Flying across the invisible 700-kilometre boundary between Kenya and Somalia is a reminder of the distance we have created between the two countries, and their citizens. Some of us have been crossing that line our entire lives, and the reminder is no less poignant.

The early morning flights; the confusion at the check-in counters; the dozens of refugees heading back home, baffled by the stream of formalities; the weary-eyed immigration officers who stop travelers the moment they see those distinct boarding passes.

It is equally exasperating when one travels from Somalia to Kenya. While a flight from Nairobi to Mogadishu takes just over an hour, the journey back takes five or six, little of it pleasant. There’s the long queue in the hot sun for the mandatory security check in Wajir, where all flights coming from Somalia are required to stop. Once in Nairobi, there is yet more waiting at another security check at Jomo Kenyatta airport, and that is before facing the inevitable interrogation at immigration.

The media, I have argued for some time now, is complicit in the gulf of misunderstanding and resentment that separates two countries like estranged brothers. Most recently, on Thursday, April 16, I gave a talk at PAWA254, a collaborative space for creatives and journalists, about “The Role of Journalism in Exploring the Somali Story.” The basic objective of the talk was to try and answer the question: can good journalism help Kenyans understand Somalia better?

Even as we build a massive monument to our failure – turning that invisible line into a wall of iron and steel – I still believe that it can.

In spite of what the Kenyan headlines might suggest, Somalia stands hopefully, though anxiously, at a crossroad. More than two decades after the ousting of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the unfolding of a bloody civil war, the country is trying hard to usher in a new dawn. Over the last four years, the war has started to recede; the businesses are booming; and the country’s nascent government is slowly taking control.

However, with prolonged war comes implacable insulation. As Somalia opens itself, it faces a polarized world that barely understands it. Some people define the country by the image of glassy-eyed children dying of hunger; others associate it with the photos of pregnant mothers carrying jerry cans of water. And in this age of terrorism, many more have come to identify it with the gruesome acts of Al-Shabaab and the deadly attacks they have carried, from the Presidential Palace in Mogadishu, to the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and just last month, at the Garissa University College.

This negative association is more evident in Kenya, especially after the country’s Defense Forces invaded Somalia in October 2011, with the aim of deterring and defeating Al-Shabaab. The conflict has obscured the bonds of cooperation and solidarity the nations have shared. Kenya should be proud of the humanitarian kindness it has shown by hosting hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who reside in Dadaab Camp, arguably the world’s biggest. And since 2011, legions of Kenyan labor workers, engineers, humanitarian workers and teachers are effectively helping rebuild Somalia.

Yet, the conversation in the public sphere, abetted by lackluster journalistic practices, has been one of outright ignorance or unworldly naiveté. As a journalist experiencing this over the last few years, I have come to view this as part of an ingrained system of thought and practice, of how people across the two borders view each other. In the end, Kenya and Somalia come off as two countries divided by war, and united by rickety planes, a long border and a visceral fear of the unknown. This is not the only possible narrative; the media can and should humanize the Somali experience.

To be fair, I understand how hard it is to start a constructive conversation regarding the war in Somalia and its effects on the region. As a Kenyan growing up in Somalia in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I remember watching television and recoiling at how the stories were almost always defined by the imagery on the ground. The negative stories always outweighed the positive ones, and there was an almost 100 percent consensus amongst media outlets on how to portray Somalia and Somalis. This type of journalism still exists today – and one can see an overwhelming number of reports focusing on attacks and explosions, regardless of the positive changes taking place across Somalia.

But I, for one, have tried to produce reporting that is different.  And I would urge journalists to listen to their own voice beyond the deafening salvo of shots, and to pay attention to the small details so that they are able to convey the big issues with clarity. In the place of conflict reporting we need peace journalism, which recognizes that our reports can influence public thinking – either positively or negatively.

Take, for example, Kenyan media’s coverage of the war in Somalia – specifically since 2011. The media industry, noted as the most trusted institution in Kenya, didn’t deliver in its duties. The media’s performance was to say the least lackluster, and the error was, after all, one of omission rather than commission.

As I wrote previously in Reporting from the Cannon’s Mouth for the Networked News Lab:

“The embedded journalists’ coverage from the frontline cities of Ras Kamboni and Afmadow was disappointing, to say the least. It was a far cry from the high expectations of the public. The dispatches were intellectually vapid, while explanatory journalism, which is crucial in a time of war, was lacking. Kenyan journalists failed to depict the bigger narrative, or to examine the political and socio-economic endgame of the military incursion.

Beyond the confines of traditional media publications, journalists can also use new media to amplify a given story. I have tried using my work on Instagram as an example and how photography can be used to show – instead of tell – audiences about what’s happening in Somalia. (During the session, PAWA254 exhibited some of those photos.) This first-hand connection even helps reporters connect with and better understand the people whom they are covering on a day-to-day basis.

The question and answer segment at my recent talk at Pawa254 brought to fore how Kenyans are hungry for more critical and questioning coverage of the country’s relationship with Somalia. Queries from participants were related to how they can demand and get a better and more nuanced coverage from local media outlets related to the coverage of Somalia.

In the post-Garissa attack, the audience also asked about how journalism can create harmony amongst the larger Kenyan population and the ethnic Somali community, whom are being blamed for carrying out these attacks. Many in the audience denounced the maltreatment and profiling meted out to Somalis in Kenya.

The discussion also opened up an avenue to deliberate on the historical, political and economic reasons behind the collapse of Somalia’s central government. A Somali journalist present also pointed out the overflowing weaknesses in Somali journalism, and how the lack of serious Somali journalism might be an impediment to creating a two-way conversation that can foster harmony and understanding between Kenya and Somalia. Yes, there is responsibility on both sides of the dividing line.

Journalists may delude themselves into believing that they are just covering the construction of the wall that will separate Kenya from Somalia, but I assure you that they are just as surely building it – perhaps not with hammer and nail, but with the much steelier material of public apathy. We must take our responsibilities as shapers of public opinion more seriously; we must embrace a journalism of compassion and attachment.

Only then will journalists, to paraphrase the publisher Henry Luce, get as close as possible to the heart of the story. And for Kenyans and Somalis, they will have become the best companion in the journey to understanding.

  • Mukite

    Hey Abdi… You raise an interesting point. One thing though that I think is a MAJOR factor in this discussion, is that even more powerful than media reportage, the personal experiences of Kenyan citizenry have helped shape opinion. There have been several good and several bad experiences.
    I think there is also the fact that a lot of people do not know the difference between Somalis and Kenyan Somalis.