A post from Tanzania: Preaching to pictures

On the ferry between Pemba Island and mainland Tanzania there was a video playing in the lounge area. It was, as a man I met on the trip described, ‘preaching to pictures’.

I met Abdul in a cheap guesthouse the night before the weekly ferry was due to leave for mainland. He is one of those guys who is infinitely interesting: born in Somalia, he left three months before civil war broke out and spent three years in a camp in Pakistan. At twenty, he arrived in Canada. He got himself to university, worked for the Canadian government, took a series of contracts in Liberia, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Afghanistan, and is now working for the World Bank in Dar es Salaam. We were napping between conversations when he sat up and pointed at the television.

‘I speak a little Arabic. And this,’ he said, ‘is not the kind of thing they should be feeding the Tanzanian people.’ It was a half hour program espousing the almighty power of Allah, set to a series of images. It was a combination of sermon and passages from the Koran. For thirty minutes we watched news footage of natural disasters interspersed with clips from Hollywood disaster movies, shots of Westerners drinking and smoking followed by shots of Westerners being swept away by the Boxing Day tsunami – buildings flooding, bridges collapsing, cars up trees, James Cameron’s Titanic crashing into an iceberg.

Not being an Arabic speaker myself, I have to take Abdul’s word for it, but his take on it was this: he worried that the combination of the sermon and these images were being directed at people who were not broadly educated to think critically about what they were seeing.

I thought of the horror stories about refugees on Today Tonight, and the Andrew Bolt columns in the Herald Sun and wondered if that was getting somewhere close to it.

Abdul’s second concern was that for a country trying to develop, shows like this weren’t helpful because they didn’t encourage progress. ‘It’s basically saying that you can go ahead and build these great cities, develop tourism, encourage foreigners to visit and spend their money – but ultimately, Allah decides. And He may well decide to sweep it all away.

‘Disasters like this happen once every ten, twenty, fifty years: what happens in the meantime? I’m a Believer, I know that He may take away the development, the buildings and the bridges. But what is the alternative? To not develop?’

As I said, I’m not an Arabic speaker, so I have to take Abdul’s word for it. But even without knowing what was being said, it didn’t take much for me to figure out the implied connection between the close-up of the white man sucking on a beer bottle and the very next shot of the white man in Bali being swept away by the tidal wave. I’ve only been in Tanzania for a few weeks, so I’m yet to gauge what role a show like this could really play in hindering the progress of this generally moderate and tolerant nation. But I did happen to notice that, prior to the crashing waves and the booming voice, the television was screening a slapstick comedy, complete with Funniest Home Videos sound effects. Once that had finished and the sermon came on, nine out of ten of the passengers had stopped watching.

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  1. Interesting post. Reading it, even one step further away from Abdul than you Louise, I can’t help agree with your reading of what he was making of the film and of your comparison to Today Tonight and the Andrew Bolts of our world. It’s so easy to manipulate information, I think is your point. In the case of Tanzania, colliding that with a strict diet of a backward-looking religion and, bingo, you’ve got fear and adherence to a set of paradigms set by those spruiking the film’s points. For us, as you also point out, even without so much religiosity, it’s not much different. If we’re fed info we digest it like sponges. And much of that info is unashamedly produced by those wishing to influence rather than inform. Scary.

    Hope you have a good time on your travels.

  2. Thanks for the comment Finn – I think it’s safe to assume that there will always be people trying to convince others of a way of thinking or a set of values (and to be fair, I don’t think there are many of us that don’t try and do that, whether we’re writing blogs or putting sermons to images or having debates over beers at the pub). I think the most important thing is to ensure that people have ability and the skills to think critically about what they’re being told.

    And cheers – the trip has been amazing so far (certainly educational!)

  3. Hi Lou, thank you for a very thought provoking post. I am very much looking forward to more like it.

    The situation you’ve described both disturbs me and inspires me. I find the manipulation by the media disturbing, though I think you are correct, it is not unusual and occurs in Australia and most likely various degrees around the world. A friend of mine from Syria told me that the Syrian government liked to air shows of Jerry Springer and the implication was “all westerners are like this”. I guess it just depends on the agenda of the government or whoever is doing the manipulating as to what the “message” is in these shows or films.

    What I find inspiring are people like you and your friend who can see through it and show others. While we are thinking critically we are not mindless and easily manipulated, and we can encourage and educate others to think critically too.

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