Tue 19 Apr 2011
One thing I enjoyed about being in Burundi is listening to French news sources such as RFI, which clearly have a different set of concerns than English-language news. US news has more coverage of Latin America, for example, while French-language sources have a lot more about places you don't hear about much in our news, such as Madagascar, or Guinea-Conakry.
Insofar as we talk about what is interesting and important to us, the coverage received is an interesting indicator. Considering books rather than news media, using Google's Ngram Viewer, you can see how often a term or phrase has appeared in the millions of books they have scanned, including in different languages.
So, for example, consider first the relative number of references for Burundi (blue), Sierra Leone (green), and Kenya (red) in English-language books, from 1800-2010:
Note that Burundi and Sierra Leone have roughly the same population, estimated at ~6 million. Next, the same chart but for French-language books:
Although Kenya was referenced more frequently than Burundi at first, this changed rapidly as Burundi came within a few years of independence (1961). Then with the Crisis that began in 1993, there was more written (in French) on Burundi than Kenya.
Finally, to put things in perspective, the last chart compares Burundi (blue) to references to Denver (red) or to the complete phrase "University of Notre Dame" (green):
So in English, the city of Denver (pop ~2million) is referenced roughly six times more than Burundi. Perhaps more alarming, even with the considerable violence that took place in Burundi in the 1990s, there were more references to the University of Notre Dame, (population: 11,700 students, surface area: 5.1 km2)!!
To those who have looked into the literature about Burundi and seen how few books are available, this won't come as much of a surprise. Similarly for other similar conflicts in Africa, even though they are quite complicated, interesting, and important to millions of people. No wonder we have a tendency to think of these conflicts as senseless and impossible to understand – we haven't even really tried yet!
(Note: the decline from 2000-2010 is, I would guess, a result of few books scanned or available. It's possible that this selection bias affects the rest of the analysis, for example if books on Burundi are less likely to be available than books on Notre Dame because of copyright issues, etc.)