From Accra to Arusha: A journalist’s journey across Africa

Kofi Annan and IOkay, I know it’s cliche to travel to Africa and expect to launch my career as an international journalist. But, hey, if it worked out for so many others, why not give it a try?

Of course I spent six months backpacking and not a lot of time actually doing my journalism. Throughout my travels I had many story ideas etched into my mind and sketched into my notebook, but unfortunately no funds to pursue these ideas. On the bright side, I was able to mix my travel with media development work. However, the one thing I could do with a lack of money was reach out and connect with NGOs and media organizations doing the kind of journalism I admire.

While working in Ghana, teaching an Accra radio newsroom basic journalism skills and human rights coverage, I met and connected with Ghana’s Farm Radio International branch. FRI is a Canadian NGO working in Sub-Saharan Africa, empowering farmers and villagers through radio. In South Africa, I reached out to the Cape Town-based NGO Children’s Radio Foundation. CRF also works throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, teaching children how to make radio. This media education gives them the skills to potentially become journalists and effect real change in society. Pravda Radio news team on election night

I studied the media in every country I visited along my travels, by picking up newspapers to read on those enduring bus rides. Every once in awhile I’d hear a radio news broadcast while sitting in my bus or taxi seat. My ears would perk up and I’d try to tune into what was being reported, because most English speakers on the continent use it as a second language, so they’re always heavily accented or it’s even broadcast in a local dialect I don’t understand.

A few months back, I was on the bus in Malawi from Blantyre to Lilongwe and a girl sat next to me as I was reading the local newspaper. It was a story about the constitutional coup plotted against President Joyce Banda, who took power after the previous president Bingu wa Mutharika died in office last year. It outlined how the backers of wa Mutharika tried to keep Banda from taking office by using unconstitutional methods, which are now being investigated. Anyway, the girl seated next to me asked if she could borrow my newspaper once I finished. I agreed and handed it to her and she asked me what I was doing in Malawi. I explained to her that I’m a journalist traveling through Africa.

On the streets of AccraShe seemed genuinely interested in my story and kept asking me questions. It felt like the tables had turned on me and I was being interviewed. Is my story that interesting?

As we sat there on the bus, the driver turned up the volume on the radio once the news bulletin began. My ears perked up. It was the Zodiak Radio news. In the middle of the broadcast everybody on the bus erupted in laughter. I turned to the girl next to me and asked what was so funny. She explained to me that the radio presenter was interviewing the former president’s brother on the phone, and he asked him what he makes of the charges against him put forth by police. Well, the president’s brother responds; “I’m at the police station now taking care of these charges.” Or something to that effect. She then says everybody on the bus laughed because it was easy to tell he was in jail doing the interview and tried to play it off like it was of no concern to him.

I smiled and laughed a bit myself. Only in Africa!

Throughout my travels, I met and interviewed journalists. Whether it was sitting down for a coffee or beer with them, or even going into their media houses and introducing myself as a Canadian journalist. Most were usually fascinated that a young, white journalist would be interested in their plight and want to work with them at improving the situation for journalists across the continent. I have to admit I haven’t accomplished much, so far, in my career, but I’ve dedicated myself now to the cause of press freedom.

I remember back in early 2012, before my trip through the Middle East, I began in Paris, France. I flew to Paris from Montreal to make a trek across Europe to Turkey, where I started my adventure that took me from Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt. Before I set off I wanted to touch base with the Paris-based media watchdog RSF- Reporters Without Borders. I used to host and produce a weekly human rights and press freedom radio program in Montreal, and I always cited many RSF reports on the show. This was to highlight the plight of journalists around the world fighting for press freedom. So, I visited RSF’s offices and Benoit, the Americas desk correspondent who I’d been in touch with before, introduced me to everyone. MJ FM interview

I left that meeting inspired. But I realized all of the true work in fighting for press freedom is being done on-the-ground in newsrooms around Africa, Latin America and Asia, not in Europe or Canada. Developing countries need a strong media sector and there’s not many NGOs out there working in media development. I have found one. It’s another Canadian NGO, one I’ve been doing campus and community volunteer media work with for the last few years in Montreal. It’s called JHR- Journalists for Human Rights. If you don’t know about them, well, you should.

JHR is a true media development organization. It has been working in West Africa for many years, sending Canadian journalists to work alongside their African counterparts to empower and educate on how to produce human rights media, or #RightsMedia in social media parlance. Of course, JHR does other great work around Sub-Saharan Africa, giving local journalists the tools and support they need to continue human rights reporting. A good example of this is their work in DR Congo.

When I was asked to take on a media trainer position with JHR I was excited. I flew to Toronto from Nairobi, where I ended the second leg of my journey, over a month-and-a-half ago. I was put through an intensive training program. One about intercultural learning, hosted by the Canadian government, and another by JHR itself, about how to teach human rights media. I only had a bit of background in teaching, since I worked with a few members of my campus JHR group informally teaching radio and television editing.

MJ FM #RightsMedia workshopI took this assignment with gratitude, knowing they placed a lot of confidence in me as I was sent to Arusha, Tanzania. This is the very first time JHR has operated in East Africa, and I would be the only one working in Arusha, while four colleagues of mine would be based in Dar es Salaam and have the support of each other. Me, I was left to my own devices, being the only media development trainer in Arusha, as I would soon find out. It’s a lonely task, but somebody has to do it and I’m glad it’s me.

Upon arrival in Arusha, I would try to make an impact at Mambo Jambo Radio. MJ FM, as it’s known colloquially, is a local music and entertainment station. I’m not being condescending, seriously! It’s extremely popular with Tanzanian youth, as I could tell by the amount of interns working there (about half the staff are students). I look at this situation as my chance to make real change. To try and engage the youth with human rights radio journalism. At first, they were all excited to have me join them and they kept asking how long I would stay (hoping forever as they did in Ghana). I kept saying I’d be here for awhile, being as vague as I could be, knowing that I’ll only be working with them for the next six months.

Immediately, I had a team of about 10 journalists who were interested in attending my workshops. I had to start off with basic reporting, or as I like to call it ‘Journalism 101’ as it became evident that nobody in the newsroom actually knew how to practice the craft despite calling themselves journalists. When I held my first news meeting to pitch story ideas – a first at MJ FM – I asked everybody what their name and role was at the station. As we went around the circle everybody responded in the exact same manner starting with their name, then their program, and finally; “Presenter, Journalist.”MJ FM at World Press Freedom Day Conference

I could tell many of them had no idea what being a journalist actually meant. But I appreciated their honesty. So, I had my work cut out for me. I started with basic reporting and storytelling methods,  then I moved on to multi-track editing, and right now I’m teaching them about the theory behind investigative reporting and documentary radio. I have expressed myself many times how human rights stories are all around us, and I’ve pointed out many local ideas that I hope have resonated with them

We are all learning from each other. I think of myself more as a facilitator than a trainer. I’ve still got a lot to learn myself. I’m glad that I have this opportunity to continue my media development work until October, then there’s no telling where my career will take me next. I’m all ears.

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About

Adam Bemma is a journalist and media development advisor working in East Africa and Southeast Asia.

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2 comments on “From Accra to Arusha: A journalist’s journey across Africa
  1. I know you will make a difference! You are the “Superman” of human rights! Action is rewarded!
    Betty – your Montreal Fan.

  2. salum says:

    good idea

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