Zambia Fires

I don’t listen to or watch much BBC News anymore; something in the tone or insinuations or missing context inevitably enrages me. Increasingly, it seems determined to warrant the ‘state propaganda organ’ charge I sometimes see lobbed at it. I prefer to work my way through the Drama section of Radio iPlayer, knowing full well that Dickens or the writer of a ‘comic’ mystery series may annoy me. There’s not much at stake over their shortcomings.

Yesterday I made an exception and listened to part of the latest From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4. I’ve enjoyed this series in the past, mainly because foreign correspondents are let loose to tell some very good and sometimes personal stories that wouldn’t make into another program.

I caught the tail end of a segment on the Chinese opening of “Black Panther” that used it as a lens to examine the relationship between Africa and China. This was followed by an entertaining contribution from Rebecca Henschke in Jakarta, about the three times she has ‘gone viral’ on social media. It’s worth a listen; you may not think of armpits in the same way again. Or edible worms.

The final piece was from Nick Miles in Zambia, and described the travails of firefighters in the capital, Lusaka. This sounded, at the outset, like A Good Thing; on-the-ground reporting from a country we probably don’t hear much about. A corrective, perhaps, to our myopic focus on certain regions, and our current obsession with the self-inflicted wound that is Brexit. But as I listened, I became increasingly disillusioned. Less for what was said, than for what was left out.

The focus of the story was the dangers faced by Lusaka’s firefighters when they attend fires. They are frequently attacked. I think any reasonably aware person knows that this is not a problem limited to Africa. Yet here it was presented in a sort of shocked tone – imagine! Fearing for your life when you go to help people! What are they like, these Zambians? You don’t have to look hard AT ALL to find similar, current  stories in France and Northern Ireland (the first story is in French, and is about an out-of-hours doctor visiting people in their homes who has been attacked multiple times in the city of Val-de-Marne). What exactly is the point of not acknowledging this fact?

Additionally, I could not help but see the many visual details in the story, that ostensibly highlight the deterioration of Lusaka’s fire department in the ‘years since independence’, as a kind of ‘underdevelopment porn’ – a brave firefighter struggles into an ill-fitting, second-hand uniform from the Minnesota Fire Service. The central fire station resembles ‘a slightly run-down primary school’, there are ‘ageing Bakelite knobs.’

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I didn’t expect the BBC to remind us that Zambia was once called ‘Northern Rhodesia’ and was run by a London-appointed administration on the advice of the British South Africa Company. But the whole thing sits even less well when you realise that we’re talking about a region that was part of Cecil Rhodes’ grotesque colonial vision (#TakeDownTheStatue). But not even a nod to the historic reasons behind some of the problems faced by places like Zambia?

This, I think, is how they divide us. Look at these struggles, so different from our own!

Don’t let them do it.


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