“Yɛ da wo ase pa”, is how I round off our conversation with Afua Hirsch. ‘We thank you very much’ in twi — one of Ghana’s several languages. We’re nearing 4.00pm. Goodness, doth time fly.
I’m minded by the time I’ve taken and the students who should be out of their zoom lecture within 10 minutes. Zoom, here’s an idea, a green room of sorts where we can gather and walk out our guests whilst the line is still active. Nope, not the breakout room. Hence, I’m feeling a little sad from not having a post chat in said room.
In the remaining minutes I catch our students’ thoughts. ‘Amazing’, ‘Inspiring’, ‘I loved her’, are expressions which also pop up in our private FB network.
What Afua said about being authentic, finding a style of journalism where you develop your own specialism, how opinion becomes expertise and being succinct with your questions, are others.
Her visit had been eagerly awaited. ‘I don’t think the expression “never meet your heroes” applies to Afua Hirsch’, says another student.
I am spoilt for choice for an introduction and ‘drop ins’ to catalyse the interaction with our international Masters in Journalism students — particularly for those who may not know her body of work.
Afua’s canvas is wide and expanding: journalist, writer, doc maker, educator... Teen Vogue’s editor Elaine Welteroth calls her a media multi-hyphenate — a digital fluid polymath.
‘Everything that I do is concerned with social justice, with inequality and most importantly with systems of power ‘, she says, ‘and that is the thread that’s always run through my work’.
Her first job after graduating was working in international development and trying to understand how the end of colonialism yielded a ‘Bretton Wood System of globalisation that co-opted countries in Africa and Asia into the world economy in deeply unequal terms’. The Bar followed, working on, amongst others, housing issues before she moved into journalism.
While journalism provided Afua a platform to write about sense-making and how she was viewed through a ‘racialised lens’, she became acutely aware of structural systems and how they were built to concentrate power in the hands of the few, to the detriment of the many.
African Renaissance, amongst her TV credits, threads this theme — history retold from within. A section on the Azmaris, semi professional poet musicians from Ethiopia, who play with language and the suppleness of meaning gives rise to the following thought.
That while Shakespearean allegories, metaphors and literary poeticism appear pioneering in global storytelling the Azmaris have occupied this space way before the Christian era, according to scholar Dr. Ashenafi Kebede.
How Ethiopians interpreted their world in one of the worst famines recorded in the 20th century, which sparked Live Aid, is another moment amongst many. The artist Eshetu Tiruneh’s ‘Victims of Famine’, captures a different essence Afua shows viewers.
There’s a compassion, a spirit to help one another that lay outside of the gaze, the narrative television portrayed. Live Aid, we are reminded, didn’t feature a single Ethiopian band.
It’s a test not to turn Afua’s presence with our MAs into a two-way conversation, rather than the open inclusive affair it’s designed to be for everyone to jump in. I’m reminded of the feel of radio show, that one-on-one interaction sitting opposite a studio mic; something I once did talking to similarly hugely admired women such as Eartha Kitt, Alice Walker, or Thuani Davis. Less talk David as the lecturer, I’m telling myself, more listening.
The duality of being British, growing up in London with its layered hidden complexities where people mispronouncing your name can turn out to be exhausting. What must it be like to grow up in a place which is home where you’re able to express yourself, without self-editing, and that includes your Ghanaianness?
And then living and working in Ghana where locals refer to you as ‘Obroni, that is white person. There’s your German-Jewish heritage and its connection to the slave trade. That’s Afua. Quite coincidentally, I’ve also just referenced me.
There’s a laugh out loud moment in her Sunday Times Bestseller Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging over the continuing mangling of her name. The ‘A’ is pronounced ‘E’ as in Ebb. I ask about the space she walks in which informs her work, such as reporting from various places in Africa.
‘I literally live it’ she says as she begins unfolding what it was like growing up in London in the 1980s as a mixed race child and how she absorbed the richness of her large family’s heritage, Ghana and its literature and culture. This and Ghana’s provenance against a pervasive obtuse view of Africa, depicted as she says a ‘dark space’ for the West to fashion its controlling mechanism, is a driving force.
Her school friends exemplified this skewed point on her first visit to Ghana in 1995, aged 15-years-of-age, in which they were genuinely concerned for her safety and well being. ‘They actually thought I was going into a jungle’, she says. Her visit to Ghana also revealed how she had internalised a narrative, when she found herself surprised at what she saw: the presence of a professional class and social hierarchy, ‘ a thriving metropolis in Ghana’.
It had an impact on her. She acknowledged its complexities, but says she had enough social armoury to compose her thoughts and through self-education came to realise not only how the media constructs its systems, which perpetuates this gaze, but that she would have to develop strategies for dealing with it.
After classes I reflect. My mother, who would rarely speak about her past would say in her Ghanaian (Fanti) lilt: ‘You know David, in this country, sometimes you can’t breath-o’. The inflection at the end of her sentence will be familiar to all Ghanaians. This suffocation led her back to Ghana in her pensionable years.
I’m thinking Afua has found how to breathe. It reminds me of others. Take Althea Brown, a lawyer from Doughty Chambers, where Afua worked. ‘Althea is amazing’, she says when I recall and share her name.
Here’s a story. It’s 1993 I’m driving in London with Althea. I go past traffic lights, only to be pulled aside by police with flashing lights. I’m furious as I’m charged with running a red light. Althea in her big sister-cum lawyer dulcet tells me not to worry and be calm.
The case goes to court where the police give an account that didn’t happen. Then Althea is called to the witness box. ‘What do you do?’ she’s asked. I’m doing my pupilage. The police glance at each other. The three-person bench look either way.
I’m not sure they saw that coming. The prosecution after a series of questions says, ‘I put it to you, you’re not telling the truth?’ Althea smiles and while softly clasping her hands says, ‘I’m afraid it’s not me who’s not telling the truth’. The case is dismissed minutes afterwards. Althea knows how to breathe.
Then there’s Elizabeth Ohene, then the BBC Network Africa’s Southern Africa correspondents. She would be my mentor in South Africa in 1993 and in one indelible incident of breathing would pass on advice about identity and being Ghanaian that changed me.
And to end, my own sister — my role model — who breathes zen-like. A nursery school teacher in Westminster’s borough, each year she visits Ghana to turn a huge park into a three day festival of play for deprived children. A couple of years ago she changed her name to Amma Serwaah Asantewaa — betrothing herself to a line of African royalty.
‘My ordinariness is your extraordinary’ a close friend would say ambivalent of her achievements. I suppose I might say today, ‘Arabena you breathe good!’
Foreign News Reporters-in-waiting
Today’s lecture starts with mood setting, Fela Kuti — a Nigerian and global icon, a complex soul, featured on BBC Arena the previous week. ‘Old skool’ someone messaged, as I play ‘Stalemate’. The phrase ‘never meet your heroes’ doesn’t apply to Fela, either.
Our task today was to find stories across Africa. We’ve set ourselves up as a virtual international news organisation — a post APTV agency — searching out information to cohere into pitches.
What might they be? This is all about the gaze — the lens through which we try and make sense of the world. A half hour later Afua will be telling us cautionary tales of how news editors pre-perceive what they want, which changed her views on journalism. Journalism became an affirmation of someone else’s viewpoint, an executive. We should resist this, she says.
The analogy I draw is that television news can be a quasi AI teacher. It conforms to a pattern to amplify and seal a perceived reality. What exists on it, without critical thinking, is what we’re made to believe should lie ahead — even when cultures shift.
Afua pokes a hot iron rod into news and media agenda’s logic. When it comes to stories across Africa’s with its 1.225 billion people (about 17% of the world’s population), its fifty plus countries where ‘six in every ten people is under 25 years of age’, what stories dominate Western screens?
Imagine Afua says that during the Northern Ireland troubles, as important as it was and it merited news coverage, all anyone knew about Britain was the troubles, because that’s how Africa is seen.
There are fresh publications like Gal-Dem, Huff Post, Teen Vogue breaking free of this mindset, Afua says. Post #blacklives, I think this perspective should be adopted across all training courses: how to build news-making from the ground upwards to avoid the tropes and cliches that have become corrupted shorthand in meaning making.
One of the top stories pitched earlier centred around Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s scything the overseas aid budget by £4 billion, a reduction from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% . A question is posed to Afua. What’s her view on this?
The government is cutting aid because it’s not a priority, she says. The aid — a gesture of soft power pales into insignificance with companies and multinationals that profit hugely from African markets whilst protecting their profits via off shore accounting.
As Afua’s talking about the net credit Africa gives to Britain and the West, I remember this too a post that awakened me years back. ‘Where is it again?’ I murmur internally. I bookend her comprehensive answer with a note to French banking after its former colonies acquired independence.
Found it! Sharing with students. The post I read way back in 2011 by Professor Mamadou Koulibaly, Speaker of the Ivorian National Assembly and Professor of Economics, makes for a “aha’ moment reading. Professor Koulibaly says:
Just before France conceded to African demands for independence in the 1960s, it carefully organized its former colonies in a system of compulsory solidarity which consisted of obliging the African states to put 65% of their foreign currency reserves into the French Treasury, based on the convertibility, at a rigid exchange rate of the CFA — a currency France had created for them.
It goes on much deeper I tell students. Read this post The Servitude of the Colonial Pact,Post Colonialism in Africa, then this and African Perspectives on Global Development. Commercially too when it comes to some multinationals where do you start?
Olivier Van Berman’s painstakingly researched book, ‘Heineken in Africa’ should be required reading. ‘How careless corporate behaviour can impede Africa’s development’ was African Business’ review.
Van Berman uncovers how Heineken’s profits in Africa exceed by almost 50 per cent what it gets on average from its global markets. Not only does beer cost more than in some areas in Europe, even more than water in some African states, but the corruptness he unravels is breathtaking. I spoke to him last year.
The Rihanna Interview
We’re nearing that magic ten minutes and the questions have flowed. The net effect will have a further impact after we formally close lectures.
As I begin to sign off — an interjected question that is the equivalent of ‘Obama-Bhandukravi’s’ moment from the previous week. Last week, BBC newsreader and journalist Alice responded to a question about Obama following her on twitter. It brought much joy. In this instance, the question is about Afua’s interview with Rihanna and how she managed to get so much out of the global star who’s an enigma.
‘That makes me so happy’ says Afua responding to the question, which she follows up with the back story which sounds like a Steven Soderbergh movie script.
Afua had to fly to LA. She gets there at 2 pm. The interview is scheduled for 6 pm. Rihanna arrives at 12 pm and for the next five hours over drinks and bites she interviews her. Afua says she’s done enough deep research to know where to steer the interview into interesting areas for her publisher. At 5 0'clock interview over, Afua dashes to catch a flight bound for London as she has a prior commitment. On the flight she has to meet the deadline so files her copy. For 48 hours she has not slept.
The question opens a fresh portal. How, Afua says, she’s interested in other journalists’ interview styles and how they extract information from interviewees. Her approach is warm, the antithesis of a style she witnessed from working alongside a national reporter. Her advice is know yourself, ‘ and find a style that is an extension of your personality’.
Each week I like to ask our guest for a piece of advice, but Afua’s already done that in spades. But the three that jump out for me are:
- If you could learn public speaking skills ( advocacy) acquire it.
- Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
- And be authentic.
Masters students Amogh George has clearly taken this to heart.
OK people that’s it! I’m thinking how much our students might inundate Afua’s twitter feed. If they have, one’s things for sure, it’s coming from a place of love. ‘Thank you for the amazing questions’, are Afua’s last word. ‘I can see that there are some talented future journalists in this class’.
Like I said at the beginning ‘Yɛ da wo ase paa’.
So that’s where it should have ended, but Afua left some embers behind that had us sitting around the fire having what Jude kelly, former Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, would call ‘Collisions’. It’s when a thought sparks another and another. Its entropy energy you could use to create new philosophies and ideas.
The result of Afua’s talk was whilst I’m known from taking students over the allotted time (Woops sorry!), several stayed on some more, until we got down to a small engaging circle ending at 5.30 pm.
Getting one’s head around journalism is but a series of continuing and endless conversations. Our first lecture spelled out how if you take into account Prof. Schudson framing of journalism as a construct informed by literary, social and cultural forms it’s not a one size fits all and requires an empathy and acknowledgement of different cultures (BBC Clive Myrie’s point).
As lecturers we often speak comparatively little about our own trials and tribulations aside our wonderful guest speakers. I will tend to adopt a neutral position, thought some issues preclude this. Hence, it’s not just students then who benefit hugely from the content of talks like Afua’s, we all do.
But there’s something else. The themes opened for debate provide jump off points to share deeper, perhaps more personable ideas, no, a breathing space to learn how to breathe, to engage in discourse that interrogates our own thoughts and actions and bring just that little bit more to understanding ourselves and journalism.
Next week we’re in China. See you there!
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah lectures in foreign news reporting at Jomec, Cardiff University. He’s one of the top writers in journalism on @Medium and geeks out on tech e.g. AI and emerging forms. More on him here.