Citizen Journalism in Uganda

Oct 82010

Cradling a dead baby in her arms, a girl weeps as she walks alone down a dirt road in eastern Uganda.

About a year earlier, she learned she was pregnant. She turned to the baby’s father and his family for help and support, but they denied responsibility. Then, her own family spurned her. Though still a child herself, she had no choice but to leave her village and fend for herself. Six months later, she returned with the child, who had been born but subsequently died. She needed to find a place to bury him. But again the father, his family and her own family rejected her. Eventually a grandmother allowed her to put the baby to rest on her land.

The image of the girl’s desolate walk through a town that rejected her will be seared in my mind forever. It was recounted by a natural story-teller, a woman who lives on the slopes of Mt. Elgon near the village town of Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda. My sadness was eased only by the realization that soon this woman, and many like her, will have an opportunity to tell such stories to their neighbors and possibly to the whole world.

The story-teller is a “Community Knowledge Worker,” one of a small but growing cadre of grassroots Ugandans equipped by the Grameen Foundation with mobile phones that enable them to carry a wealth of farming-related information to – and from –the far corners of Uganda. I heard the story during a training session organized by Lydia Namubiru, who is showing the “CKWs” how to use their phones to become citizen journalists.

Over two days, Namubiru, a former writer for Uganda’s New Vision newspaper, introduced a dozen CKWs to the fundamentals of journalism, talking about how to find and tell news stories with their mobile phones. Up to now, the CKWs had worked mainly as agriculture extension agents. Lydia and I wondered: Would they embrace the idea of becoming citizen journalists as well?

It didn’t take long to learn the answer. Eager students took Namubiru well beyond journalism basics like the “Five W’s.” They discussed tricky journalism topics like how to deal with anonymous sources and how to tell stories when basic facts are in doubt. And given an evening to put their lessons into practice, they came back the next morning with an amazing set of stories:

  • A government agriculture program overcharges farmers for cattle and chickens (Namubiru cautioned the reporter to verify his assertion that market prices for cows really are one-quarter of the agency’s price).

  • A witchdoctor treats a woman with a sore back by allegedly removing cassava stems from her body. (Many rural Ugandans believe in traditional medicine and witchcraft. It is a tricky issue for journalists. But Namubiru had a simple suggestion: Noting that a reporter’s first obligation is to determine facts, she said she would not report the claim unless she actually saw the cassava come out of the woman’s body. George Matovu, a Uganda Radio Network journalist who is there as an observer and journalism expert, added that the journalist can and should report that a lot of people are sick and see traditional healers, without passing judgment on the veracity of the “doctor’s” claim.)

  • Thieves steal coffee from an organic coffee plantation. (The story draws gasps when, in response to a question from Namubiru, the author says the culprits, two of whom are still at large, got away with more than 4,000 pounds of the valuable commodity).

  • Local officials convene a meeting to discuss how to reopen a road to two three villages that are cut off from the outside world.

  • An 18-year old boy marries an older woman who is the mother of four (the community’s reaction, according to the reporter: “confused.”).

  • Three people lie on death’s door from excessive drinking (the community’s reaction: “sad and angry”).
  • A group of farmers must sleep in their fields to protect their crops from marauding wild pigs from nearby Mt. Elgon National Park – a process made especially unpleasant by the fact that the pigs have attracted leopards and other predators to the farmers’ fields.
  • Local officials fear a potential “killer pothole,” which already has caused a truck laden with potatoes to tip over, and could lead to a traffic death because vehicles swerve all over the road to avoid it.

Uganda Radio Network’s Matovu reacted enthusiastically to what he saw. When professional reporters cover the news, they are forced by deadline pressures and the difficulty of getting out into the hinterlands to rely mostly on information provided by officials like police and politicians, he noted. But CKW’s can talk directly to ordinary people and tell their stories.

Mike Ssegawa, an editor from the Daily Monitor based in Kampala, Uganda’s only major city, agreed. Ssegawa, who is in charge of a weekly agriculture section, has long wanted to find a way to get the voice of people from the grassroots into the paper. CKW’s he said, may be the answer.

The two Kampala-based reporters both believe that established media houses – either local radio stations or even newspapers like the Monitor -- might carry CKW-generated stories (in fact, they skipped the second day of training to follow up the stories they heard on the first day). But details remain to be worked out. And other challenges loom.

For one thing, in poverty-stricken Uganda, can citizen journalism sustain itself? At the moment, Namubiru says, it’s strictly a volunteer activity, although Grameen Foundation agrees to pay CKW’s about $1 a month for airtime they use in transmitting stories via their phone, and offers a similar amount to the author of the best story each month.

Perhaps a bigger challenge may be how CKWs and their neighbors can see the results of their own work. Namubiru says Grameen’s Uganda branch, called Applab, plans to post their stories on its own website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. But while the CKWs could use their phones to go on the Internet to visit these sites, the cost would be prohibitive.

There’s no doubt that the CKWs want to see their stories broadcast. In fact, some ask a visiting journalist what can be done to help people in some valleys of their mountainous region who cannot receive radio signals. Another shows that he has started downloading news headlines provided by the a mobile phone company so that he can share them with people he visit in such areas. Namubiru pledges to work more to resolve the issue.

The best hope may be for local radio stations to pick up stories that are mostly of local interest, while major media houses like the Monitor and URN carry ones of national importance. Only time will tell if that happens. But the potential is there. Currently, Grameen’s network consists of only about 100 CKWs, all concentrated in this one part of eastern Uganda. But in a few years it will grow to about 1,400. As I watch the first light on this citizen journalism network begin to flicker to life in Kapchorwa, I find myself thinking that Uganda soon may light up like a Christmas tree with local people telling their own stories.

Editors Note: Knight Fellow Chris Conte reports on the beginning stages of a promising citizen journalism project in Uganda.