What we can learn from Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo who covers North America for the BBC
“I brought all this foolishness to the BBC’s US election coverage. I regret nothing :)” — Larry Madowo
The recent elections in the United States and the transition of power between the old and new president probably go into the history books as one of the most bizarre episodes of American history. We all know because global media have given the events lots of attention in the last six to seven months. One could ask if the attention by journalists on what is happening in the world’s most powerful country isn’t slightly exaggerated. The feeling of disproportionate coverage only comes up when the quality of the news is lacking. The work of Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo, North America correspondent for the BBC News and BBC World is a breath of fresh air in that regard.
It’s worth analyzing what exactly makes his contribution to the coverage interesting, so journalists can learn from his approach instead of just pointing out the fact that he is Black and coming from the global South.
This is how it started
Madowo announced on his Instagram at the end of July last year that he was back to reporting after a career break and was going to be covering ‘this pivotal moment in America’. He is aware of the amazing career path he walked so far, saying: ‘We didn’t have a TV when I was growing up. It is surreal that I get to anchor a BBC World news cast watched in every corner of the planet from DC. Don’t say dreams don’t come true!’. The 33-year-old journalist anchored his first show on Kenyan Television Network (KTN) Financial Markets Live when he was 20. 12 years later he anchors BBC World News.
Parallels between the US election and elections in Africa
Larry Madowo made an appearance as the only Black correspondent in The New Yorker documentary ‘The America Bureau’ about what foreign journalists see in the US election. He explains in the film how he sees his job as ‘translating America to the rest of the world’ and how it’s ‘stunning’ for him as an African reporting on it because ‘the same things that America has been lecturing Africa on appear to be happening right here’. His reflection on the journalism profession should make all his colleagues think about their jobs: ‘If what is happening here was happening in any other part of the world, the way foreign correspondents would be describing it would just be shocking. So the Trump regime and all sorts of stereotypical things that I used often to refer to the global South would be completely at home and apply here. There is talk of rigging, which is not a word I’d ever thought that I would hear associated with an American election’.
In the NPR podcast ‘Ask a Foreign Correspondent’ Madowo admits he thought he understood American culture quite well, growing up in Kenya where he was influenced by the music, film and entertainment industry of the US and having lived in the country himself while attending grad school as a Columbia University fellow. ‘But the more I’ve gone out to the rural areas, the more I realize I actually don’t understand this country at all’, he reveals in the 36-minute audio where he is a guest amongst two other correspondents. The host asks him how the people back home respond to his new job and Madowo shares the indignation of the Kenyans about ‘a president who loses an election and then spends all his time tweeting that he thinks he won it’.
Besides the fact that Larry Madowo gives us a rare opportunity to look at global affairs through his Kenyan lens, there are six other things journalism colleagues can learn from him:
- Use humour and fun
Being a journalist is a serious job but it doesn’t mean you can’t use humour in your reporting. Madowo brings lightness to the serious issues which makes him come across as ‘funny, smart and insightful’. He ‘decided to have fun’ with covering the election for the BBC and doesn’t regret the foolishness he brought to his coverage. Four years ago he watched the elections from his house in Nairobi, now he is first and foremost praised on social media for the quality of his work and for his ‘brave reporting, showing resilience and determination in equal measure’. People on Twitter call him “a breath of fresh air” to the US election coverage of the BBC.
2. Know what is going on in the global South
The fact that someone grows up in the global North doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be informed about the global South. Madowo’s knowledge and experience of covering elections in Africa adds nuance to the events in America. He mentions the hyper-militarized situation in the US and says: ‘Some of us have parliaments that have always been closed to the public. Welcome to the club, America’. When Trump calls the US a third world nation, Larry points out that in a lot of those countries the election process is just fine. He later uses Malawi’s peaceful power transition as an example of a third world country where the US can learn from.
3. Distinguish Africans from African Americans
Larry Madowo is Black but he is not African American and that is an important distinction to make. He experiences racism being Black in America and at the same time asks himself after George Floyd’s death: “How could I grieve for someone I did not know? How could I own a pain I had not lived, as an African “fresh off the boat” in America? I wondered if I would be appropriating the African-American struggle at a convenient moment.” Through Madowo’s writing I as a white woman learn that there has always been tension between Africans and black Americans but now anti-blackness is on display and that is raising “the consciousness about the connectedness of so many of our struggles, not the same but very much connected”’, as he quotes his friend Karen Attiah in the article.
4. Approach race as a global and systemic issue.
‘Yes, the focus is on racism in America right now but that doesn’t make the UK, Europe or South Africa any better. Are you ready for that conversation?’ Madowo asks on his Instagram in June 2020. Long before the Black Lives Matter protests and before the statues were being taken down in European cities, he posted a picture of King Leopold II in Belgium, adding the text ‘This colonizer used to own the Congo & treated it as his personal property. He’s got a statue outside the Belgian Royal Palace’. His awareness of racism and his approach to the issue as a global problem is an example of how journalists should deal with it.
5. Dare to criticise the media and your own employer
In a tweet, at the beginning of this year, Madowo condemns The New York Times coverage of Covid-19 on the continent saying Africa is not a country. In the summer of 2019, he wrote an opinion piece for London’s City A.M. newspaper about the same issue: ‘Africa is doing just fine it’s the coverage by western media that’s behind the time’. He mentions how western media are making a caricature of Africa and define the continent ‘narrowly using its wars, famine and disease’. It’s ‘lazy and misguided’ journalism to his opinion. Madowo doesn’t shy away from criticizing his own employer as well when a white BBC journalist uses the N-word in a report: ‘The BBC didn’t allow me, an actual black man, to use the N-word in an article when quoting an African American who used it. But a white person was allowed to say it ON TV because it was ‘editorially justified’. And in the NPR podcast mentioned above, the Kenyan reporter says he is astonished about the way journalism in the US works nowadays: ‘The line between opinion and journalism has become blurred’. To his opinion, it is one of the reasons for the polarization in the country. This reflection on the journalism profession is important.
6. Be a role model
If it’s wearing a mask of the Kenyan flag or of the popular Kitenge fabric in his reports — adding the words “Africa, stand up!” to the latter — or people tweeting that he is “making Kenyans proud”, Madowo is a role model for a new generation of journalists. He calls himself “an African child”, he refers to his village where snow is called ‘witchcraft’ and he posts about making Kenyan dish ugali.
He is the first Black person to deliver a lecture in the 24 years Canada’s Carleton School of Journalism has held annual keynotes. In December he got chosen on the Most Influential African List, with the organization stating: ‘You’re an inspiration to so many and we love having you flying the African flag.’ He was elected one of the Young Global Leaders at the beginning of 2020 by the World Economic Forum, praised for ‘launching six new business TV shows for African audiences in English, French and Swahili and being also an on-air correspondent on BBC radio and television and has reported from more than 40 countries’. His own response: ‘I’m just a kid from western Kenya so this is beyond my wildest dreams.’ The son of Kenya shows the media the way forward, passing the talks about diversity and inclusion. Watch Madowo and learn.