Tragedy and Other People’s Social Spaces

A rather interesting albeit profoundly sad and selfish discussion emerged across some social circles in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris.

The discussion can be summarized as this question on Quora (where I posted parts of this piece as an answer):

Why did Western societies give more attention and concern to the terror attacks in Paris than to other terror attacks in Beirut, Syria, Lebanon, and previous ones in Kenya, Uganda, and many other countries?

There are two angles to this question, which is in truth a non-question, and I will address the less controversial one first and the more loaded one after.

Although I derive this specific saying from a butcher of men, the death of a single person is indeed a tragedy. We should all be humanists in that the death of any to terror is a wanton waste of life. A death is a death is a death is a tragedy, wherever in the world it happens. A death in Beirut is as much a tragedy as a death in Central Paris, and as a death in Garissa in Kenya. It shouldn’t matter where one comes from when it comes to sharing grief, but it seems it does.

See, I am Kenyan, and I don’t understand why we have a sense of ownership of Western media and societies. It is called Western media for exactly the reason that they are staffed and designed to produce content for a Western audience. The reason they are called that is because, wherever they may be in the world, the primary consumers of their content are Western audiences, in this case a broad collective of countries in Europe, North America, and to a very small extent Oceania. They owe us nothing.

I was extensively involved in the citizens project #147notjustanumber, an online initiative to name and humanize all the lives we lost during the terrorist attack on Garissa University in Kenya. It was primarily online and I saw, even months after, an outpouring of grief and support from across the world. The governments of France and Italy offered direct assistance, including scholarships to the survivors of that horrific siege. There were spontaneous vigils across the world: in Paris, Belgium, Lebanon, the US, Australia, South Africa, Egypt, and many other places. One group in Mexico got in touch over a project they had where they painstakingly weaved all 147 names into one patchwork quilt. It was overwhelming, and it never stopped. It was widely reported in those very Western media, and there was a lot of attention how a band of Kenyans had joined to organize a vigil and memorial project where there was official silence (on the part of the Kenya government).

Fast forward to the slaughter in Paris and African and Middle-Eastern governments, well-versed in diplomacy, have sent their condolences and messages of support to the French people. But what about us as societies? As Kenyans? Sudanese? Ugandans? Syrians? Jordanians? Namibians?

Heres what happened. Online at least. We woke up to the hashtag #PrayForParis and initially joined in up until Facebook did two things: released a Marked as safe feature and started an online campaign where people could change their profile photos to feature the flag of France. Then the discussion moved to why they would do so much for Parisians and not for Kenyans, or people in Beirut and elsewhere. Some content creators made images showing the death tolls from all the attacks and disasters that were happening roughly the same time as the Paris attacks, and they were quite a number. They were all tragedies, some natural, most the acts of depraved men and women.

But did we really stop and stand with people of France the way they stood with us? Did we hold vigils in our social spaces like they did for us, in case reciprocity is an issue that keeps us up at night? Why is it that Garissa mattered to them, but we have excuses so Paris does not matter to us too? Us in this case referring to a broad collective of Middle East and African countries battling terror. Beyond the random tweet or message, how many French embassies outside Francophone countries in Africa have messages of support and grief posted on their fences?

One might argue that Western societies dominate global media as owners and audiences, and should thus give equal attention to issues affecting everyone else. I think we are playing this dependency game too much. It works at the government level, where aid and whatever else is based on the imbalance between our societies and the West. But we now have African and Middle Eastern media, and media within individual countries. We have built strong networks across social media platforms (which are owned and staffed primarily by Westerners). If we have the media ourselves, why are we still angling for space in other peoples social spaces? We can expect more attention and concern for people close to them than for everyone else, because we do the same for our own tragedies.

If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.

-Chinua Achebe

It is an unfair position to which we place Westerners, in general, as their systems and societies are geared towards a global outlook. The moment the ripples started, several media houses picked up those stories and amplified them. It played at their fears of being declared racist, or neo-colonist, or even plain selfish for not sharing their spaces and media. But they shouldnt. Instead, we should either accept the imbalance or do something about it.?

It is a challenge to build our own social spaces, not just as audiences, but as media owners. If Sina Weibo was to give excess attention to the Paris attacks, for example, and not an appalling attack within China, then there would be a problem. The Chinese have their own spaces, and within those spaces what drives the conversation are issues first, that concern the Chinese, and then and only then, global issues. And the globe is anywhere outside your cultural borders. European and North American histories are invariably linked and their societies are culturally closer to each other than to African or Middle Eastern cultures. It’s as simple as that.

We have consumed Western content and ended up with a feeling of ownership yet we contribute so little of their revenues. We feel betrayed when the rightful owners of those spaces react to something that strikes them as close to home, unlike our far-off concerns. Because of the entire narrative of Africa rising, for example, we feel our tragedies should matter as much to them as they matter to us. But do we really care about each others tragedies to start with? Did any of the genocidal attacks of Boko Haram inspire the same outpouring of media attention within other African and Middle Eastern platforms as the attacks in Paris? Or the acts of terror committed since then, by ISIS in North Africa and Al Shabaab in East Africa, as well as the ongoing massacres in the Central African Republic, Burundi, and South Sudan. Al Jazeera was founded to correct this very imbalance, and is so far doing a decent job especially on stories affecting the Middle East. We need more.

It is one of the successes of Western societies that they have managed to permeate their soft power and cultures across most of the world, especially Africa. But that success is our loss, and the very source of this seeming birthright we have for their social spaces. It gives us this sense that we are voices that deserve to be heard because these are ‘global’ platforms, yet they aren’t truly multicultural platforms. Just because they are called global does not make them so. Think about Hollywood and war movies for example, and our continuing demands for a better portrayal of Africa while we, equipped with enough cameras and expertise, still don’t feel the need to promote our own stories of more positive badassery and progress. We are not trying hard enough, and we want the West to do it for us. And for that we will always be seen with a lens that isn’t culturally related to us and is instead, fascinated by us. To rephrase Achebe, our generation has not recognized and embraced the task it is peculiarly designed by history and by providence to perform. That task is to tell our story.

We need to learn to value life, and then to move to building spaces that ours if we really want to demand for recognition of our tragedies. If Africa is truly rising, then Africa needs to own her tragedies. All of them.

Owaahh, 2015.

One story is good,

till Another is told.