The mainstream media response to the disappearance of a group of teenagers from Burundi, who were in Washington, D.C., for a robotics competition, has once again revealed why covering the stories of missing Black people remains so complex.
The team was in Washington for the FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition. The students went missing in July.
The Washington Post reported that, “two of the teens (Don Charu Ingabire, 16, and Audrey Mwamikazi, 17) crossed into Canada and were with friends or relatives,” and that police confirmed that, “the other four (Richard Irakoze, 18, Kevin Sabumukiza, 17, Nice Munezero, 17 and Aristide Irambona, 18) were not yet with relatives, but were still safe.”
Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officials said that they didn’t have any more information about the whereabouts of Irakoze, Sabumukiza, Munezero, and Irambona. The case was still under investigation, according to a story published at NPR.org on July 20.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Burundi, the East African home country of the missing teenagers, descended into lawlessness in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a disputed third term, despite protocols mandating a two-term limit.
HRW found that, over the past two years, government repression has continued and peace talks between the political factions have stalled.
“Hundreds of people have been killed, and many others tortured or forcibly disappeared,” HRW reported. “The country’s once vibrant independent media and nongovernmental organizations have been decimated, and more than 400,000 people have fled the country.”
Although, the robotics team’s coach suggested that family members of the teenagers may have been complicit in their disappearance, the lack of sustained media coverage about the missing African teenagers mirrors mainstream media’s apathetic approach to stories about Black women and children who never make it home.
“A 2016 analysis of online coverage of missing persons published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found some evidence that cases involving White women not only draw more attention, but more intense coverage,” according to a TIME.com article.
Although government officials have ruled out human and trafficking, other issues affecting the Black community could help to explain the epidemic.
Fatmata Fadika Zulu, who has been teaching in Baltimore, Md. and Washington for 17 years, said that she witnesses the fallout from homes destroyed by poverty, drug abuse, mental illness and neglect in the classroom every day.
“I asked my students if they knew where the children were going and they said, ‘they’re just running away,’” said Zulu, who has taught 4th and 5th graders, as well as 7th and 8th graders. “The kids came across as unsympathetic and un-empathetic, which I found quite strange. Many of them come from backgrounds with a lack of parenting, drug issues and other problems and they can see why some children are running away.”
Zulu said in the Ward 8 community in which she teaches, not all parents abuse drugs, but some young people aren’t held to any standards of accountability and they have a great deal of free time without adult supervision. More than a few children live nomadic lives, couch-surfing or splitting time between family and friends that take them in.
“I have parents who are active with their children, but unfortunately, this is an extremely small percentage,” said Zulu. “Parental responsibility is just not happening.”
The mission is to keep talking about this issue in therapeutic ways to deal with the problem, said Zulu.
“We need to build self-love, self-worth, so that as [the children] are being lured into danger, they have the tools to resist,” said Zulu. “We need discussions, panels and teen summits. Policies can lead to true change. We also need sit-downs with teachers and others who work in the trenches.”