Monday, April 20, 2015

Emmanuel Sithole might have lived. But they were too busy taking photographs.

Sunday morning the world awoke to the horrific story of Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambiquan national who was killed in Johannesburg on Saturday in the xenophobic attacks that began in Kwazulu Natal. Along with the story by James Oatway and Beauregard Tromp were the gut wrenching photographs depicting the sequence of events that led to the death of Emmanuel. I wept as I looked at these images and the look of total horror on the face of a man who was going about his business but got attacked. As I read the narrative accompanying the images, I became deeply disturbed because it seemed to me that the narrator was the photographer and that he simply continued to take pictures as Emmanuel was attacked and as he lay on the ground in agony. The story and images are here.

Then this morning I watched a BBC interview in which James Oatway the photojournalist describes the events of that morning. I listened intently hoping that when he got to the part about going towards Emmanuel after he was attacked the first time, he would describe how he put his camera down and helped him to his feet. I was appalled when he stated very clearly that he got close, and started taking pictures. In the written narrative he asked Emmanuel if he knew why they were attacking him, meaning that he got close enough to be able to help him. I don’t know but I fail to understand how you ask a man who is in agony after being brutalized if he knows why they are attacking him and expect a response. What response is there? Why could this question not have waited until the man had been taken to safety or to hospital? Where is the humanity in continuing to take pictures as the injured man on the ground is further attacked by a different person with an Okapi knife? How is it possible to watch from behind the lens and not feel moved, at the very least, to attempt to rescue a fellow human being from harm? Was Emmanuel worth more to this journalist as a wounded victim of xenophobic violence than as an able bodied human being worth so much more to his family? Clearly the journalists were not in any grave danger because they were in close proximity to what happened and Oatway describes how the attackers moved away when they saw him approach Emmanuel. I am having an existential crisis right now because I am asking myself how James Oatway could insulate himself from the suffering of Emmanuel but still righteously criticize the reluctant bystanders who he asked for assistance to get him into the journalists’ car or the apathetic attitudes of the staff at the clinic and hospital where they eventually took him.

James Oatway and his partner failed Emmanuel, and they are part of the sequence of systemic and human failures that led to his murder.  His first question was not to ask Emmanuel his name because it did not matter who this man was. Emmanuel like many others was just a story.

There are many images and videos that are circulating on social media, depicting the most gruesome of human atrocities. Videos and images of gang rape of women, child abuse, public beheadings and so on. Often we do not know who has taken these images but each time I come across them the first question in my mind is: what is the mind- set of the person who can film or photograph such despicable acts and not be moved to drop the camera or cell phone and stop the suffering? In some cases this might not be possible for safety reasons or the photographer is one of the perpetrators. But in the case of Emmanuel Sithole, the photographer is James Oatway and while I do not understand his mindset, I do know that he had an opportunity to possibly save Emmanuel’s life and he chose not to. He had the opportunity to restore some dignity to Emmanuel by considering how he might feel being photographed in his pain and confusion, and put his camera down to help him.

Perhaps it is our own greed for these images that enables a disconnection to the suffering of another, in those who capture them - where the cell phone or camera becomes an empathy-proof shield between the photographer/videographer and the subject. There is a market for them and one only needs to look and how many shares gory images get on social media sites. I do not need gory images to know the atrocities that are going on in the world. They do not cause me to act. Instead they haunt me and induce insomnia, paralysis and depression.

 However the images of Emmanuel Sithole haunt me for an entirely different reason: knowledge that there was the smallest chance that he might have lived if they had not been too busy taking photographs. A picture may be worth a thousand words to some but it is definitely not worth the loss of a human life to many.
RIP Emmanuel Sithole



Friday, January 16, 2015

Dear African People, Our Leaders Suck!

 Image from Anne Kansiime

 I write this letter to you out of desperation. I am desperate because since theCharlie Hebdo  killings of last week in France as well as the Baga massacre  in Nigeria- which also happened last week- there are many of you who are upset that there was not much initial coverage of the Nigeria atrocities in western media. Coverage on CNN, BBC and other major Western outlets began a few days after I had read about it on Al Jezeera. I noted this anomaly but I was not at all surprised or upset by the monotonous repetition of the Paris shootings every time I turned on the TV. On the heels of the Baga attack came the story of the suicide bomber, a 10 year old girl exploded in a crowd, killing and maiming more people. Once again I was not surprised that there was little immediate coverage of this horrific story. Before long the hashtag #I am Charlie had appeared and social media was abuzz with condemnation of the attacks on grounds of freedom of expression. At the same time, Nigerians and some African papers were running stories and pictures on the horror that was still unfolding in Northern Nigeria. Over 2000 people killed, bodies strewn in forests and streets, whole villages set on fire. It was at this point that the elusive thing that I knew was missing became starkly clear: The voice of African leaders was missing. While western media rattled off condolence and condemnation messages from heads of state all over the world on the situation in Paris, there was a deathly quiet about Boko Haram killings still going in Nigeria.

 I scoured the internet for a Statement from President Goodluck Jonathan wading through the millions of “I am Charlie” solidarity stories. I searched for a statement from the African Union Commission Chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma, from other heads of African states, from the SADCC region, from ECOAS. Nothing. Only Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters party in South Africa came out strongly on the issue of Boko Haram’s terrorist activities. I really did not care whether western leaders said anything about Nigeria because it is not of them that I have expectations but of our own leaders. Then came the kicker, an article stating that six heads of African States had flown to Paris for the unity rally and an image of one of them wiping tears from his eyes. It is this last act that has me desperate to communicate with you.

 Please can we stop expecting everyone in the world to treat us better than we treat ourselves and each other. Please can we stop expecting solidarity marches in Palestine, Israel, Europe or anywhere else, even Mars for that matter. We do not have any solidarity marches on the continent of Africa, or perhaps I may have missed something?
When our own so called leaders in Africa do not deem it fit to condemn the many acts of terror by Boko Haram, from the missing girls of Chibok the bombings in Abuja and so many others, WHY should western leaders or the media focus on these acts that are happening in relatively remote Africa when they have Paris burning under their noses?

African leadership is a disgrace, a sham, and we see this from South Africa, Zimbabwe, and spanning the length and breadth of the continent. This is what we should be angry about, that we have people in leadership positions who have no clue what they are doing and who do not genuinely care about the plight of their people. We should be livid that we have incompetent and ineffective leaders who bury their heads in the sand while a lethal insurgent group like Boko Haram gains traction on its destructive march towards its catastrophic mission. We should be enraged by the corruption that cripples entire nations so that they are propped out by external western NGO’s to whom these so called leaders have simply outsourced their responsibilities, rendering African people beggars. Just think of the Ebola Crisis and recall African leaders shamelessly demanding western assistance and stating that they were acting too slowly. Western agencies came out strongly to say that they there to assist and support governments with the Ebola crisis because clearly the expectation on the part of leaders in the affected countries was that agencies like WHO and Doctors without Borders should shoulder the burden of that crisis in its entirety.

I do not mean to oversimplify the often complex maneuverings of global geopolitics or to trivialize the extent of direct or indirect involvement that western politics and even media have had on the current situation in Africa. However it would be remiss of me if I did not hold our leaders accountable for the very minimum:  public condemnation of terror attacks, compassion for the victims of Boko Haram and their families, offers from neighboring states to assist with boots on the ground (if nothing else). Nothing like this happened when the girls from Chibok were abducted, and nothing has happened then or since to demonstrate goodwill among Africans as exemplified by western leaders coming together for a unity rally in Paris and offering practical assistance to the French for counter- terrorism measures. In fact I put it to you that African leaders do not care about African people and the people who perished in Paris appear to get more attention from African leaders than the thousands who have perished in Nigeria. This is demonstrated by the six leaders who flew to Paris to stand in solidarity with France. In the light of the problems on the continent I have to say that this is shameful and my hope is that when elections come this year in all countries where there is an opportunity to change leadership, Africans will remember things like this as they cast their ballots.

Please let’s start to really reflect on our own somnolence in the face of looming annihilation. Let us look at how and why we elect the kind of leaders we have and why we seem to be powerless to get rid of bad leaders. Let us reflect on why we have come to expect, to feel entitled even that the west should care about what happens in Africa more than we ourselves care. Let us reflect on our lack of collective self-worth that has us expecting outside help to solve our own problems, while at the same time resenting the help for the price that it comes with. Yes, Western help does not come for free and we continue to pay a high price for “help”, the least of which is its toll on our collective self –esteem and dignity. The word -solidarity- means to stand with, to march shoulder to shoulder with. The world cannot stand with those who do not see it fit to stand up for themselves. No one can cry more than the bereaved. Our lives, African lives will matter to no one if they do not matter to ourselves. #IamNigeria. #Africanlivesmatter #‎nonebutourselves.

And this just in: Almost two weeks after the Baga attack President Goodluck visited displaced people from Baga in a camp in Maiduguri. Let us clap for him please!