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The iconic baobab denied justice by ‘Saturday Nation’

The significance of a photo caption as the handmaiden of comprehension cannot be gainsaid.

A photo, depending on the context and circumstance, may not necessarily require a caption. Others sorely crave for a caption. Needless to state, it is far much better to have a caption where it is least needed than to lack a caption where it is needed.

The Saturday Nation of May 4 left it to the reader’s imagination as to whether a caption was either a waste of space, unnecessary, less important or all of these plus more.

The paper carried stories and pictures depicting utter destruction the floods had visited upon the country. One story, and its accompanying picture, was particularly intriguing:

“Losses as floods sweep away iconic 800-year old Mekatilili baobab tree,” read the headline of the story carried in Page 3.

Before this headline was an imposing picture of a baobab in all its majesty, dominating the picturesque landscape upon which it was set. There was nothing to indicate whether the photo related to the “iconic” tree described.

“Residents of Sabaki, Malindi subcounty in Kilifi, are mourning and counting losses after an iconic 800-year baobab tree named after pre-independence heroine, Mekatilili wa Menza, was swept away by the floods,” the intro read.

It was no ordinary tree, for the story explained it had been a source of livelihood to the locals who took tourists on an experiential tour of the area. It is said to have been a resting spot for the heroine while on her missions, and the area around it was considered sacred by the Mijikenda people.

A tourist quoted in the story said she had been visiting the site for the last 12 years. She expressed her devastation at the loss of the treasure.

Reading through the story, which was laden with background information about the tree, a reader finds themselves going back to the picture at the top. They are anxious to establish whether the baobab in the picture is the same as the one described.

The story itself beguiles a reader to want to see the subject tree, which has since been washed away by the floods. It invokes the desire to reconnect with this lost piece of history but, alas, there is no help for the reader!

Again, this is no ordinary tree. If the facts of the story are anything to go by, this is a picture which ought to be in the library of every newsroom. You could not miss to have it in the stock images of select or choice tourist destinations or other outstanding images relating to historical figures.

But readers are left to their devices to take a wild guess as to whether this is the picture of a representative baobab, or the one in question.

From the plainness of it, one could assume it cannot be the subject matter tree. It would also be fair to assume that the reporter could not possibly have taken the picture of the tree because it had been washed away.

However, if the place was accessible, the reporter should have taken a photo of the area it used to stand or even the remnants of it; assuming it was washed away and stuck somewhere on the rocks.

It would not be farfetched to assume that an 800-year-old tree is not easy to wash away, and its parts could still be found downstream.

To cut the long story short, here’s one case when the reader was terribly failed by either the photo editor, the sub-editor, the librarian in Nairobi, or possibly the reporter on the ground.

Captions are important as they help the reader to emotionally connect to scenes, events, places or generally subjects. They establish clarity, helping to avoid the sort of ambiguity created in this instance.

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