the Kenyan media – have had nothing to say about the famine that is affecting the country. It is the do-gooder foreigners who know it all that have warned the intransigent government. It is the same foreigners who are expected to send in food aid to help the dying Kenyans. Nothing is ever said about local initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That would give agency to Kenyans, and nobody really wants to read about that.

Instead we are told that “Turkana men are abandoning families, simply vanishing into the desert because they cannot face the shame of being unable to feed their children.” And the story would not be complete without the mention of tribal conflict. So even though it is obvious, and quite rational, that in times of acute scarcity there would be conflict over resources – and even Mr. Gettleman acknowledges this – there is still subliminal hints to an irrational ethnic conflict between the Turkana and the Pokot. Again, nobody wants to hear about rational people fighting over resources. No, being in northern Kenya is like “stepping back in time.” The place is full of starving people who engage in irrational tribal wars. This is the much more sexier story.

May be I am holding Gettleman to too high a standard. After all he is an American lacking enough knowledge of local conditions to appreciate the nuances involved even in the midst of such disasters. But he is the Times’ bureau chief and because of that people take what he writes seriously. There must be a more humane way of telling the world about the problems afflicting the inhabitants of the arid and semi arid parts of Kenya.

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