The Other Side of Reality

The Montreal Gazette published an article today about Fabienne Colas, a Haitian actress who left Port au Prince eight years ago with hopes of advancing her promising career. After settling in Quebec, Colas was struck by what she saw as one-sided media coverage of Haiti, coverage that did not do justice to all that was good about the country she calls home.

“When I turned on the TV, all I’d ever see was news reports saying how bad things were in Haiti,” she said. “I had to show Quebecers the other side of Haitian reality.”

Colas responded by starting up festivals in both Quebec and Haiti to help the two cultures gain a deeper understanding of one another.

Colas’s experience highlights just how narrow media coverage can be, especially of countries that have a history of conflict, poverty, or disease. These tragedies are the storylines that foreign journalists are sent to portray, often by parachuting in for a brief stint before quickly retreating to safer ground. These stories are important, but if they are all we hear, then we are inevitably crippling our understanding of rich, diverse cultures and people.

It is something I notice with much of the media’s coverage of Sudan, a place in which I lived and worked for close to a year. What little media attention Sudan does receive is saturated with reports of tragedy – reports that often reduce complex conflicts to bare dichotomies (North vs. South or Muslim vs. Christian), a slew of warring acronyms (NCP, SPLM, SAF, etc.), and shallow allusions to ubiquitous AK-47s. Speaking not of Sudan specifically, but of Islam more broadly, one can read reckless op-eds that sweepingly declare to the world just how “backwards” some religions really are (thank you Nicholas Kristof).

This is not to say that attention should not be drawn to atrocities in Sudan. They absolutely demand media attention. On top of the genocide in Darfur and the violent clear out of the disputed Abyei region, there are now reports of ethnic cleansing in the Nuba Mountains of Southern Kordofan. These things are getting worse. These things need to make headlines.

But how much of what we see in the news about African or Middle Eastern countries only describes conflict at its worst, topped off with a dusty photo of angry protesters or of armed rebels on the move? The way Sudan has been portrayed in the media, how much about this ethnic cleansing is simply overlooked as one more in a long list of unsolvable disasters in a region overrun by gun touting tribal warriors? Alternatively, how much will we ever know of what Colas calls the “other side of reality,” the good that struggles to survive beneath war?

To that end, I hope to continue sharing my experiences of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, from a time when the region was still in a moment of relative peace last year. It was hard to believe then that the beautiful stretch of peaks had for so long been a battlefield for war. Kauda, a small village nestled within those mountains, quickly became a place where I loved to spend time, full of kind and welcoming people who made the daylong set of shaky flights to reach them more than worthwhile. I share these experiences at a time when many Nuba people are once again fleeing to the mountaintops, in hopes of saving their targeted lives.

To this post, I have attached some photos I took in Southern Kordofan. They are only few, but I hope they will bring even a small bit of depth to the image that will come to people’s mind, if and when news of the current ethnic cleansing of the Nuba people reaches the global consciousness.

In the case of Colas, she was able to recognize the media’s misrepresentation of Haiti because she grew up there. It is worth asking how oblivious we might be to what we are not shown about any number of other places, especially those where few are willing to travel and when only a few speak up to show us what we’ve missed.

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