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Go forth, oh scribe, and describe

In his celebrated novel “Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe writes about a fierce wrestling match between his main character Okonkwo and Amalinze. Okonkwo’s opponent, the great wrestler nicknamed the Cat, was for seven years unbeaten throughout the nine villages of Umuofia.

“The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.”

You can “see” that fight, can’t you?

And what does Okonkwo look like? “He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that when he slept, his wives and children in the out-houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground, and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists.”

When people say words are powerful, they mean the creative use of language, like Achebe does here, to bring human experiences, real or imagined, to life. This is vivid description.

Can we take another example? Novelist Salman Rushdie tells us about one of his characters, Tai, in “Midnight’s children”:

“Meanwhile, the boatman, Tai, had taken his unexplained decision to give up washing. In a valley drenched in freshwater lakes, where even the poorest people could (and did) pride themselves on their cleanliness, Tai chose to stink. For three years now, he had neither bathed nor washed himself after answering calls of nature. He wore the same clothes, unwashed, year in year, year out; his one concession to winter was to put his chugha-coat over his putrescent pajamas. The little basket of hot coals he carried inside the chugha, in the Kashmiri fashion, to keep him warm in the bitter cold, only animated and accentuated his evil odours. He took to drifting slowly past the Aziz household, releasing the dreadful fumes from his body across the small garden into the house. Flowers died; birds fled from the ledge outside old Father Aziz’s window. Naturally, Tai lost work; the English in particular were reluctant to be ferried by a human cesspit.”

Can you “see” Tai? Can you “smell” the dreadful fumes from his body? Can you “see” those flowers wilting and birds fleeing as Tai passes by the Aziz household?

That is it: vivid description.

Of course journalism is not literature. You can’t wake up to papers written in this style every morning. But journalism and literature are related. No one makes a good journalist without a certain appreciation of literature. If journalism not only informs but also entertains, it is obvious that words, whether written or spoken, should be used deliberately for maximum communicative and aesthetic effect.

We get some of that in our journalism but, mostly, we are stuck with tawdry clichés that make media content as tasteless and full of gas as a meal of cold, stale githeri.

How many times have you heard or read that “business came to a standstill”, “emotions ran high”, “tears flowed freely”, “small dusty town”, “a somber mood engulfed the village”, etcetera?

Admittedly, all that is needed in many news stories is straightforward, no frills prose. But there are certain instances where a good journalist needs to do more, needs to don Achebe’s or Rushdie’s hat.

Let’s pick for illustration the Star newspaper of March 26. First, the bad. The paper carried a story titled, “Rivers dry after destruction of the Mau” (p.30).

“The magnitude of destruction of the Maasai Mau forest is massive, the Star can now reveal.”

With this tantalising intro, you hold your paper properly, pay closer attention and wait for the details. What has the Star dug up, you wonder?

“A flight over the forest on March 21 revealed the extent of the damage on the forest which was once Kenya’s largest closed canopy forest ecosystem. The damage has already rendered most rivers dry, affecting millions who rely on the water catchment area….”

Yeah, but people know all that already. The Star reporter flew over the forest. Few people have done that. What did he see? What does the destruction look like? You are asking for vivid description. You want the writer to take you right into the forest to “see” for yourself the massive devastation. You want the writer to show you, not tell you.

“Narok county commissioner George Natembeya said his administration would do everything to reverse the destruction.”

God! The reporter flew over the forest, has not described what he saw and is now telling us what a government administrator promised to do?

You toss the rag away and do something else more valuable.

And now, the good. The same paper published a KNA story titled, “Education horror in Kitui: All too common” (p.26).

“You have only to look at the so-called ECDE centre in Kalawa, Kitui East, to see what is wrong with education in much of Kenya,” the story begins. You are invited to “see”. What does the ECDE centre look like?

“Cracked mud walls, no desks, no doors, no water, no textbooks, no electricity, no playing field, useless tablets for digital learning, two teachers, their ‘lounge’ made of twigs and shallow shared pit latrines.”

Can you “see” the centre? No doubt.

It doesn’t matter in what format you do your journalism. You must be a good storyteller. Show, don’t tell.

A final example. When the story of famine broke early this month, there were many reports and analyses about this annual national shame. One of the journalistic pieces that brought out the utter pain and indignity of death from hunger was “Yvonne’s Take” by Yvonne Okwara on Citizen TV. Here it is:

“My take tonight is about the revelation that one million Kenyans are facing hunger. One million people. I know that we are now becoming immune to numbers. But one person facing hunger is one too many – let alone one million people. In fact, just yesterday it was reported that two people in Turkana have died of hunger. Death by whatever cause is indeed painful, but dying of hunger is a slow and painful process. Let me paint this picture for you.

“The body, lacking food and water, eats into itself. It depletes its own resources. First, fats then glucose. Then muscle. And finally, your body tissues. Then, when there is nothing left of you, infections set in because your body’s defence systems have completely broken down. When death finally comes, it would most likely be from a heart attack due to extreme tissue damage. People can die of starvation in as little as three weeks or as long as 70 days.”

Do you “see” how death from hunger looks like? Slow and painful?

Go yee, therefore, dear scribes and describe.

2 thoughts on “Go forth, oh scribe, and describe”

  1. I like reading story pieces that tag me a long. As a writer, I always try my level best to describe the scenes and get people to really feel what I am talking about. Thank you for this reminder. It is worthwhile.

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