“Where’s Burundi?” most of them would say, or even “But, Tanzania’s really dangerous, no? There’s, like, ebola and stuff”. I’m referring here to friends of mine who are not only well-educated, extensively-travelled and intellectually curious folk, but who are also as aware as I am that there are often gaping holes in our knowledge of the current global landscape. And so when they ask these questions they’re not assuming a mastery of geography, but exposing their own ignorance in order to be provided with my input, and to expand their own understanding of the world.
Humans have a singular gift for being acutely aware of so many worldly issues whilst ignoring much of what is going on around them. There are more than seven billion people in the world and it’s impossible to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in every single one of those seven billion people’s lives. It’s impossible, even, to know what’s happening in all of the countries they live in.
Admittedly, there are too many social, political and humanitarian issues for us, as individuals, to keep up with and assist in, as our time and resources are limited. There are certain areas of the world that, depending on where you are in relation to them, you can all too easily be unaware of the tumult and goings-on of.
Media we now follow is often brought to us through the medium of carefully selected Facebook posts, or news apps, which filter our subjects by our interest our recent clicks, and how attractive the images are that accompany the articles. A recent survey shows that the UK and US are skeptical countries, with a startling majority (69% in the US and 64% in the UK) of the population believing that the media doesn’t report all sides of a story, and that the vision we’re given is a one-sided, pre-programmed one that doesn’t truly inform us of any situation. The foreign stories that reach national media are limited to ones of great novelty, or great international implications.
Living in Tanzania this year I was close enough to Burundi and Kenya at key times in their civil relations to know that tensions were more or less heightened over the course of several months, and a refugee crisis was brewing in Burundi, and minor but horrific attacks were happening in northeastern Kenya, scarring the surface of Kenyan society and running deep through the country’s veins and religious relations. Conversations with friends in Europe, though, revealed how little was being said about such issues in national media.
Now I find myself in one of the most isolated countries in the world, almost as far away as I could possibly get from my native England, but with enough cultural familiarity to almost feel like home: Australia. I now find myself on the perpetrator side of the spectrum. I’m the one that is realising my ignorance, and my own acts of carelessness in the face of global awareness.
I don’t know anything about the country in which I find myself, so far away is it from England, so far away it seemed in East Africa, and so neglected it is on the international stage. Bush fires abound, political scandals are rife and national pride is an everyday part of life, but I knew nothing of any of this before arriving.
Perspectives are, of course, not based purely on being educated or not, but on where you spend and have spent the majority of your time. Being born and raised in East Africa leads to an Africa-centric vision of the world, with inevitable exposures to British football, U.S. popular culture and Asian manufactured goods, but not necessarily more beyond that.
Growing up in the U.K meant I was entirely British-centric – or even worse, London-centric – and had very little idea what life was like on the other side of the world, let alone the other side of the country. Growing up in the 1990s meant I wasn’t exposed to social media from a particularly young age, and had to sift through broadsheets with pages bigger than my young self in order to find out what major world-changing events were going on outside of my comfortable little world.
A common question when I meet someone new in Tanzania or Kenya is “You live near Chelsea? Or Tottenham? Which football team d’you support?” I have no interest in football, but I know that this is one of the binding forces of our society that can unite people from all ends of the social, economic and geographic spectrum, and so I play along.
I’m lucky enough to be originally from the neighbouring London borough to Arsenal’s home ground, and so can roll this fact off easily to everyone’s great amusement. However, that is sadly where my knowledge of the matter ends, and I have to move on to less universal issues that my new acquaintance may not be so clued-up on: political leaders, British spending habits, national dishes and public transport woes, for example, come top of any British person’s go-to conversational topics.
East Africa may be closer to Australia than Western Europe is, but feels many worlds away from the sparsely populated and sparklingly clean mega-country on the bottom of the globe. It may be just across the ocean from Tanzania’s coast, but it is as far away as any country could possibly be, and you feel it when you are in Australia. From the food, to the culture, and the media interest, Africa might as well be further away than Europe, as the questions I get about the continent that hosts the cradle of civilisation and some of the world’s greatest natural wonders are almost identical to those I get about Africa in the U.K.
I read the news as often as I can, from British sources, American digests, and Australian local media, to try and get a good sense of the wider goings-on that I consider it important to be up-to-date on, but I have to scratch below the surface to get the low-down on the situation in Burundi, and the developments in those countries which are so small they seem insignificant (like Burundi, in relation to Australia) and those countries which are so far away they seem abstracted from reality (like Australia in relation to Burundi). Maybe the solution would be to live in the middle of the ocean, on a raft made of the day’s newspapers from around the world.
Alternatively, making a conscious effort to seek out the small stories, the ones that the media doesn’t want us to see because they’re not glamorous or groundbreaking enough, would also be a way to counter this general ignorance that we’re all guilty of. However, as already established, this is almost impossible; there are too many developments, too many assassination attempts, murders, coups, potential epidemics and suspected rigged elections.
What is a more reasonable, and realistic ambition, would be to be interested, pay attention, and ask the silly questions that we think we shouldn’t ask. When someone says “yeah, you know the political landscape of Mexico, it’s a complicated thing”, you can ask without embarrassment “Actually, I don’t know much about that, could you tell me a bit?” We’re often all too keen to hide the holes in our knowledge, which means they never get filled in (unless we remember to Google them on our way home).
Seeking out the lesser-known stories can make us bigger and better than the media that feeds us. Step away from the front page of the news website, stay tuned for the special reports after the main news headlines on the television, and you may get to see what’s going on in the hidden corners of the globe, even if you don’t get the chance to travel to Burundi or Australia yourself.