Shyous. It’s the only word that aptly describes President Mahama’s digitally captured image in front of the towering CNN letters at the doors of the media giant’s headquarters in Atlanta: Shyous.
You’ll have to forgive me Random Readers and my regular M.O.M. Squad who are not Ghanaian. This may same like a non-issue to you, but I have to address this topic because the dignity of my birth country is at stake. There are some who really don’t understand the gravity of the situation and how it lays the groundwork for damage to Ghana’s image in the new millennium. It is my job as a humble observer to explain.
You see, John Mahama’s Pollyanna moment in my resident city – Atlanta – is truly alarming because of the nature and mission of his visit to CNN. He came to scold the international media and demand that they “stop disgracing Africa by focusing on negative stories on the continent”. I understand why President Mahama did this, and on a certain level I appreciate his effort. Nothing is more tiresome than answering benign – but ignorant – questions posed by low information thinkers on a weekly basis. “Can I see your tail?” and “Do y’all Africans live in holes?” come most readily to mind. The majority of the world thinks Africa is still in the dark ages, and that’s largely due to the stories the international media broadcasts. However, when one who holds the office of the PRESIDENT precedes or follows this request (I don’t know which came first, the interview of the photo-op) by taking what is known as quintessentially the most tourist-y of ALL pictures (after taking a series of pictures at the World of Coke and the Atlanta Underground), it’s hard to take Africans seriously.
And yet some don’t see it that way.
In fact, Mahama Ayariga, Information and Media Relations Minister described the disgraceful image as “no big deal”. I, like most of the thinking public, vehemently beg to differ. This is the problem in Ghana, and I’d venture in other African nations: our leaders don’t understand that we live in the digital and image age. Propaganda doesn’t work the way it used to, because there are just too many avenues through which people get their information in a free society such as Ghana. You don’t get to tell people what to think and then punish them if they refuse to comply. In the digital age, a picture is worth hundreds of thousands of words, because one image is shared hundreds of thousands of times in an hour. One image or 30 second video taken out of context can end a career and lifetime’s worth of work. There was no context given to the picture, which was shockingly released by the president’s own staffers to myjoyonline.com, and the viewer was left with only one conclusion to draw: My President is an awestruck borga on vacation in Atlanta. THAT, Mr. Ayariga, is this is why this image is a “big deal”.
Asking CNN, Al-Jazeera and other international media operations that dominate the broadcast landscape to be “nicer” with their representation of the African continent is all well and good, but it’s basically futile. The grass may ask the elephant not to step on it, but guess what’s going to happen when there’s a stampede? If we want the international media to take us seriously, we have to be serious about the content we produce and transmit. We have to have uniformity and clarity of our message. We have to edit our work for typos (something I’m often guilty of not doing myself). We have to write in perfect English/French/Chinese or whatever the dialect we are transmitting in so as to present the best picture of ourselves. We need to be more involved in the media landscape, not just ask the harbingers of the media to print more favorable stories about us. But most of all, we need to tell stories that are worth sharing!
Under President Kuffour’s direction, Ghana has billed itself as the ‘Gateway to the African Sub-region’, and let’s be very real: that’s a heavy mantle to carry. Think about a gateway. It’s the very first thing you see before you are ushered into the halls of your destination. A gate sets the tone and expectations for your visit. If the Gateway to the African Sub-region is littered with filthy streets, populated with people who struggle to feed themselves daily and has not yet managed to provide basic utilities of the 21st Century, like clean running water and reliable electricity, what kind of messages do you expect talebearers to report back? Well, it all makes sense, doesn’t it?! The leader of the Gateway is monkeying about in front of the CNN center like a Japanese student just arrived in town!
But what’s the difference between President Mahama and the Japanese student? He was invited to give an interview to Fionnuala Sweeney in the capacity of his position as president of an influential nation. If any image should have been released, it should have been one of Mr. Mahama looking poised, stern and presidential… not him squinting in the sun like he was waiting on MARTA to take him to his next destination!
I went to the Ministry of Information and Media Relations website to see what their goals and objectives as a body are. I expected to be unimpressed, and I was not disappointed. This tidbit was interesting though.
The Department is mandated to:
- Create awareness of Government policies, programmes and activities.
- Promote Ghana ‘s international marketing agenda.
- Provide Public Relations support to Government Ministries, Departments, Agencies and Ghana ‘s missions abroad.
- Get feedback from the public to government for policy reinforcement or redirection.
And exactly how did President Mahama achieve any of these with his visit/interview? Did he explain what Ghana’s challenges are and how his government has seen success through programs it has implemented? Did he talk about how the ministry could better partner with broadcast megaliths to change the nature of the conversation on Africa? Did he even give story ideas for Ms. Sweeny to follow up in the future? There is no evidence to suggest any of that. There is only this… this shyous display of bushness and un-refinement…
Heaven help us all, but please help Mr. Ayariga and all his deluded, like-minded staffers most of all!