When Waringa Kamau arrived at Washington and Lee University in the fall of 2011, she had talked herself into the practicality of a business major. Her longtime love of journalism, though, tugged at her so much that she soon switched her major. The worldwide responses she's been getting to a brief documentary titled "Africa in Western Media" have confirmed the wisdom of her decision. "This is what I'm supposed to do," she said.
Kamau, a rising junior, created "Africa in Western Media" during her winter term course, Race, Gender and Religion in the Media, taught by Phylissa Mitchell, a visiting assistant professor of journalism (and a 2001 graduate of W&L's Law School). The final assignment: explore the way the media portrays a people, a race or a religion.
"This is a topic I'm passionate about anyway," said Kamau, who is from Nairobi, Kenya. "For a long time now, Africa's story has been told by CNN, BBC and everyone else. Western news outlets often parachute into various African countries and think they can tell that country's story, or even the entire continent's story, after being there for one day. Complexities are often overlooked and stark generalizations are made, resulting in very unbalanced reporting of Africa."
She wrote the script and partnered with classmate Papa Osei '13, who handled the photography and the editing. The pair stationed themselves outside Elrod Commons, where Kamau buttonholed random students while Osei, who's from Accra, Ghana, filmed the conversations.
The interviewees often mentioned famine, AIDS and poverty when Kamau asked them what kind of images came to mind when they viewed traditional media coverage of Africa. She also interviewed five fellow African students, who expressed their shared concern over skewed representations.
"There's a saying they have at home," Kamau explained. " 'Unless the lion learns to tell its story, the hunter will always be glorified.' That's basically the whole essence behind my documentary. Everyone, not just Africans, needs to learn to tell their own story. Because if someone else is going to write it, they might misrepresent it, they might tell it a certain way that fits their interest, which might not necessarily be your interest."
Thanks to Kamau's mentor and aunt, Mary Murigah, who works in human resources for Capital Group Limited, a Kenyan media company, the documentary busted out of the W&L classroom. After Kamau posted the video on YouTube, Murigah sent the link to an editor at her company. "And then he did a story on it," said Kamau. "Then people started seeing it a lot."
Kamau was thrilled to hear from reporters, including Caroline Mutoko, a broadcaster on Nairobi's Kiss 100 FM radio station, part of Radio Africa. The host of a popular show called "The Big Breakfast," she invited Kamau to meet her later this summer, when she comes home for a visit after an internship in Johannesburg with Times Media, a leading newspaper and magazine publisher.
"I listen to her radio show every day," marveled Kamau. "Half the time I was talking to her, I was like, "I cannot believe I am talking to you.' "
Other responses to the documentary are more complex. "Some of the feedback I got was, 'So you want media to lie?' No! As journalists, they have the obligation to cover the political instability, the droughts, the famine, whatever else is going wrong there," she said. "But at the same time, they have the same obligation to cover what's going right, the good things that are happening. That's what I was trying to say. They have obligations to cover both sides of the story."
Her family and friends have given the video and her career goal a collective thumbs-up. Before, her parents, Susan Wanjiru and Peter Ng'ang'a Kamau, had not been entirely sold on their daughter's desire to be a journalist, especially given the possible dangers of practicing the craft in Africa, which, she said, "is trying to define the whole idea of democracy and what a free press is." She understands her mother's worries. "After she saw the video, she was like, you know what, I think this is what you want to do—go for it. And my dad too."
Kamau grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and attended high school at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. "I was always involved with the school magazine and writing," she said, "and I participated in a lot of writing competitions."
Once she enrolled at W&L, she explained, "I was iffy about majoring in journalism. At home, people want you to major in law, and medicine, and engineering, and I'm this kid who wants to do something else. I was battling with 'this is what I want to do' as opposed to 'what I'm expected to do because it will make me money'."
Thus her initial decision at W&L to major in business. "I was miserable. I hated it," she remembered. "It is really stupid now that I think about it. Why was I trying to please everyone?"
Kamau had applied mostly to U.S. colleges in large urban areas, so Lexington came as a shock. "It was so different from everything, because I've never lived in a small town. I was coming straight from Johannesburg." The first few months were hard, but her mother encouraged her to stick with it. "You find that there's a lot to do here, actually," she said. "I'm always busy." Among her activities is the presidency of the African Society.
Kamau's professor, Phylissa Mitchell, shares her pupil's satisfaction with the assignment. "A special kind of student takes this class," said Mitchell. "It's incredibly time consuming, and they often become uncomfortably familiar with their own biases and prejudices. Students learn that the key to be successful in it is to open their brains and hearts. Waringa exceeded expectations at that. She made us, as U.S. nationals, confront our sometimes warped visions of exceptionalism and how it often harms the rest of the world. I loved her project, and I loved that she worked with another African, Papa Osei, a Ghana national, to show the world what Africa has and what its incredibly talented students can do."
With two years to go at W&L, Kamau sees her long-term goal as "empowering people to tell their own stories. Which is why I want to go back to Africa to do journalism, because I want to tell the African story. I can't tell it all, but that's what I want to do."
Associate Director of Communications and Public Affairs