mercredi 26 juin 2013

The Imaginary Sex Scandal that Aroused Burundians

by Thierry Uwamahoro

East African (humorist) reporter Charles Onyango-Obbo humored Burundians this week, but he is the one laughing all the way to the bank (yes, Mr. Onyango-Obbo sells clicks). And click we all did. Then we started writing. Complained. Instructed Mr. Onyango-Obbo how he should write about Burundi. Well, my fellow countrymen (and women for gender equity), Mr. Onyango-Obbo does not give a hoot what you instruct him to do. Tomorrow he will jokingly write that Burundians feed off dogs…we will click and share…and he will get paid. But, that is not even the point. Did we ask ourselves why we weren’t writing about Burundi and all its glory and greatness last week (before Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s piece)? Many of us have gotten deeply offended by his half-joking suggestion that Burundi needs a sex scandal to get noticed. And guess what? Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s imaginary sex scandal just woke us all up. The last time I saw this intensity of Burundians posting about Burundi on Facebook, the central market had burned and the CNTB had driven the country as dangerously close as possible to the ‘dark’ ages (of the 90s and early 2000s).  
Mr. Onyango-Obbo’s piece got me thinking: when was the last time I proudly and positively posted a picture of my president on my virtual wall? When was the last time I read an op-ed written by my president in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post, Le Monde, The East African, or The Guardian? When was the last time I heard my president make a policy speech on a continent-wide substantive topic in a world fora? When was the last time I penned a blog post that positively depicted Burundi? The answers are, respectively: 2011, never, never, and I have no recollection! How do these answers impact the image/knowledge of Burundi in the world and in my small inner circle of friends on social media?

When Burundians gang up on Onyango-Obbo and other East Africans (calling them ignoramus) for not knowing and appreciating Burundi, we are just like a company that blames its customers for not liking and buying its products; or an advertising agency blaming TV viewers for not noticing its ads. Forget Onyango-Obbo, forget our fellow East Africans; it is our job – us Burundians – to consistently sell and market Burundi outside the borders of our beloved nation. It would also help if we elected leaders who have the intellectual might and charisma to stand tall and keep the Burundian flag floating in the concert of nations. I can’t tell you how many TV ads I have seen on Jamaica, Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, Indonesia, etc. Countries need a little active marketing.

Good publicity is not free. If you disagree, ask our northern neighbors. For a $50,000 plus expenses monthly fee, Racepoint -- a US-based public relations firm -- offered to clean up the image and bolster the brand of Rwanda. Here is how the Globe and Mail reported on the story: “Over a period of 18 months, Racepoint created two pro-Rwanda websites, filled the Internet with positive stories about Rwanda, and promoted a new national ‘brand’ for the country. It later boasted that its campaign generated more than 100 stories a month in newspapers, websites and television networks, while also producing an 11-per-cent reduction in online discussion of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.”

For those keeping the tab, that is close to $1 million over a year and half period – with just that one firm in the US (the word on the street is that Rwanda engages various firms in many countries) – to market Rwanda. It is no coincidence that when I walk around Washington DC and get asked where I am from, Burundi does not register on most minds. I typically have to say that it is next to Rwanda to finally get the typical “Aaaah” and a nod! That is in Washington DC, a very international city. Imagine what would be the chances of getting a nod on Burundi in Wichita, Kansas. There are investors in Wichita and Washington DC – they will most likely land in Kigali, that they have heard of, before Bujumbura.

We can get irate as much as we want when Mr. Onyango-Obbo suggests a sex scandal is in order for Burundi to get noticed; the truth remains that Burundi is not well known (I wonder what Burundi’s Klout score is). It took an imaginary sex scandal for many of us to wake up and burnish our bona fide Burundi loving credentials and start ‘selling’ the glorious place of our births. Will the sentiment and the furor last? In the absence of our government paying millions of dollars to market Burundi, are we individually committed to make sure Burundi gets 100 monthly positive stories in the world’s major newspapers, imaginary sex scandals not withstanding? 

Did you promote Burundi today?

9 commentaires:

  1. Very good article with of course loads of emotional statements for anyone who likes our country of birth. I think I myself encountered on several occasions the issue of trying to explain where I come from when asked by those who are curious to know my origin. However, before we campaign for our nation, let's find out first of all the positive aspect's elements of our country and then bring them out to the the external world. Believe me at the moment, this is the biggest challenge and we all know who to be blamed for this. How possible is it for the mass population to choose intellectual and capable leaders??? Of course it is ideal that all of us bring our efforts together so the change happens on all aspects of development leading us to put our country on the world map. However, the questions that keep coming are"who decides? Can we do it even if our leaders do not have the willing to support such a good cause? Shall we advertise what is not available or market the emptiness? I think that we still have so many proud Burundians to speak for our nation but we need first of all to identify those positive things which I fund tough at this moment... Otherwise those who want to laugh at us will always have a room to do so.

  2. It reminds me of a time someone asked me where I am from - and I said Burundi. And he this in Africa? I said, yeah.. in the East Africa. At the end, he was like, Ohh I know - you have a great President... Mandela!!! I do not know you have been filling forms online and you got asked your citizenship - you got a list of all countries, but you do not find Burundi listed. I don't want to blame anyone here, but we all know the Gov has to put efforts in it and fund initiatives that promote Burundi, in any area - what about the integration into the SADC? Commonwealth? etc. Our Gov needs to be innovative and creative... starting with the Education.

    1. That's what they ask me here where I live. I have to repeat the name and explain where it is. But still proud.

  3. To the anonymous person. Isn't our culture full of wisdom and values that can be shared with the world? Don't we have Burundians that do good causes in the country? Or even in the diaspora? The positive things are much closer than you think it is. Just look around and you will sure notice something...

  4. Thanks for this post Thierry, very well written! Please share more...
    I wrote the piece 'How to write about Burundi' and just wanted to clarify something.
    The fact that Burundi is not known is not what really bothers me (actually the idea of paying colossal amounts to branding firms does a little, I do recognize the need and impact, but frenetically sweeping one's front yard is not necessarily great governance). What bothered me in Obbo's article, and in your post too, is the suggestion that journalists can no longer do their jobs. Whether a citizen of Kisumu or Aurora cannot spell our president's name correctly is not a catastrophy to me. Can I spell the name of Seychelles's president? The idea however that a EAC journalist cannot investigate and report on my country the same way he does for the 4 member states unless we have invest in an elaborate international branding strategy does bother me, quite a bit.
    In other words if journalist need marketers to do their jobs, then we are in trouble. It may be the cold reality, but it is is trouble. As for Burundi's fame... Well, realistically speaking, i don't think ordinary citizens can compete with cut-throat marketing firms like the ones you mention. That does not mean we shouldn't promote Burundi, but you just can't expect the same effect. Secondly, is Burundi's ultimate goal to be famous? Something in me begs to differ; I think we ought to seek for more than the ‘bling’. Besides, all that shines is not gold.
    You ask if sentiment and fury inspired by Mr. Obbo's 'wake up call' will last. Maybe, maybe not. Those who are truly committed to their country will continue to do what they do on a daily basis to build it, from inside out (not the other way round). The rest will probably forget after a while. And the world will go on. And maybe one day -probably far away- the world will come to hear of this little country not because of its marketing retainer fee, but because of what it has actually accomplished. Until that happens i will still to find it hard to digest seeing the regional media failure covered up in tacky jokes on my little country's back...
    Ketty N.

  5. Ketty N.,
    Your article yesterday was beautifully written and I do agree with you in terms of the poor quality work provided by journalists these days. Unfortunately, it does come down to the bottom line. I live in the US and it's terrifying what they chose to cover on a day to day basis. But their response is that they write what people want to read. That in itself makes me sad for humanity in general.
    I think Mr Onyango-Obbo did us a favor actually. Maybe we'll fight harder to make those journalists cover Burundi, in a more positive way of course. True, we do not need to resort to cheap gimmicks, but we do have to give them something to write about, that some Kenyan in Nairobi would want to read. For now, at least, let's forget about the rest of the world, but at least our neighbors need to know about us. It's not about fame really, but these are our trade partners, potential investors, futur clients and a huge market we have yet to tap into. We are a proud people and we generally believe we do not need to make waves to get people interested in us. But we have to start being competitive on a global scale.
    Burundi, unfortunately, will have to get her hands dirty and fight for her piece of the pie.

  6. Thierry, i think this might be a case of the egg and the hen... :-)
    My point is that real EAC journalists should be able to research and write on Burundi, regardless of how well known we are. Why? Because they are journalists. Not average citizens. Their job description is to dig. I reacted to Obbo's piece the way many of us react to western media's reports on Africa (starving kids with swollen bellies). There is no effort from media professionals to cover the country as well as they do in the rest of the region. Part of that is because they have so few correspondents here. So I’m really not talking about the average citizen, potential investors, etc... I was specifically addressing the journalistic problem.
    So again what bothered me in ur piece (which i actually like very much) is when you say that Rwanda gets more media coverage because it is more maketing-smart. I'm not talking about people on the street knowing about Rwanda. I'm talking professional articles, interviews, reports in the media.
    Of course it's the case, but is it right? Obbo says 'Burundi only appears when the regional media go the extra kilometre to cover it". Is it normal for journalists to wait for us to promote our country to do their job? Isn't "going an extra kilometre" part of the journalist's job description? That was my point.
    Now whether we as a people need to take back and own our narrative is another question altogether. of course i agree. In fact i have been doing it every week through a literary club i co-founded, through publishing anthologies, promoting writers, helping to release our voice... My personal approach is art & culture, which i believe is one of the most powerful tools to get our stories to the world. And a lot is happening already. Someone else will do it it through sports, entrepreneurship, science, or simply blogging. But let's not kid ourselves, people cannot substitute a well governed state.
    In a nutshell, i am actually not that mad at Obbo, some of what he says is true, we bear a big responsibility, but that does not excuse the regional media from doing their job. And something in me will always instinctively stand up when my country is attacked, pun or no pun intended. Maybe it's just blind patriotism, but i could not bring myself to let that article pass...
    Cheers mate, and hope to meet u sometime - again, loved ur writing!

  7. Pretty peace of writing.
    I totally agree you get nothing for nothing.
    A sex scandal, yes, yes.
    Back in 2010, Peter looks hot, but he put on weight, I cannot picture him in a sex scandal scandal but who knows ? The good news, there is something else at hand.
    There is a miss burundi who is in lingerie business somewhere, she is really something, she is just breathtaking.
    There were some football players who can rival with any Tiger wood or even Michael Jordan.
    This will bring some fresh air instead of the pestilence of genocide and war.

  8. As a patriot,i was choked by what obbo said about Burundi!to prevent our nation to get taunted that way,we should do our best ,wherever we are,to show a good image of our country,to make it well-known!Also,our leaders have to work hard so as to fully integrate in the EAC.once we are fully integrated in the region and more competitive than any other EAC member state ,no one will dare sneer at Burundi ,let's get up and make our beloved country shine in the region and worldwide.To get well-known,Burundi must first go forward economically and politically instead of going backward as we are witnessing it these days!