Saying their names – telling Africans’ stories

157 people died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March. But who were those people? Western media focused on the westerners onboard the plane – and the many African victims went largely unnamed. This prompted Socrates Mbamalu, journalist and editorial assistant with the ‘This Is Africa’ platform, to launch a campaign seeking to name all those involved in the crash and tell their stories. Using the hashtags #saytheirnames and #notastatistic, the campaign attracted a response Mbamalu describes as ‘overwhelming’.

#saytheirnames aimed to humanise those who died in the crash, and the campaign resonated deeply with the This is Africa community.

“I didn’t realise how much people were interested in the lives of those who died. People really commented; they poured their hearts out. It was almost like bringing the community together and mourning together.”

And it wasn’t just the followers of the platform who responded. The hashtag #saytheirnames was picked up by Al Jazeera and the campaign featured on Al Jazeera Stream, contributing to a larger conversation on how the Western media gets Africa wrong.

The dominance of Western perspectives on Africa is something local African media need to take more seriously according to Mbamalu

“It seems as if the local African media houses aren’t doing so much themselves, it’s like those in local media don’t see the need for this paradigm shift in how we’re reporting on Africa or how we’re reporting on our individual countries. There are some trying to change the narratives and perceptions, but progress is slow.”

This is Africa, currently supported by RNW Media but set to become fully independent in mid-2019, is one of those initiatives working to change the narrative around the continent.

“As an organisation we are taking an umbrella perspective, looking at the whole continent and while local media might not yet be doing what it needs to do, the main challenge we are facing is Western media. As an individual outlet we can directly confront Western media coverage.”

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza recently revoked the BBC’s license and extended the suspension of Voice of America, accusing them of portraying Burundi in a bad light. Such bans are most definitely not the way to counter Western perspectives on Africa, says Mbamalu.

“Banning things is not the way forward. The way forward would be for the BBC to have journalists from individual African countries, either in advisory or editorial positions, so they are the ones reporting.”

And that is what This Is Africa strives to embody–stories told by Africans in Africa. Stories aimed at stirring conversations and changing narratives, questioning old narratives and pushing for new ones.

The #saytheirnames campaign generated many such stories and conversations, both personal, focusing on the victims, and political, looking at how Western media was quick to blame Ethiopian Air for the crash and questioning Western coverage of African stories. The campaign reached almost 2.7 people million people and generated more than 75,000 likes, shares and comments.

The strength of the campaign and the stories it told is, says Mbamalu, partly the result of a training he followed at RNW Media’s training institute RNTC in February. The three-week course, ‘Media campaigns for social change’, delivered the tools and knowledge needed to create strong campaigns that resonate with the target audience and was, says Mbamalu, “totally eye opening”. Lessons he learned informed the shape of #saytheirnames and supported him through a period that was:

“Really emotional, also for me. I had to look for these people’s stories, and then writing them and thinking about how to phrase things. And then seeing the reactions of people and it was just really….emotional.”

Follow Socrates Mbamalu

#saytheirnames on Facebook

Total posts: 28

Total reach: 2.693.802

Total engagement: 75.305

8,000 new followers in a week