Doing journalism in Africa: What’s that like?

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[For a variety of other essays and collected writings and images of my work in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, visit this link.]

By Ron Reason 

[Lagos, Nigeria] I have worked on redesigns or conducted training programs in about 25 countries, but no destination has elicited the “wow” factor like Africa, among people who hear about my work.

I have worked with The Standard group in Nairobi, Kenya, for almost two years now, and return on Jan. 19, ’09 for two weeks of continued training, newsroom reorganization, design tweaking, and new product development. I have also visited Lagos, Nigeria three times in the last six months, working on the launch of a brand-new newspaper and website, and will hop back here soon after my Kenya visit next month. Here are some of the things people ask me about most:

Q: Africa! Are the papers in English?
A: Yes. The official language in each place is English. In Kenya, Swahili is commonly spoken (and mixed up with English in my midst – I call it Swahinglish.) In addition, most people speak a third language, depending on their tribal origins.

Q: How are things different from the States?
A: Technologically, neither country is advanced as the States when it comes to the web, so print readership is increasing or at least stable, and advertising doesn’t seem to be as threatened. But that’s coming, so in theory, companies have more of a “heads up” about the challenges on the way. In particular, they face a threat less from the free distribution of news on the web than they do from the rapid jump to cell phone use.

In addition, in Kenya in particular there is a hunger for print news that we don’t see as much in the States. Because it’s a developing, and challenged, nation, readers know that access to information is one key to getting ahead. There seems to be more respect for print journalism, at the moment. (The Standard was the target of a midnight attack on its newsroom and presses in 2006; they fought back, investigated who the masked culprits were – the government! – and now are seen by many in Kenya as the “people’s paper” for defending their right to print, and for their ongoing watchdog role. For more, see this Wikipedia entry.)

Q: What are some of the other challenges?
A: Internet connections, even at a publishing house, can be VERY slow. In Nigeria, the public infrastructure for power, water and roads is extremely challenged. Throughout the day the power goes off and generators kick on. It’s a real wonder that in Lagos, a city of 17-million, anyone would try to start up a publishing company. But it’s also extremely inspiring to hear dynamic project leader Dele Olojede describe his endeavor as “nation building” – if ever a society needed a free, inquiring press, this is it.

Q: Kenya – the Obama factor must be interesting!
A: Absolutely. (Obama’s father was Kenyan.) When the locals ask where I’m from and I say, Chicago, suddenly I’m their best friend. On my first visits, there was a cautious optimism: “Can Obama really do it? Does he really have a chance against that woman? (Hillary.) Will you be voting for him?”

In May 2008, I traveled with the Standard’s Weekend staff to an editors’ retreat near the equator, passing not too far from gramma Obama’s village. (You can read more about this crazy retreat, including an attack by rude monkeys, at my travel blog here.)

My January ’09 visit will be the first since the election and I expect interest in my hometown will be even more pronounced. I’m taking copies of the Chicago papers to share, hope to attend an inaugural bash in Nairobi on Jan. 20, and may even wear my “Obamapalooza” t-shirt from the Grant Park rally to the newsroom.

One fantastic bonus of my work in Africa is the chance to explore the culture outside the newsrooms. You can view my photos from inside Nairobi’s Kibera slum at my Flickr account: One set explores the kids of Kibera, the other, adults and environmental shots of this fascinating community of 1-million. I’ve also made some connections there that have led to the establishment of a church library, which you can read more about here. Less intense, but fun, side trips included a safari trek to Nairobi National Park, and a visit to a giraffe sanctuary.

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Of related interest: 

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