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How Not to Write About African Women and Development

Reporting on international development can often fall back on tired clichés about women and girls. With a platform dedicated to elevating the voices of African women, Eliza Anyangwe wants to change that.

Written by Megan Clement Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
When we tell the story of women who must walk farther due to climate change, what are we leaving out?Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

BRUSSELS – Eliza Anyangwe was working as a journalist at the Guardian when she realized that she did not recognize the African women who appeared as subjects in much of the development reporting she was reading.

In a sector where reporters and NGOs alike often fall back on a binary worldview – in which an African woman can either be a local hero pulling her community out of poverty or a victim of external forces such as war and climate change, but never anything in between – she felt that their complexity as human beings was being left out.

Anyangwe says this hero-or-victim dichotomy creates a world in which African women are not able to tell their own stories, and that public understanding suffers as a result.

“I think that as journalists, we are living in a world now where we have to decide: What is the point of this work that I’m doing?” she says. “We don’t need more material, we don’t need more content, we need meaning. People are trying to understand what’s going on.”

So Anyangwe founded the Nzinga Effect: a platform to elevate the voices of African women and allow them to tell their own stories, in all their complexity. The organization is named for Queen Nzinga Mbande – a 16th-century leader who fought the slave trade in what is now Angola.

“I wanted to use the skills that I had as a journalist to say, ‘Actually, no – African women are not monolithic. Our stories are complex but we are also agents of change and not just victims of circumstance.’”

To learn more about the Nzinga Effect, and with a mind to our own reporting on the lives of African women, News Deeply sat down with Anyangwe to discuss development clichés, structural inequality and solidarity in journalism.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What is the Nzinga Effect?

Eliza Anyangwe: The Nzinga Effect is a media platform focusing on telling African women’s stories both online and offline. We define Africa as the five regions of the continent, and the diaspora which is self-including. So an Afro-Brazilian can recognize and want to identify with this broader conversation around what it is to be an African woman and how to improve our visibility.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Nzinga Effect was founded out of what you saw as a lack of good storytelling about African women’s experiences. What needs fixing about media reporting on African women as it stands?

Anyangwe: I covered international development at The Guardian, and there was first a question around access. So the people who were presenting themselves as experts in the part of the world where I grew up – I was born in Cameroon and have lived and traveled around a lot of sub-Saharan Africa – had probably either been on a short fellowship, or had written a thesis, were academics who care deeply about it, or were NGOs and policymakers who were based outside [Africa]. Press officers were getting in touch with me and saying, “Our head of so-and-so in London, in Oxford, in Berlin can speak to these issues.” They never thought to say, “We have someone on the ground who can speak to these issues.”

And because international development is about finding solutions, everything was framed as a problem. That means people become problems that other people try to fix: their lives are problems, they’re itemized and put into log frames. On the positive end of the scale, it was always really reductionist: If you were a “hero,” you could have no depth – you could never have any challenges.

Look at how we talk about Nelson Mandela today, and compare how we talk about him to how we talk about Winnie Mandela, and you see all the problems with patriarchy, capital and white supremacy in how these two different characters are framed.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are some of the worst mistakes that you see, in reporting on African women and girls?

Anyangwe: The framing of women: [this idea that] she’s just this amazing multitasker, she’s working in the farm and doing all these things, as if in your own life you don’t put your laundry in the machine and use your computer. There’s this othering that denies the reality that women across the world, even in the Global North, carry the burden of care, and are paid less than their male counterparts. It might not be as stark as in some of the parts of the Global South, but the reporting makes [African women] seem as if they’re on another planet entirely.

This undermines us when we try to say stories bring people together. If we look at the gender pay gap, that is an issue there where alliances are possible between businesswomen in the Global North and farm women in the Global South, but no one sees that as a potential because the storytelling really roots [African women] as “other.”

Solutions journalism is so important, but the challenge with it is that it focuses the lens on the people who are most prepared to open up their doors and their hearts and tell their stories. Those are the people suffering the ills of structures that are created. We don’t have enough reporting that looks at the people who create the structures. When we focus on a woman who is using mobile technology to count her cows, we forget that the reason she doesn’t know what the market price for her milk is that there is asymmetry of information, and that is benefiting somebody somewhere else. We don’t do enough reporting on those root causes.

When we talk about climate change and how she has to walk farther to get her [water], we don’t talk about how energy consumption in the Global North might be causing that problem, and to look at the people who are creating the structures that shape the lives of women and girls. We just tell the women’s and girls’ story because it’s a great story, it’s a beautiful picture, it’s human interest. We need to focus the lens more on the people who are creating those structures.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Is this a way of implying that women and girls, if given the right tools, can just succeed on their own without any interrogation of the structural issues?

Anyangwe: At Nzinga we’re never positioning ourselves as a development organization trying to solve a development issue, because we know that actually these women are not powerless, they just lack access to the tools of decision making and of power. So we say that by telling the stories and convening people, conversation leads to better understanding, leads to collaboration, leads to transformation.

So many development organizations just want to talk about the transformation, and don’t do the steps beforehand, which is thinking about where people are having the conversation. Do they have power and agency to talk about their own lives? Where are the tools that they need?

I think so often we come in as journalists and find the people with agency in the story, and far too often they’re western organizations that seem to be “saving” people. The word solidarity doesn’t factor enough in our journalism.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What do you see as the responsibility of the development community and the narratives that they push to journalists about women’s empowerment?

Anyangwe: The development community has a big responsibility because newsrooms are cash-strapped. So increasingly journalists access the field through a press trip. As a journalist, I know this and understand it well. So the question is, how do you do that press trip, in a way that allows for complexity? I think often the reason for putting on a press trip is to show the transformative power of your projects, to therefore secure further funding, so you don’t want complex stories.

That’s a difficult one for NGOs because they’re caught between an advocacy function which is progressive, and a fundraising duty which is far more reductionist. Then the journalist sits in the middle there, and if they empathize but are not well informed, they serve the fundraising function, more than they serve the advocacy function.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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