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Charlayne Hunter-Gault Discusses New Book on Her Experiences in Africa

July 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Charlayne Hunter-Gault was first in the news in the early 1960s, when she and Hamilton Holmes became the first black students to attend the University of Georgia after well-publicized legal battles. In the years since, she’s been covering the news…

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Author, “New News Out of Africa”: Thank you, Jim.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and is, of course, well-known to NewsHour viewers for her nearly 20 years as a correspondent for this program. It was for the NewsHour that Charlayne first went to South Africa in 1985, to cover the struggle against apartheid.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Meanwhile, as Mr. Mandela spoke, it just seemed as though people came out of nowhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was there when Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But even those complaining about violence and intimidation say they won’t let that stop them from voting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since 1997, Charlayne has lived in Johannesburg and worked for National Public Radio and CNN.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was just over this fence and down under that clump of trees that a skull and bones believed to be those of Nelson Chisale was found.

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s witnessed both the struggles and successes of a changing continent these past nine years and now has put her thoughts down in a book, “New News out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance.”

Charlayne and I worked together for a number of years. For this conversation, we met up recently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington.

Charlayne, hello.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of what you’re calling the “new news” is actually good news. Why did you want to write about it?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, let’s define the terms, because by good news, I don’t mean news that gilds the lily or makes everything look rosy. It’s good news in the sense that we always used it at the NewsHour, news that can be used by people, new news that comes out of Africa other than death, disease, disaster and despair.

JEFFREY BROWN: The four D’s you talk about.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The four D’s of what I call the African apocalypse, which frames just about everybody’s view of Africa. You know, I have lived there now for almost 10 years. And there’s a lot more — there’s all that, to be sure, but there’s even more to the continent than that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your subtitle has the word “renaissance,” though. What do you mean by that?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there’s no renaissance yet, but African leaders, African journalists, African civil society, they’re all talking about the possibility of a renaissance. And now there’s a new generation of thought, let’s say, if not new generation of leaders, because some of them are quite old.

Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal is a senior citizen, but he’s in this new thinking generation that wants to restore credibility to the continent through good governance, through adherence to human rights, the empowerment of women, good fiscal management.

And so that’s what they’re looking towards to lead them to the renaissance, but it’s not there yet. I mean, if you look at the cover of the book, for example, I helped design that. And I wanted this rising sun, but I didn’t want it completely risen.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s not there yet. It’s not up.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It is not up there yet, exactly.

Baby steps to democracy

JEFFREY BROWN: To what extent, though, would real people -- you know, the people on the street, in their homes, in their work -- would they feel these kinds of changes that you're talking about?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, in some cases, in places like Ghana, South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, which is this huge country of 130 million people, and it's raucous, and it's dynamic and all that, but there are new -- in the second chapter, I talk about baby steps to democracy.

And people are beginning to feel the benefits of democracy, not enough, because poverty is overwhelming on the continent. I mean, as I said, there is disease, and death, and disaster, and despair, and there's huge poverty, so many people on the continent living under $1 a day.

In Zimbabwe, I've interviewed people who, you know, have gone through starvation as a result, not only of government policies, but of natural disasters, you know, drought. And people are boiling grass to eat or eating worms and things like that.

So there's huge poverty still on the continent, but people in many countries -- as I said, like Ghana, South Africa and so on -- are now beginning to feel free. They have freedom to speak and to pursue their dreams.

South Africa is a great case in point. Of course, it's the most developed of the countries on the continent. But young people in South Africa, black people who, you know -- when I went to South Africa for the NewsHour in 1985, these kids were in the streets demonstrating against apartheid.

Well, they brought it about, the end of apartheid. And now they've flooded into the universities. I followed a young man, Sistelo Bangani, from the bedside of a patient in Cape Town where he's becoming a doctor.

And I took him back to his home in the Transky, you know, where there are more cows than computers and where the schools are still, you know, have not enough equipment and not enough books. But this kid came out of this environment where he was a herd boy, and now he's become a doctor.

Not enough good news covered

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the clear concerns you have that you write about -- and obviously you are a journalist -- the issue of how that image is shaped, what we in the media present, what people see about Africa. What needs to be done, or what needs to be done better?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, in the book I say you have to go there to know there. And you know, there are not many full-time international media presences on the continent. It's still the parachute journalism. And they parachute in when there's something terrible.

You know, most news organizations are not going to pay for their correspondents to parachute in to cover something good or to cover something positive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just not going to happen.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's not going to happen, so you have to be on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this is actually a very personal book for you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's a little unusual, I would say, because...

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it's a mix of the personal and what you've been reporting on, but you do bring in your own childhood in segregated Georgia, and watching changes in this country, and then going to see changes as an African-American woman in Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, I think that you can have good journalism and more honest and fair journalism if you, you know, acknowledge who you are and what you are. It doesn't mean that I'm going to be more positive towards a black woman in Africa because I'm a black woman, but I am going to be more interested in her story.

The face of poverty in Africa is a woman, and the future in Africa lies with women. And so we have to be concerned when there are more women in Africa than anyone else who are HIV-positive, when the face of poverty in the rural areas is a woman, because the women are out there, and they're tilling the soil, they're growing the vegetables and the fruits and trying to raise families.

And so, naturally, I think, wouldn't it be odd if I wasn't interested in that? And I don't make any apologies for that, because I think, in the end, that journalism is better informed when you can bring your own passion to it, as it were.