Seasoned and acerbic journalist Lin Sampson gives her opinion on how the new trend of poverty prose is so totally droll.
The editor of one of South Africa’s highest circulation papers excitedly told a radio station that he had “a really great and exciting splash” this week.
Hold my breath: can’t wait.
It was a story about providing desks for a school in Limpopo where the children sat under trees in a Socratic manner.
Journalists, it seems, have become social workers. Poverty is their quarry and it’s not as if they really have to employ any heavy mining equipment; the stories fall from the sky.
Recently the dysfunctional school has become the focus of shack hacks, providing a libretto of horror stories.
The stories all have a sense of self-righteousness − we are doing good, bless us Oh Lord, we care. The contents are eyes-glass-over boring: white noise, graffiti.
Charity not chattering has become the sine qua non of the media classes. There is nothing more tedious than reading about worthiness.
It is everywhere: on the radio: Jordan, 12, says, “I saw all the poor people and I wanted to make a difference.” He collected 100 tons of mielie meal.
The host Kieno Kammies bursts into tears. “You are a little legend,” he blubs, “I really respect you.”
Tuning to The Money Show with Bruce Whitfield (which often provided a lacuna of irreverence at 567 Cape Talk and Talk Radio 702), it too, seems to have been taken over by ‘povertitis’ with Whitfield warbling on about providing ‘a little media centre’ for a fall-apart school.
The sentiment runs like a stain through the media and is difficult to avoid. Newspaper headlines shout: ‘We Are Hungry’, ‘We Were Promised Houses’, ‘Nobody Hears Our Cries’, ‘Our School Is Broken’.
It is our human right.
Although the stories are ubiquitous, the outsider’s view is hazy and sentimental, informed by pictures of infernos and people huddled in blankets. But the people themselves remain shadowy.
They don’t even have the angry rebarbative spit that we expect from people who have suffered. These black-hearted dramas, these apocalyptic scenes are rendered down into a join-the-dots mush that is radiant with blandness.
The stories all sound similar. Sometimes they sound like the same story where only the names have been changed. Toilets stink, rats bite children, fires break out and people are burnt. Journalists, many of whom have made a cottage industry out of writing about poverty, dig in with descriptive gusto.
“I don’t even have a spoon because the fire took everything I own. Please somebody, anybody, help us.”
“The toilet in the backyard is covered by two wooden boards and is full of snakes.”
“I was asleep one night when I was awoken by my baby’s screams. A rat had bitten half her ear.”
Action frequently takes place against a background of burning tyres, protest marches, murder, HIV/Aids and rape.
Poverty journalism like poverty tourism is on the rise and frequently results in people depending on handouts. With the start up of tabloids with their lurid headlines, it was thought that the broadsheets, bereft of their audience for trash, would start to improve in quality.
In fact the opposite has happened and without the genius tabloid headline writers, the saucy vernacular, their efforts to be genteel result in a depressing glossary of miserable conditions without the hot edge of tabloidese; stories that sink into the brain and vanish.
These stories have become fodder for the lazy journalist.
The thing is nobody knows dick about what it is really like to live in a slum.
A book recently published called ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’ by Katherine Boo, describes the precarious but ingenious lives of slumdwellers in India. They know that the state will never provide for them but they approach survival with a sense of hope and creativity.
Abdul, trained by his father, has become an extraordinary sorter of garbage. In seconds he can work through a pile of rubbish, biting into plastic to see whether it can be recycled and hitting metal with a nail to test its copper content. With this skill he has managed to lift a family of 11 out of poverty.
Slums are full of strange and fugitive stories, rivers of tragedy and surprising hope where things are never what they seem to be. I once met a man in a local shackland called Silky Limpopo, who had played the trumpet in a New York jazz band.
If journalists feel they have to suit their pitch to their various readers, they certainly do not have me in mind. I no longer wish to read a litany of woes from the favelas, I’d rather read about the outrageously rich − people who have throwaway gold tooth picks, use their bed linen once before binning it, and tile their swimming pools with uncut diamonds.
At least that gives me something to aspire to.