Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Running on Rumors

It was with a sense of horror that my sister emailed me recently, "What the heck?!!! Is this for real???"

Below her questions she had pasted a link leading to a Zimbabwe Today headline about Disneyland Vic Falls. I, too, was horrified and clicked to read an article about the future of Victoria Falls that included a great deal of commercial venue/mall space/Disneyland-like theme areas.  But here's the thing: In Zim you cannot, cannot, believe everything you read.  Without the same responsibilities of free speech and truth-telling journalism as many other countries enjoy (and I do realize the irony of this, as my lil' ol USA is actually pretty horrible about this, too) Zimbabwean papers are notorious for creating tabloid splashes out of their headlines, dramatizing coverage, and printing the most bizarre stories first.  Imagine that what you see in the tabloids of your First World check-out counter is the only news you have available.

 A friend of mine recently posted a Zim-written article on Facebook.  Like nails on a chalkboard, I read the headline and saw the source.  It didn't matter if the underlying argument was true or not; it was a gross moment to read it and observe the lack of sources, recognize the lack of research, and count the large number of errors in just one little piece of writing.  It was as though I had just gone to correct a high school student's attempt at a news article.  I wanted so deeply to explain to her that when she treated this piece like a legitimate news source, it just encourages and supports a gross way of "informing people."

Still, where do people get their news?  What do you do in a society in which it is easy to question every single piece of information dangling on the wind??

News is a complicated thing in a place run by word of mouth.  In a country in which official press releases are few and assumption and rumor run the gamut, fear and chaos often tell the story.  What is not in the papers is often whispered behind walls and doors, and often evolves into different conversations according to the race of people doing the whispering.  The rumor mill of Zim is a full-time business.  It feeds fear and makes it an undercurrent in every business and home.

The rumor mill used to drive me crazy; my first weeks in Zim were spent in horror as the small circles I came to know revealed their gossip craze.  It was hard to handle and harder to discern fact from fiction until I realized that this is what happens in a society that is never fed the truth.  Like ever. And suspects that everyone, from the government, to the other race of locals, is out to get them. And please note, this is different than in many other countries in which we have research, studies, factual evidence, demographics charts, tables, and statistics.  This is a place in which a stat is considered true if someone bothered to make it up.  Many other countries are challenged in their inaccurate reporting and press issues, but in this situation I am referring to a place that has little statistically to back up any conjecture.

And yet we come back to the question: HOW do people living in a place like Zim get legitimate news? Without analytical research to back up a number of claims made on the situation of the country, its politics, and economy, narrative takes the place of number.  People's individual experiences become much more important to current conversation.  As American anchor Brian Williams could recently tell you, the challenge as individual narrative becomes relevant is how to control stories from turning into snowballing rumor or over-exaggeration for the sake of convincing others.  That I don't have an answer to!  

One of the reasons my blog is fluffy at times is that I refuse to write about something I don't know enough about. I have sooo much to say about politics and culture and the fascinating details of how anthropologically these things play out in a racially segregated system.  But I can't imagine crossing the line into conjecturing what I don't know.

The horrifying thing to me always is that thousands of people, educated enough to read but not quite savy enough to discern or fully identify inflammatory sensationalism (sometimes I fall into this category, too!), read newspapers without a background knowledge of understanding that sometimes the press does not present things in the most transparent way. It's a beast of a subject, whether in a democratic First World nation or in a tiny political entity run by dictatorship.  In all senses, truth is a tricky thing whether we put it in the hands of giant syndicates or our neighbor's neighbor's ear. But tying it to a fear so deeply rooted that it sleeps under everyone's bed/mat? Well, welcome to Zimbabwe!

PS: I get asked about articles often; for the sake of this blog post I just picked the most innocent news topic possible as an example.  If you're curious, here was the article my sister asked about, followed by a piece of my response to her: http://zimbabwe-today.com/2015/01/business/american-investor-to-invest-460m-for-disneyland-vic-falls/

"I do think it's a matter of time before they ruin Vic Falls.  That said, I hugely doubt it would be an actual Disney thing.  I wonder of that guy was just throwing the term around as an example or if he was serious, because the rest of the article never said anything about talks with Disney or anything related to it.  But YES, they are going to build up the falls. 

I think the complication to come -and soon- and what makes me so so so thankful to not be in Zim right now that all signs are pointing to the return of the Zim dollar.  The government is starting to reprint coins and from there, it will only be a matter of months before Zim dollars will be the forced currency... and then everything is down the drain again. People are very skeptical of its success, and it could put the economy to a halt again.  So we'll have to see.  I have no doubt Vic Falls WILL eventually be heavily altered by investors, but most of these giant projects have huge patterns of stalling and delays (there were two projects sort of like this in Harare that are still ongoing). 

The other factor is that Zim has laws about ownership having to be at least 51 percent black Zimbabwean, so it complicates things greatly.  Large companies like KFC have tried to come in in the past and have failed because there is too much "white ownership" to be legally operating in Zim.  So I am doubtful Disney would ever be there under those race based rules.  But other investors?  Yes, if they fit the qualifications... unfortunately these race policies never seem to be in place when China wants to buy things, it seems on the surface anyway pretty much just white Zimbabwean/European/American owners that get pushed away with these policies.  But I could be wrong, as I don't know all the facts- just the whisperings of the locals on this one.  My guess would be that a Chinese company will be heavily involved rather than an American one in Vic Falls investments... But in South Africa?  I could definitely see a Disney happening there eventually....

 This website (I'm familiar with it) never has a lot of facts going with its stories.  It's a rumor based paper, as so many are in Zim.  And there are truths to be found, but a lot of it is not total accuracy...  Just pat yourself on the back you have already seen the Falls when it was a little less spoiled!!"