Eye on West Africa

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Perception is a funny thing. Without ever visiting a place, we’re quick to believe what others choose to tell us. For the most part, the things we hear come from news organisations trying to sell papers, gain or keep listeners and viewers. And we all know that good news is not news – it’s bad news that sells.

There have been quite a few unpleasant incidences in Nigeria of late. The reports of killings by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in the north-east of the country seem to come daily, and sadly we become inured to the bad news – we read the headline and turn the page. It still shocks and saddens, but less so each time.

These terrible stories further ingrain the perception we have of places we have never been to. We always believe and remember the bad news.

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured it brilliantly in her TED talk entitled ‘The Danger of a Single Story’.  She said that our life experience is made up of multiple events and stories, yet we allow our lack of knowledge of a certain place or group of people to be replaced wholly by someone else’s story, which we accept, repeat and multiply. Adichie warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we run the risk of critical misunderstanding.

In the same forum, Alain de Botton, a Swiss-British writer and television presenter, defined a snob as “anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are.” We do the same with places – we’re all snobs!

Nigeria has an image problem, and has had one for many years. In the face of the escalating Boko Haram attacks in the north-east, in Abuja and Kano, this image problem has only become more pronounced. Kano, the commercial capital of the north, has suffered serious decline for various reasons, political and economic.  And in May, a terrorist bomb exploded in the market, tragically killing and maiming scores of Nigerians.

It had been a long time since I had travelled to Kano, and on my last visit the roads were full of army and police checkpoints, with some big guys toting equally big guns and the obligatory sunglasses, stopping and questioning all who passed, giving off the feeling that the city was unsafe. When a bomb exploded there, the perception of an unsafe city was reinforced. And with the decline in the economy, why bother going anyway?

What I found when I was there recently at the request of a client was very different from the ‘single story’ that was being portrayed – what I like to call the ‘CNN view’.

What I found was a city cleared of the roadblocks, a busy city of welcoming people, happy to receive visitors and to tell them about all the opportunities for investors. I visited the new US-style shopping mall and various bustling hotels. I found a city about which my perceptions had been quite wrong.

Some people have the same view about Nigeria as a whole, because they have never been here. 

In Kenya, the perception of Mombasa has changed from one of an exotic beach location to a terrorist haven, with grenades flying and the (alleged) need for armed escorts between hotel and airport. 

I’ve been to Mombasa twice on business this year and, like Kano, I found a city at peace. Now, I am not criticising tour operators from pulling tourists out in May – they were obliged to do so once the UK government issued its travel advisory. Nor am I criticising the UK government for its actions – if it receives intelligence of a pending threat, it is duty bound to protect its citizens. But I wonder what the tour operators and the UK government will do to change perceptions, perceptions that they have been almost entirely responsible for promulgating, when the threat has gone? Will they support the industry in Mombasa to say “that was then, this is now, visit Mombasa, it’s safe and beautiful”? 

 It takes time, but perceptions can be changed. It does take work to avoid the public being a ‘single story’. 

 Don’t always believe the bad news.  We do that, don’t we?  Don’t allow yourself to get stuck with a single story about any place or person. Go out and discover the whole truth for yourself, and then make a point of spreading your views.