The revolution won’t feature editors in white saviour jumpsuits

Sunday July 14 2019

The New York Times building in this photo taken on September 6, 2018. the umbrage-causing job description circulated by The New York Times for its Nairobi bureau chief is a worrying reminder that we still have a long way to go. PHOTO | ANGELA WEISS | AFP


It often seems as if the African continent has come a long way since posters were sent out, as colonial policy, to invite settlers to East Africa. One poster with a drawing of a train surrounded by wild animals titled “The Highlands of British East Africa as a Winter Home for Aristocrats,” has become a collectors’ item.

But the umbrage-causing job description circulated by The New York Times for its Nairobi bureau chief is a worrying reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Africa’s written history is often framed as part of other dominant histories. It’s about mountains and rivers our ancestors lived next to discovered by and named after European explorers; African savages engaged in tribal warfare in deserts, seas and forests until democracy saved them from themselves; after Independence, democracy came under threat from authoritarian African despots in a conflict-ridden Africa available for the taking and African history taught in foreign languages, reducing a continent of storytellers to those whose stories are told by others.

The history of Europe that we studied described decolonisation as based on agreement, with no mention of independence freedom fighters. We learnt about Emperor Menelik II leading Ethiopian forces to defeat the Italian army in 1896 at the Battle of Adwa from other sources. It was not for nothing that independence movements in India and Africa fashioned proper history lessons among their cadres as a resistance tool.


The New York Times job description speaks of deserts, pirate seas, forests, terrorism, scramble for resources, authoritarianism, conflict and paints the bureau chief as a saviour documenting unexpected stories of hope.


The colonial 1900s advert and the New York Times job description share a commonality. They do not mention the human beings who live here – the Africans.

In 2007, Africa Focus raised the alarm over the December 31 New York Times dispatch from Nairobi, that the Kenyan electoral crisis “seems to have tapped into an atavistic vein of tribal tension that always lay beneath the surface in Kenya.” Africa Focus complained the New York Times terminology was unusually explicit about the assumption that such divisions were rooted in primitive identities.

It was not a sentence that would describe the Mafia or Chicago gang wars, for example. It was a sentence only applicable to Africa.

Carol Sicherman, Professor Emerita at Lehman College, wrote to the public editor of the New York Times to complain about their use of the word “tribe” when describing Africans.

An online petition launched during the DusitD2 2019 terrorist attack filed with the Media Council of Kenya protested the bias of New York Times’s coverage of Kenya in featuring dead bodies as opposed to First World reportage. The New York Times provokes reactions because it is a much-read and respected paper.


Colonialism inflicted many traumas. It exploited resources and was based on culture — and identity-killing racial subjugation.

The New York Times job description sounds like a call for a colonial settler, not a professional journalist.

To recognise history repeating itself in neo-colonial frames, Africa needs to crowd-source a list of historical things every African should know, including the Berlin Conference of 1884, when Europeans carved out Africa for themselves; the role temperate weather in East and Southern Africa played in the decision of the colonialists to not only exploit the people and land but to settle here, and the mosquito’s role in making the colonialists focus on exploitation in West Africa with no appetite for settlement.

African history writers can encompass disciplines such as urban studies on the formation of cities before colonialism, climate change patterns over centuries, the economics and population trends of Africa…

Africa needs Third World peers to cite in a field overflowing with Global North “expertise.” A comprehensive history of Africa by Africans, spanning all geographical areas and periods, needs to be written. Is this too much to ask of our universities, governments and the African Union?


Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:  [email protected]