Hair fetishes, etc.

A quick update on the bizarre events that have been unfolding in Mbandaka. As you may recall, a group of rebels attacked the airport in the town, the capital of Equateur province, on Easter Sunday. The whole incident was an interesting exercise in how the media portrays the conflict.

According to the government, seven soldiers, three policemen, three UN workers, 21 rebels and two civilians were killed in the violence. Here are some of the titles of news stories:

  • Fighters kill UN peacekeeper in north Congo attack (Reuters)
  • DR Congo attack kills two UN workers (BBC)
  • Filipino doctor dies fleeing rebel attack in Congo (All Headline News)
  • South African bush pilot killed in DRC rebel attack (Sunday Times)

Ok, I understand that it’s more newsworthy when a foreigner dies in the Congo than when dozens of Congolese die. Plus, some of the stories coming out later by the same agencies did talk about the political significance of the attacks and the displacement of the Congolese.

But this was kicker:

  • Spaniard seized by Congo rebels seeking war fetishes

By the New York Times! (Well, Reuters, but picked up by the NYT.) Anyway, apparently a poor Spanish doctor was vacationing on the Congo river (as people often do) when we happened upon some rebels. What did they do? They kidnapped our man, who was subsequently “shaved completely by Ibrahim (a rebel leader) who believes in magical fetishes made with hair and body hair of whites.” Is this really newsworthy?

This story then dominated the news cycle for several days until today, the Congolese army announced that they had rescued the doctor in a “commando” operation. Again, the New York Times (via Reuters) picked up the story; here’s the first paragraph:

Congo’s army said on Tuesday it had rescued a Spanish doctor from rebels who had held him for nearly two weeks and reportedly shaved his hair for war fetishes.

Ahhh! What’s up with his hair!?! Really, in the first paragraph? I know that no news sells like hair fetish news, but really?