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Channeling the good news about Africa

Sacramento Bee 4/12/07

From afar, the view of Africa would seem grim: a continent of perpetual war, disease and famine -- a place in constant upheaval, devastation and despair.

But there is another side rarely seen by Westerners, according to professor Boatamo Mosupyoe, director of the Pan African Studies program at California State University, Sacramento.

"What the world sees is all these sad stories. ... They should also see that there is hope coming out of Africa," she said.

"Africa is not only about conflict ... about hunger ... about AIDS. Africa is about development. It is about business. It is about progress and the 21st century," Mosupyoe said.

She and other community leaders seek to widen understanding of the continent. They hope to do so by bringing the fledgling Africa Channel -- billed as a cultural showcase for the continent -- to television sets across the region.

Two public meetings are being held today -- one at Sacramento City College, another at Sacramento State -- to rally support for the channel, which aims to introduce Africa's culture, people and scenic splendors through movies, news, leisure programs, soap operas and reality shows.

"It breaks down this Tarzan mentality," said Darrell Smith, vice president of community development and marketing for The Africa Channel.

"Our mission is to demystify Africa in the hearts and minds of Americans and people across the world."

Organizers say 600 people have pledged to attend today's events to hear presentations from the cable network's representatives.

The region's growing diversity and the popularity of other ethnic channels -- such as those targeting Latinos and Asian Americans -- motivate the push.

While such networks as BET -- Black Entertainment Television -- and other television offerings already target the African American market, the appeal of The Africa Channel is expected to be broader, said Kakwasi Somadhi, president of the Black United Fund of Sacramento Valley and an instructor at Sacramento City College.

"We all have a chance to view each others' cultures," she said.

The Africa Channel isn't just for a black audience. "Africa is a big continent, so I expect a bit of diversity" on the channel, Somadhi said.

The channel had a tumultuous launch in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005 -- days after Hurricane Katrina battered the gulf.

Since then, a handful of other cable markets have signed on, including two more in Louisiana. Cable subscribers in Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and some parts of Texas now can view the network's programming. Three more markets are expected to join the list within a month, Smith said.

Change in the cable industry, particularly on the West Coast, has slowed the channel's growth.

"Our goal is to be in over 80 million homes over the next three years, on par with National Geographic," Smith said.

There are no immediate plans to include The Africa Channel on the roster in Northern California, said Andrew Johnson, a spokesman for Comcast cable.

"At the moment, we have no plans to carry the channel, but that doesn't mean that can't change over time," Johnson said.

Like a supermarket, he said, "there is only so much shelf space, while there are lots of products competing for room on that shelf."

The Africa Channel would bring "fresh programming that is long overdue," said Smith, the channel's spokesman. He credits Mosupyoe with leading the charge.

"She knows there is so much to overcome in the classroom about Africa. It seems you almost start at a deficit. I'm sure it would make her job easier," Smith said.

"What we have now is a full diet of disease, war and famine." What's missing, he said, is "the true beauty of the continent."

Western audiences are in desperate need for a new perspective on Africa, said Jeanette Ndhlovu, the consul general in Los Angeles for South Africa.

"African people need to be shown in their totality. The mainstream Western media portray Africa as a basket case," she said.

The image makeover is just as important for South Africa and other countries that are trying to market themselves to the rest of the world, particularly among potential investors wary of the continent's presumed instability.

"Right now, everything is skewed to the tragedies of the continent," Ndhlovu said, "We need to begin having African voices speaking for themselves, and defining for themselves who they are."