ornographic poverty is negative imagery and texts that expose bare-life occurrences to portray a situation and appeal for some philanthropic action.
Usually shocking, it conveys a situation as needing urgent remedy and has helped various humanitarian appeals raise huge amounts of money in aid of victims.
However, development experts have criticised it for looking at episodic issues rather than complex structural roots. They argue that pornographic poverty creates a voyeuristic pleasure where others feel lucky for not being victims while enjoying watching videos, pictures and reading texts about those facing problems.
It somewhat denies audiences the true picture of issues on the ground and promotes a shallow understanding of forces that produce and sustain poverty and injustice.
Attracting thousands likes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the BBC’s story Natasha Tonthola: My Fight against Malawi’s Hyenas is an example of pornography of poverty. Adorned with a picture of some rural women and anecdotes of Nsanje man Eric Aniva who confessed being paid to have sex with young girls, the narrative highlights Malawians’ seemingly unimaginable lack of civilisation and knowledge in the eyes of the global north.
This narrative portrays a Malawian girl as a helpless victim, with nowhere to hide as hyena-like men with no regard to conventional norms and human rights prowl. Aimed at inducing emotions of pity, this description of fisi sexual rituals portrays a society failing to eradicate harmful traditional practices.
Equivalent to iconic pictures that show starving street kids with flies all over their faces, the story constructs a generalised image of Malawi as a nation still in darkness. The country appears lawless and indifferent to the girl child’s rights.
I have no qualms with the former Big Brother Africa representative approaching the BBC to explain her experience of some ritual. My worry is how such articles in their glittering generalisation portray the Warm Heart of Africa.
Sadly, such stories are taken as truly representative of issues on the ground and used as case studies in multicultural academic set-ups.
Typical of parachute journalism, the BBC’s reporter came, recorded the story and dispatched the recordings to the studios for broadcasting and extracted a part for web news.
In all fairness, where exactly did the ritual occur, when did it happen? Is the ritual still taking place and what are the views from traditional leaders from Mulanje?
The story needed to answer questions on whether the ritual takes place throughout the country or within a small population.
While we do not have postcodes in Malawi to help locating “a place near Mulanje”, the district is not a war zone with restrictions to foreign journalists and news agencies.
Mulanje is accessible, with a tarmac road and less than an hour drive from Blantyre. Traditional leaders there have open schedules and are willing to give their side of the story and real issues on the ground. Mulanje with its salient mountain, striking tea estates deserves a better narrative than the one gotten.
A simple fact check shows that in Mulanje they do not practice fisi ritual and the web-based story is lost between fisi and kuchotsa fumbi rituals.
In this case, distance from African culture is no excuse. The reporter who handled this story needed to get the facts right regardless of barriers.
While some of these rituals might still be taking place in our society, the audience needs to know if they really affect each and every girl child.
Is it true that they do not have a choice as portrayed in the article?
Stories of this kind just strengthen perceptions of cultural and intellectual superiority of the global north which is regarded as having solutions for the south’s problems.
Fisi and kuchotsa fumbi are Malawians vices that require Malawian solutions.
Thousand likes and comments on our sad stories on social media will never change our traditional practices, we are the change.n