Didn’t know about the Garissa massacre? Blame yourself, not the media.

When I switched my laptop on on Saturday morning, all the terabytes of the internet were consumed by people’s reactions to the Paris shootings. On Facebook were expressions of everything from sympathy to anger. One of the most common responses among my friends was: “What about all these other tragedies that have happened recently?”

These posters, some propelled by enough righteous anger to fry an egg, mostly referenced Thursday’s Beirut suicide bomb and the massacre at Garissa University in Kenya. So hasty were they to shame these superficial Europeans, some even failed to spot that the Garissa massacre happened in April.


Their basic point is this: why have the Paris attacks attracted such a public orgy of grief, when comparable tragedies in countries that the west views as poor, war-torn and remote attract not a whisper? (In this post I’m ignoring, because it’s so blindingly obvious, the point that France and the UK are neighbours, most Brits have probably been to Paris, and many were personally alarmed for their friends.) Why the disproportionate media focus on Paris? Why has Facebook gone so far as to enable a special French flag filter for your profile picture, when many more people are hurting in other countries? What despicable traits of racism, thoughtlessness and derision do these imply in our collective psyche?

There’s one problem with this: Garissa received reams and reams of coverage. It attracted reportage, videos, analysis and photojournalism from The Guardian, the BBC, the Telegraph, the Daily Express and, yes, the Daily Mail. Just about every major news outlet in the UK covered it, albeit not to the same degree as Paris. Coverage included reporting the #147notjustanumber campaign to humanise the massacre’s victims. If you’re pissed you missed that one, you should change how you read the news.


The media has innumerable blind spots reporting important issues in the developing world, and this is a genuine problem. There are all kinds of reasons for this: lack of funds means major news outlets close bureaus and buy their stories from agencies such as Reuters or AFP, for instance. But the number one driver for the news agenda is what people want to read. No news editor in the world is going to see a story shooting to the top of the most-read list and say: “Meh, covered it. What else have you got?” If the media aren’t covering other massacres, it’s because you lot aren’t reading about them.

If your idea of staying informed about global events is re-sharing a Comment is Free link and glancing at BBC News’s Most Read, the main problem isn’t the media. It’s your own lack of interest. On an internet that seems to be gravitating towards Facebook like a black hole in the pocket of Mark Zuckerberg’s hoody, why seek out a broad range of news sources when Facebook could be your one-stop shop?

Where once, social media was all trading likes on angle shots and having a catty rejig of your Myspace Top 8, it has become a cover-all for messaging, professional networking, event planning and, crucially, news. Facebook now has a panel telling us what stories are trending. Where once we trusted professional editors to collate the most important happenings and topics, we now crowdsource the job to our friends, hoping that the mix of hardcore activists and viral content lovers will do the trick instead.

If you want to know more about major massacres and attacks when they happen, you have a smorgasboard of choice. Big outlets like The Guardian, The Economist, Al Jazeera and the BBC provide ample coverage of these stories. There are almost no regions on earth that don’t have their own English-language press. There are dedicated publications like The New Internationalist and Foreign Policy, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with all manner of mailing lists. Indie news websites providing alternative perspectives less palatable in the mainstream media are popping up like digital daisies.

Go ahead: look ’em up. Bookmark them. Instead of scrolling blankly through Facebook when you’re bored, see what’s going on in the world. It’s a good alternative to “liking” other people’s posts about how bored they are in a great circlejerk of stupefaction.

Share what you find. Say what you think. And if you’re waving Garissa around from your high horse like a giant banner of philosophical butthurt but only heard about it last week, please just fuck off.


It’s Lonely Foreigner time!

Those of you who have me on Facebook might have noticed that I’m starting lots of conversations there nowadays. This is because in my new home, Bolivia, I have very few real humans to interact with.

Moving abroad makes you think long and hard about your social networks. Take your friends. How do you know them? Some people spend Friday nights with friends from school or university. Others go drinking in the company of their colleagues. If they’re religious, they might have friends from their temple of choice. My mum spent a lot of time getting to know the parents of my school playmates.

When you move to a new country, you might have none of these. Here in Bolivia, I don’t. School was on the other side of the world. I’m not working yet. I don’t go to church – which, as we discovered this morning, involves signing throaty hymns on a nearby patch of grass of a Sunday because they don’t have a building. I’m here with my partner, but we don’t have kids, so there’s no school network. When I was studying in Germany, I had little in common with most international students, but at least I was in the student community.

This boils down to a miraculously empty calendar. It’s Friday, but nobody’s invited us anywhere. We’ve been in all day for the same reason. Perhaps there are cafes and bars and homes where we would be welcome, but we don’t know of them yet. So I look at Facebook. Then I look at my e-mails. Then I look back at Facebook. I hit Gmail’s Refresh button, just in case they haven’t auto-updated. I check the spam. And I feel incredibly isolated.

When you’re a new arrival, you never know where the next friend might come from. One of my closest German friends wandered up to me in a metal club after the (clearly inferior) friends I’d gone with left without telling me. An ex-colleague tells of a soul mate she met at the Brazilian migration department as they despaired together over bureaucracy. Here, my closest friend seems to have come from a Facebook comment.

Different nationalities react differently to newcomers. In Germany, that reaction was suspicion. Multiple people assured me that in the frozen northlands of Hannover, friends were hard won, but once they were won, they were friends for life. This in contrast to those superficial Bavarians, who tarted out their friendliness to any passing charlatan. This approach seemed logical enough, but the trial period seemed to be measured in years – cold comfort to an exchange student.

I responded to this with the scatter bomb approach, going to everything from climbing centres to punk bars on my own, in the hope of striking up a conversation. This was so terrifying, it may as well have been skydiving. The road from seeing someone you think you’ll click with to getting chatting and – heaven forbid – staying in touch, while simultaneously not coming across as some sort of sex pest, is paved with pitfalls.

In a new country, you have the extra hurdle of a language barrier. At home, you would just ask “Do you want to go for a beer sometime?”. In this confusing new tongue, trying to work that sentence out becomes a perilous game of guessing and second-guessing, even if you’re relatively fluent. You could say it one way, but what if that sounds needy to a native speaker? How about another? That involves using slang your geriatric high school teacher taught you, and may sound like you’ve just time travelled from 1978.

At times like this, I can see the draw of the ex-pat community. People often complain that foreigners “don’t integrate” or only hang out with their own nationality. But they fail to ask themselves when they last befriended a foreigner.

Germany was great, in the end. It took several months and lots of scary extrovert behaviour, but finally, I made solid friends who I still speak to: couchsurfers, jugglers, metalheads, colleagues and, yes, ex pats. I’ve visited them and they’ve visited me. After a year, I was still meeting people I wanted to hang out with again, and they wanted to hang out too. I was no longer this strange, friendless creature, but a fluent German speaker who knew the place and had things to share. But life moves on, and now I’m in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. New language, new culture, new start.

So, if you meet someone who’s new in town, stay in touch. If they seem sound, swap numbers. Invite them to a party. I like hanging out with people from other cultures because they offer me so much insight into my own. They make me think beyond my own borders. And trust me, if you’re ever in their shoes, you’ll appreciate it.

Diary: Tuesday 3 November, 19:25

Today, we went shopping. In a new country, even shopping is an adventure.

Bolivia does have supermarkets, but judging by the empty aisles, most people don’t use them. The prices wouldn’t be out of place in Tottenham, and in a city surrounded by farms, most people prefer the markets. The exception to this is salads and similar green leafy goods: much as Europeans complain about the spooky procedures our food is subjected to, my average day in the UK is mercifully free from dysentery.

Since we were stocking our new home with everything from detergent to soy sauce, we opted for the supermarket. The most remarkable prices were Special K cereal for BOB65 (£5.94) per box and Abuelo rum for BOB75 (£6.85) per litre.

Our host family were taken aback when we said we would need cooking facilities. It was as if we’d asked to build a permanent packing crate fort in the living room. We were perplexed: how else were we supposed to get our food into our tummies? Apparently, it’s unusual for young Bolivians to cook. They live with their families for far longer than Brits, and often, mum is cooking (equality for women being a whole different ball game here).

Since our hosts weren’t expecting two cooks, our kitchen is out in the garden, on a broad, wood-beamed terrace. We have gas from a canister and a huge grill for BBQs. A willow tree shelters the lawn, and the leaves of the lemon verbena shrub by the kitchen door can be made into tea. It’s tranquil, except for the dogs.

The dogs live outside. They spend most of their time attempting to eat each other in a playful way, unless we’re around. Then, they make a concerted attempt to eat whatever we’re eating.

Niko is a seven-month-old German shepherd who doesn’t know his own strength. Paco is probably a Yorkshire terrier, and is so energetic that he gambols like a lamb. When he twitches his ears, he looks like a gremlin.

This is his exact facial expression.

When we bring food out, there is no peace. They have their eyes on the prize. Before you can sit down, Paco has jumped onto your chair. Just as you’ve shooed him off, there is a great heaving from below as Niko sidles up next to you and dumps his head on the table. He is so big that he doesn’t need to climb anything to get to the table, but his facial expression suggests that this won’t stop him from trying. Before long, he will be able to walk under the table, arch his back, and walk off wearing it like a tortoise.

The only thing that will reliably remove both of them is the meowing of a cat. Fortunately, a cat has adopted our family. At the first glimpse of a whisker-tip, the slightest slink of a shadow, the dogs dash off to harass it, leaving us to a couple of unperturbed bites of avocado sandwich.

The remote-controlled auto-meow machine is a work in progress.