So my least-favorite New York Times columnist was in Goma this week.
I should probably explain. On Tuesday, the good Professor sent me a Times Select column by Nick Kristof. It was about his visit with Laurent Nkunda, our local warlord/freedom fighter/rebel leader (depending on whom you ask). I got mad when I read the piece, because it contained a blatantly false statement: that there isn't a national health care or education system in the remote parts of the Eastern Congo.
This just isn't true. What's so bizarre - what's making me spend all this time writing a dissertation on the topic - is that there are vestiges of the national social service systems even in the middle of nowhere rebel-controlled territory. They aren't really financed by the state, and they aren't always regularly inspected for compliance with regulations, but they are still, in some sense, part of the system.
For example, Kristof talks about a school he visited, how the conditions there were just terrible. I'm sure that's true. But I'd also be willing to bet that that school is still following a national curriculum, and that students still attempt to take the national exams in order to earn a state diploma.
I've never really liked Kristof's writings about Africa, and now I think I know why. He tells important stories, and he has the best of intentions. But I don't think he gets the whole story. It's much easier to tell a story about a place where everything has fallen apart. It's a lot harder to explain a complex system of authority that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, and that doesn't fit in the categories we Westerners are good at delimiting.
It also makes me wonder how many reporters ever get the whole story in places like this. I've been studying Congo on and off for eleven years now, and I've been doing intensive dissertation research for three, and I only feel as though I am just beginning to understand some things. A weeklong reporting trip is great for raising awareness, but it doesn't get the full story.
Anyway, I saw Kristof hanging around at Heal Africa the other day and decided to introduce myself. I didn't have the nerve to tell him he was wrong, but I told him I was writing a dissertation about how the national health and education systems work in the east. I also said that I appreciated his efforts to focus attention on the situation in this corner of the world. What I should've said, what I wish I'd said, is that the world doesn't need another story about what a mess the eastern Congo is. This place sometimes seems beyond hope, but it isn't. People are creative, and they try their best to get their children educated, to keep health clinics running, to stay secure in the midst of an impossible situation. It's not the kind of authority we expect, but there is authority here. And it's not just authority at gun-point.
Labels: the kristof strikes again