Living in the Grey

Nine years ago, Kenya became my first glimpse of the African continent. I was 23 and, though intrigued by international issues from the comfort of my New York desk, very, very green. At the time I had no inkling that my work would return me to the region a dozen times over the years that followed.

On Wednesday night, I landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport once more. In the taxi on the way to the hotel, I zoned out, breathed in the familiar night air, and half-heartedly scanned the billboards on the side of the road. Noticing ads in foreign countries has become a bit of a hobby over the past decade. An ad may not provide any clues to a city’s soul, but it’s often unintentionally amusing. From what I’ve observed, the same handful of goods are ubiquitously mass-advertised in every corner of the globe: beer, cars, mobile phone services, bottled water, soda, banking, and beauty products.

I’ve seen signs for the local brew in rural Madagascar, a 14-hour drive from the capital. In a remote pocket of western Nepal I’ve been bombarded with images of Coca-Cola, for sale even where almost nothing else is. In Mozambique or Tanzania, entire buildings – usually roadside kiosks – are painted in the unmistakable tomato red or daffodil yellow of the most prominent mobile networks.

No matter where we are in the world, money speaks loudly, and usually with the same unimaginative messages.

But Wednesday night, one billboard caught my eye. At a glance, it was nothing out of the ordinary: a sleek LG refrigerator (the “EverCool”) filled with fresh leafy greens and neat rows of color-coordinated juices. Then I noticed the tag line: “Power gone, EverCool on.” The accompanying text boasted that the unit would keep cool up to 10 hours during power cuts.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but this was something different. This said something. This was targeted, Mad Men-caliber advertising. And I was oddly – obsessively – captivated.

Back in 2006, I remember being overwhelmed by Nairobi – the crush of people boxing me in on the sidewalks, the cars squeezing their way past one another without order, the diesel fumes in my eyes, the foreign odors and vibrant colors swirling around me. But I also remember being disappointed that it was just another big city. I already lived in New York. I didn’t want a big-city holiday. I wanted an “African experience.”

A few days later I was wide-eyed and giddy to arrive in a quiet, rural village (after a 5-hour drive in a makeshift matatu that was really just a 4-door car with 11 people crammed into it). The wild giraffes we’d passed on the drive there, the absence of electricity and running water, the slower pace of living, the omission of silverware during meals, the hours-long walks on near-empty dirt roads – this must be the “real Africa,” I thought.

I’m honestly not sure how long it took me to figure out that there is no “real Africa.” Maybe around the same time Americans started rolling their eyes at the middle of the country being alluded to as the “real America.” But my myopia was strong, and one fixed image of a country (or a continent) is so much simpler to buy into than something more complex and layered. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Which is why the billboard grabbed hold of me. Right there, in the dozen words of this innocuous appliance advert, was an understated kernel of truth to explain why so many of us have difficulty understanding the dichotomies of foreign places: How is it that a person would be in the market for a high-end stainless steel refrigerator but also living in a world where 24/7 electricity isn’t a basic expectation? Aren’t those opposing realities? How do we reconcile that one country is more than just poverty and disease, just as another is more than just excess and materialism?

The billboard was on my mind the past three days as the IWMF fellows endured a challenging course of first aid and security training tailored to hostile environments. Here we were, staying at a luxurious oasis of a hotel just outside Nairobi, learning how to face some of the most terrifying scenarios that could arise in this part of the world. With a tea break every two hours.

The intensity was turned up to 11 on Friday when we were subjected to a faux ambush by a rogue band of Al-Shabaab militants, played with tremendous realism by a superb troupe of Kenyan actors. (On paper this sounds lame and unrealistic. It was not. A blindfold is a powerful tool for evoking fear, I’ve learned.)

After we’d had time to sift through the many emotions that bubbled up from this exercise, the evidence of the dual Kenyas struck me once again: on one hand, Al-Shabaab was chosen as our tormentors because they’re a very real concern in the country; on the other, we benefited from the talents of these young Kenyan actors, who were friendly, professional, typical examples of the best their country has to offer. (Seriously, Hollywood, consider holding your next casting call in Nairobi.)

How often might we associate East Africa with organized terrorism? Often enough. How often might we associate it with a creative, “frivolous” profession like acting? …

Every country has these dichotomies. So little of what goes on in the world is black or white. We do our living in the grey.

And that’s where journalists come in: we’re relying on them to find the nuance in everyday life all around the globe and to help us understand it. It’s an overwhelming assignment – the average 800-word print piece or 3-minute radio spot simply can’t capture every helpful splash of context and spoon-feed it to us. We media-consumers need to do our part, too.

I haven’t been a journalist since my student newspaper days. I would have been a pathetic excuse for a journalist, in fact. But I’m so grateful, and so reassured, to work beside journalists who take the burden of their responsibility so seriously. They learned long ago to look past the black and white and dig for stories in the grey. And unlike laws and sausages, I love seeing the news get made before my own eyes. Watching a good journalist work is all the motivation organizations like IWMF and IRP need to support the process.

Training’s done. Time for reporting. Off to DRC we go…

Glendora Meikle, International Reporting Project (IRP)