CNN is a smart network... but gets lost in the ‘discovery hole’

Tuesday January 12 2021
Humpback whale.

A humpback whale spotted in the Indian Ocean at Watamu, Kilifi County at the Kenyan coast, during the July- September annual humpback whale migration watch on August 21, 2020. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


CNN a few days ago again ruffled Kenyan’s feathers with a story on its website, “The Woman who found whales in Kenya”.

The story told of Jane Spilsbury, a former lawyer in London, who moved to the Kenyan coastal of Watamu some years ago to join her husband, and heard stories from local fishermen of whales and dolphins in the ocean, and decided to go out to photograph them.

Turns out they were humpback whales, and the people in the area had known about them for more than 30 years. Despite that, Spilsburg is then quoted saying; “We literally came from a point of zero information and zero awareness, it seems ridiculous to imagine that nobody knew that the dolphins or whales existed here.

“We were amazed, because no one knew there were dolphins out there, not even the Kenya Wildlife Service”.

A thriving tourism industry has since grown up around the whales and dolphins. Kenyans rightly pointed out that it is rubbish to say the people who told you about and took you the mammals didn’t know about their existence.

The Spilsburgs deserve credit for publicising the whales and dolphins, and generating a lucrative business out of the mammals, but they didn’t discover them.


It conjured the centuries-old images of Europeans, carried in a chair by porters, being taken to African mountains and lakes, and thus they “discovered” them, and named them too.

Some of them would write, without any sense of irony, about the “natives” they found living at the foot of the mountains, or the shores of the lakes and rivers, and were fishing from them. Presumably they weren’t aware of the mountains and lakes.

CNN is, actually, a smart network, and doesn’t suffer from blinkered racism. Why, then, does it keep falling down this hole?

Part of the answer might be in its Africa-focused programmes like African Shakers and Inside Africa. I am not sure if they are all still running, because I stopped paying attention.

The Africans and African enterprises they feature, in nearly 90 percent of cases were either musicians, dancers, kitenge cloth designers, people who ran an interesting restaurant; or were recycling something.

The people were creative, and the things they did were great. But it gets tedious when week in, week out, you have to watch stories of innovation involving a colourful piece of cloth and beads.

This comes from a place that thinks Africans, and indeed many non-western peoples, are not capable of high levels of complexity. They can see the dolphins and whales, yes, but they don’t know much about them or that they migrate.

They might make beautiful clothes, but you can’t ask them about the history of the materials.

They can make great music, but you take it for granted that don’t write the software for music production. You don’t even get to ask them about writing the music, that’s too complex.

Too many people, many well-intentioned and good people, are unaware of such biases. They just can’t get it when it’s pointed out, or when the work that proceeds from it is offensive.

Now that Donald Trump will soon be out of CNN’s hair, perhaps they will find the headroom to be more reflective.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]