Stress Testing Journalism

Greetings, friends:

One of my favourite websites on the Internet today is The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig, that aims to fill holes in the language — to give a name to emotions we all feel but don’t have a word for. I spend way too much time on this site – first of all it is a dictionary, and I’m a nerd like that; and second, bringing clarity to nebulous concepts is what I have always desired my writing to do. More on this in a little while.

The Africa Partnership For Justice held a tweetchat this week (under the hashtag #ChangedAfrica) convening a panel of leading journalists, creatives, and thinkers to explore how 2020 and Covid-19 have disrupted Africa. I was following along and the conversation was rich and insightful: Aidan Eyakuze, director of Twaweza in Tanzania, spoke of how authoritarian governments are using the pandemic as a heaven-sent (Aidan’s delightful use of the pun) opportunity to roll back civic freedoms, which are themselves fledgling and imperfect.

BBC presenter Alan Kasujja spoke on how the pandemic has been a stress test for journalism all over Africa. “Journalism has been in a fight for its life,” he said, yet the recent round of layoffs and retrenchments in media organizations means that a lot of important news is going unreported. Africa Uncensored’s John-Allan Namu puts it thus: “News reporting will struggle from this gap in institutional memory.”

But it was Judy Sikuza, CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, whose comments hit hardest: “Covid-19 destroyed the illusion of the rate of progress. Too many of our people in Africa still live in poor, fragile, unequal and dehumanising conditions. Our change efforts must be approached with more urgency and ethical leadership.”

Still, there were some upbeat perspectives, mostly centred around the way the pandemic has opened up opportunities in the digital space. Diana Mpyisi highlighted how Rwanda has used high-tech robots to help essential workers, as well as using drones to spread Covid-19 awareness messages.

We’re living through a crisis in real time, so it’s not easy to foresee what all the implications of the current moment are likely to be. However, as I listened to the panel, I remembered a term I had stumbled across in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:


  1. a state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence [or a pandemic]*, which force you to revise your image of what can happen in this world—mending the fences of your expectations, weeding out all unwelcome and invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface, and propping yourself up like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.

*my addition

That made-up word captured precisely the emotion I’ve been struggling with, one that emerged as I followed the tweetchat and it continued to dawn on me that we are in some serious deep trouble – the media, this country, the world, existentially. But maybe, just maybe, the way to live through this is to prop yourself up like an old scarecrow bursting at the seams.

Yours in solidarity,

Christine Mungai

Curator || Baraza Media Lab

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