African stories by Africans

Sasha Rubel is Advisor for Communication and Information at the United Nations Educational, Scientific  and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office to Ethiopia, the African Union Commission and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UN-ECA). Representing UNESCO, Rubel was one of the organizers of a recently concluded training for media professionals. The workshop aspired to equip media professionals on the African continent with the necessary skills so that Africans tell their own stories. Tewodros Kebkab of The Reporter has spoken with Sasha regarding the success of the workshop and its sustainability. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You have recently organized a Pan African Workshop for Professional Media Production. Can you tell us what the theme of this workshop was all about?

Sasha Rubel: The theme of the workshop was to look at how to empower media professionals with the technical skills to change the African narrative, and reinforce the initiative of the Ethiopian government in image-building. On a Pan-African level, the objective of the workshop was to ensure that media professionals across the continent that are working in film, photography and in writing have the necessary technical skills in order to ensure that the predominant Afro-pessimist narratives can be changed and African voices can be heard on a global level in international media. One of the things that plagues the continent is that often times somebody sitting behind their desk in San Francisco is writing a story, for example, about Ethiopia. These stories are too often misrepresentative.

The image of Ethiopia as a country and Africa as a continent is often skewed because the people that are best placed to be telling those stories as journalists do not have the necessary outlets in international media and do not have the necessary professional skills in order to ensure that their voices are heard.

This workshop, in partnership with many different organizations, was undertaken to make sure that the African narrative that is too often afro pessimist can be changed. And that the success stories as it concerns Ethiopian innovation, the incredible creative industry scene, ethio jazz, contemporary art, the dam that is being built, and the fact that Ethiopia is the third fastest growing economy in the world are the stories that are positioned in international media so that the vision from outside of Africa, and I would say also from the inside, changes. There is no self-development and self-determined development specifically, without self-representation. And self-representation happens through the media. You as an Ethiopian are best placed to tell the Ethiopian story.  

Who were the partners behind this workshop?

We organized the workshop with several partners, the primary partner being Blue Nile Film and Television Academy.  The Pan African Federation of Cinematographers (FEPACI), for which Abraham Haile Biru [founder of Blue Nile Film and Television Academy] represents the organization in East Africa, and also several organizations of black collectives including Kamoinge [a New York-based group of African-American photographers founded in 1963] and the National Association of Black Journalists were partners on a Pan African and international level. In addition to that, Addis Ababa University, the Ethiopian Filmmakers Association, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the Government Communications Affairs Office were partners on the local level. The workshop received additional support from the African Union.  We had many students that came from Ethiopia and nine other African countries, which gave the workshop a pan African aspect.

Where do you see this project heading in the future?

This workshop was supported financially by the Government of Sweden, French Government and the Alliance Ethio-Française, and the US Government’s public diplomacy innovation fund. Our hope is that this will be the first of a series of capacity building workshops that will, hopefully, happen on a regular basis – either once a year or every two years in partnership with Blue Nile Film and Television Academy. The workshops will not only continue to build professional competencies, but also open a dialogue between Africa and African diaspora in the framework of the International Decade of People of African Descent which started in 2015.

How about the workshop in terms of assisting the Ethiopian filmmakers and schools?

This workshop occurs in the framework of two of UNESCO’s main priorities as an Organization. One is promoting journalism education and the second is promoting professionalism in the creative industries. We have the 2005 convention on the promotion and protection of the diversity of cultural expressions. And one of the areas in the framework of that convention, for which Ethiopia signed several years ago, is looking at how to promote sustainable independent creative industries. So, yes supporting the film industry and specifically documentary film but also feature film, inscribes itself in the mandate of UNESCO’s work both to support culture and its contribution to sustainable development but also to support media professionalization.

How about the support to the private sector or individuals?

Now that this workshop has been an unbelievable success – there were more than 250 students from ten African countries that attended – one of our hopes is to capitalize on the opportune moment, for example, of the founding of the Tourism Transformation Council and the Ethiopian Tourism Organization which promotes public private sector partnerships. We would like to see how to further involve the private sector in this kind of work.

Ethiopian’s Growth and Transformation Plan II recognizes culture as a central vector for development and one of the things that needs to happen, following Ethiopia being voted the number one tourist destination in 2015, is to link everything related to the Ethiopian Government’s ambition of image building and sustainable cultural tourism with the work of the media and to mobilize the private sector. We must encourage public private sector partnerships that encourage the development of platforms for the incredible stories of innovation and entrepreneurship in Ethiopia to be heard around the world. One thing that came out of the training and I, as a co-organizer, identified is that there is an incredible wealth of talent in Ethiopia. There is no talent missing in Ethiopia. The question is the tools needed in order to ensure that this talent gets seen nationally, continentally and internationally. An additional objective of this workshop was to ensure that the tools needed to allow Ethiopian media professionals to compete on an international level and the awareness needed to be informed of the outlets that are available for those voices to be heard were highlighted and provided.

What were the challenges you faced?

I would say the major challenge in doing this project, which I think is the first of its kind in Ethiopia that mobilized so many Ministries, different sectors, the AU, UNESCO, as well as Pan African and diasporic African partnerships, was limiting the students. We had an overwhelming amount of interest in attendance. At first when we conceived the workshop we thought to ourselves ‘ok, we will accept between 30 to 35 students’ to make sure the capacity building is targeted and personalized. Ultimately, we had at least 80 students per class [there were three classes] that followed from beginning to end and many students came on a daily basis expressing their interest to attend.

There was also strong interest from private and public media and community radio. So, one of the challenges in reproducing this capacity building workshop in the coming years is to be able to provide personalized learning and follow up while also meeting the needs of the media and cultural actors in Ethiopia. However, this is an incredibly wonderful challenge to have because it underlines the desire of people in Ethiopia and other African countries to get the tools necessary in order to tell their stories and what beautiful stories they have to tell.

Are you confident that this project will continue?

I can promise, as UNESCO is committed to encouraging and continuing media capacity building in Ethiopia, that I, for one, will do everything I can to make sure that these partnerships that we put in place in the framework of this workshop will continue. That is both between the Ministries and civil societies but also between Blue Nile Film and Television Academy, Kamoinge, the National Association of Black Journalists and FEPACI. UNESCO is an International Organization. The best thing that can happen is that these partnerships become so self-sustainable that when UNESCO steps back the partnerships and the funding continue.

That is something we are hoping for. The workshop ended last Friday and already we have had several expressions of interests both from the private sector and government counterparts to fund a second version. So, I can promise, with all the faith and confidence that I have in Blue Nile Film and Television Academy and the work of Abraham Haile Biru, that UNESCO will continue to backstop these kinds of initiatives and capacity building with civil society and media professionals in Ethiopia.

You’ve mentioned Blue Nile Film and Television Academy and Abraham Haile Biru several times. What was his role in this initiative?

Abraham Haile Biru is at the heart of this initiative. It is his vision not only as director of Blue Nile, as representative of FEPACI and as the head of the Ethiopian Filmmakers Association, but also as head of Colors of the Nile Film Festival, which is the biggest film festival in east Africa that has an international audience. It is really his vision and the ground work he already laid for promoting international capacity building in the field of media such as documentary film, photojournalism and feature writing that this workshop was established. And it is in conversations with him and UNESCO’s support to Blue Nile Film and Television Academy that this workshop occurred. It is his vision, his passion and commitment both to rightly represent Ethiopia and in training future generations of media professionals that this workshop was undertaken.

Do you think this workshop has achieved in having an impact among its participants?

One of the things we made sure we did at the end of the workshop is to get  feedback from the students as it concerns how the workshop changed their professionalism and also what they see as the next steps in order to maintain this kind of capacity building. There are more than 300 feedback sheets that I have read over the last week and if you read them it will bring tears to your eyes about the impact it had on the students as professionals but also as people, and as proud Africans. One of the things that occurred is open dialogue between Africa and African diaspora as it concerns self-representation. In this framework there were eleven trainers from the African diaspora, specifically from the US, the Caribbean and the UK, who are very well established in their field.

Many of them were Pulitzer Prize or Emmy Awards winning journalists including, for example, the head of the New York Times Lens Blog and the former head of Diversity for the Associated Press. One of the things that came out of this workshop and the feedback sheets is the struggle still ongoing in the US of African Americans and diasporic Africans and their battle for self-representation, which started in the civil rights movement, and is in fact, a similar battle being fought now across the African continent concerning the desire to change the African narratives that too often are skewed. So, it was incredible to have that dialogue between people from the African diaspora and the African continent in the framework of the International Decade of People of African Descent.

You will be leaving your post in Ethiopia this December.

I will cite the words of the great Ethiopian singer Alemayehu Eshete and say ‘Addis Ababa bete’. I have lived in Ethiopia for almost two and a half years now. Ethiopia will always be my home. Ethiopia will always have a huge part of my heart. I am so proud to have been in this country and to call this country and Addis Ababa home for the past two and a half years and to be in Ethiopia at a moment so historic. At a moment when GTP II is being launched, Ethiopian Tourism Organization and Ethiopian Tourism Council were founded, where the economy is rapidly changing and where there are so many unbelievable and untold stories to be told. One of the things I sincerely hope is that, in the two and half years I have spent here, I will in some way have contributed, in my capacity, to the visibility of all the incredible things that are going on in Ethiopia on an international level through UNESCO’s work in media capacity building. I will continue to love Ethiopia and sing the praises of the wonders and innovations of Ethiopia in Dakar [Senegal] and beyond. I look forward to coming back and visiting my friends in Addis on a regular basis, eating shiro with the students at the next edition of this workshop, and reading and seeing the work of the students from this Workshop in International Media and smiling.