Changing the World One Story at a Time

Aug 202014

In my two and half years as a program officer at the International Center for Journalists, I have met many incredible people who are changing the world one story at a time. Recently, I had the chance to observe this process firsthand when I traveled to Southern Africa with nine journalists from six countries.

I helped administer the Maternal and Child Health Reporting Fellowship Program in South Africa and Mozambique. Out of 450 applications we selected nine United Nations Foundation Press Fellows. During the program, we were joined by Chelsea Hedquist and Eric Porterfield from the United Nations Foundation as well as previous ICFJ Knight Fellows Zarina Geloo and Mercedes Sayagues.

The program began in Johannesburg during the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Partners’ Forum. Our group met with experts on child and maternal health, who gave us a primer on the issues before the fellows began their fieldwork. The journalists spoke with representatives from UNICEF, UNF, the Gates Foundation, USAID and many others. Graça Machel, who made her first public appearance after the death of her husband, Nelson Mandela, opened the international conference. Although our stay in South Africa was brief, it helped us all gain a better understanding of the situation in Africa and helped prepare us for some of the things we would see in Mozambique.

Mercedes and Zarina, both prominent health journalists, proved to be tremendous guides from the second we landed. Our experience in South Africa and Mozambique would not have been the same without them. In addition to their help, representatives from the UN Foundation and UNICEF helped us set up visits to multiple hospitals and clinics that work with the local communities.

The part of the fellowship that I found to be most rewarding was the site visits in Chokwe and Xai-Xai. We went on a four-hour bumpy ride outside of Maputo to meet with “real people” who are outside of the capital and are dealing with harsher conditions. Meeting with the experts in Johannesburg was a great experience, but meeting with the locals in Chokwe gave the journalists an opportunity to speak with patients firsthand. This was not my first time in Africa (I had studied in Burkina Faso while in college) but I still went through a major culture shock. I had no idea how many things I take for granted.

The first being education. I spoke with a woman who was living with HIV and TB. We asked her how she thinks she got sick, and she said it was because she did not perform her husband's mourning ceremonies correctly after he died. The tradition there is that when a man dies, his family must go into mourning for one year. They believe that if the traditions are not fully met, bad things will happen to them. This woman genuinely believed that is the reason she got sick.

While that example shows how superstitions often overshadow medical science, some women simply don’t know where to go to deal with their health problems. There are organizations that work with women who practice unsafe abortions because they don’t know what else to do. These often lead to death by hemorrhaging. Sometimes the local medicine men give them “potions” to take which are basically poison.

Quality health care is also something people usually take for granted. An incredible moment of the program was when some of our fellows witnessed an HIV-positive woman give birth to a baby in Chokwe. The baby stopped breathing and a nurse from Pathfinder, an organization that helps give women access to quality sexual and reproductive health care, stepped in and resuscitated the baby. Luckily, the baby lived, but it was definitely a scary situation. In the same clinic, a woman who just lost her baby was placed across from a woman who just had one on the same day. I will never forget the look on that woman's face. It was such a deep pain that I’m not even sure how to describe it.

Lastly, I am so fortunate to have had a carefree childhood. Most children in the areas we visited never make it to school. Some are even forced into arranged marriages before they become teenagers. I had brought some stickers with me to hand out to some of the children we met and it made them so happy.

Although our group of journalists had a wide range of ages and experience, we all left a little humbled with dozens of stories to tell.

I am not a journalist myself, but I’ve been working with journalists for two and a half years. Now more than ever, I realize how vital their role is. I was surrounded by such talented people who knew the questions to ask. One group decided to interview a husband and wife separately (both HIV positive). The husband said that he had no relations with anyone else while he worked in South African mines and did not know how he contracted HIV. When we interviewed the wife, she said that his friends had called to let him know that his mistress had died from AIDS. She knew but didn't say anything in front of him-- only to the journalists. The first step in helping to solve these problems is to tell the stories of those who can’t speak for themselves. We only picked nine amazing fellows, but I love to think that there are at least 450 more that cover these important issues and recognize how important they are.

This was an amazing and unforgettable experience for me. It was challenging both personally and professionally but I am so happy that I got this opportunity. It made me realize not only how lucky I am but also how important our work at ICFJ is. I feel so proud to work for an organization that gives these opportunities to journalists all around the world. I might not be a journalist, but traveling with them taught me a whole new way to look at the world.

For more information on the press fellowship, contact Jerri Eddings, ICFJ senior program director, at jeddings@icfj.org, or Sameen Dadfar, ICFJ program officer, at sdadfar@icfj.org