Kenya Journalists Gather for Launch of New Health Reporting Association

Nov 302010

If you had told me six months ago that trying to start a new journalism organization in Kenya would consume my every waking moment—and half my sleeping ones—I’d have chortled. I’d have accused you of excessive melodrama. I’d have told you to “talk to the hand.”

After all, I'd helped set up a radio training workshop in Gulu, Uganda, a scant year after peace had been declared. I had stood toe-to-toe with abusive contractors and sexist station owners who’d refused to even acknowledge my existence. I’d bounced across some of the worst roads in East Africa for hours on end, traveling to radio stations no bigger than a medium-sized closet—and with just about as much appropriate equipment. I’d planned, organized and led five, week-long workshops in seven months, under conditions I still can’t fathom how I endured without going complete loopy.

So what is it about organizing formal trainings in Nairobi that’s keeping me up at night? After all, Nairobi is a literal Nirvana compared to Gulu. So why, all of a sudden, do the stakes feel so dizzyingly high?

I got the answer during the official launch of the Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters on Nov. 9th. Weeks of meticulous planning came down to the wire as speakers dropped on and off of the schedule, and carefully visualized logistics began to unravel. But I took comfort in the fact that the main theme for the launch, a critical analysis of Kenya’s “Vision 2030” development policy, was something I had envisioned for many months. During my one-to-one mentoring with reporters, I try to stimulate that kind of thinking about health related topics. I encourage them to look beyond the press releases and the official government pronouncements, and to really think hard about what policies and responses mean.

The chance to instill that mindset in a broader range of journalists was a heady proposition. But I learned two very important things during the KAHSR launch. First: NEVER plan your event in the same hotel where the First Lady of whatever nation you may find yourself in is hosting a Photo Op. The food will be better, and half the staff journalists at any media house will either be assigned to cover it, or will fight for the chance. Sure enough, most of the reporters I’d enlisted on my 3rd briefing panel were MIA.

Second Lesson: Out of the respectable crowd of 45 people attending the launch, there were more communications/PR people than journalists. Throw a press briefing or journalism training in Northern Uganda, and it’s a cinch that unless there’s breaking news, lots of reporters will show up. Organize a reporters’ briefing or workshop in a city like Nairobi, and there’s bound to be more NGO or Advocacy Types interested in learning how to attract reporters to their events.

The launch helped me realize that providing value to journalists means different things in different settings on the African continent. Not a day goes by when I’m NOT reminded how much American journalists take for granted when it comes to practicing their craft. Access to computers, telephones on their desk, a librarian who’ll do half your research. Reliable, affordable public transportation… even most Nairobi reporters can’t count on those things. Trust me, after you’ve seen a journalist walk through the newsroom with a sign-up sheet pleading for help to pay rent before he and his family are evicted, you realize that persuading him to improve his writing skill might be a hard sell.

I guess that’s what’s making me a bit more neurotic than usual about this extraordinary opportunity I’ve been given, to help Kenyan journalists improve their ability to report on health and science. Ultimately, it’s forcing ME to be more creative and analytical than the reporters themselves will ever have to be! It’s forcing me out of my comfort zone, and requiring me to think both locally and nationally.

Not only will I be planning weeklong workshops at KEMRI Wellcome Trust facilities in Nairobi and Kilifi—like the one scheduled for next week—but I’ll be taking the show on the road to various cities around Kenya. I’ll be assessing the major issues and developing strategies for fine-tuning briefings and trainings for different regions. I’ll be trying to set up a specialized website, offering online training and “Rapid Response” email alerts that will nurture creative, authoritative reporting.

By this point, you may be wondering just when and where I had a big red “S” tattooed on my chest, or how much I’d had to drink when I decided I could accomplish all of these goals! Only time and truth will tell if I can pull half of them off. But when I think of the main reason it’s worth all the new gray hairs and acid reflux, I think of Judy Nankuni and her one-and-a-half year old daughter, Naomi Mbuchi. They were featured in a Daily Nation article that ran on November 12th, which was World Pneumonia Day. It’s only the second event of its kind, highlighting one of the major, ongoing challenges in the developing world: the staggering death tolls related to preventable illnesses like pneumococcal disease, HIV, malaria, etc.

The link between research and prevention is irrefutable. For example, science has proven that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and vaccination, can lower a baby’s risk of developing pneumococcal disease. Yet lots of barriers to breastfeeding remain in Kenya—cultural, educational, and religious, to name a few. And while officials insist 80 percent of Kenyan children receive the first of three required infant vaccine doses, that percentage drops significantly by the time the baby needs that third shot. Again, lack of education, poverty, and fear play big roles in preventing access to better health care.

Shortly after I was awarded the Wellcome Trust grant, I learned that the KWT Kilifi program was involved in research that fueled the Kenyan government’s decision to launch a new vaccine programme next January. Instantly, I knew I had the theme for a workshop linking research to positive policy development. During a recent planning trip, I met a woman named Tabitha Mwangi, a former malaria researcher who’d stepped off the career track to raise her three children. But Tabitha had done some freelance writing, mostly columns, and needed guidance in developing newspaper features related to research.

Long story short, Tabitha met Judy and Naomi at Kilifi District Hospital and knew immediately she'd found the perfect “angle” for her story. Judy is a 26-year-old coastal resident eking out a living by growing and selling vegetables. Her frail only child suffered fever and lethargy for weeks, and nearly died before a pharmacist “diagnosed” her labored breathing as pneumonia. Judy bundled Naomi onto the back of a motorcycle taxi and headed to the hospital, for what could have been Naomi’s first—and last—hospital stay.

Fortunately, Naomi did NOT become one of the 5,000 children who die of pneumonia each day in developing countries. And I helped Tabitha produce a story that not only marked World Pneumonia Day, but also alerted readers to the larger story that will unfold in Kenya next January, thanks to a positive collaboration between public officials and researchers. People like Judy and Naomi are most of the reason I stay on the African continent, turning down dozens of invitations to sit at American tables groaning with holiday goodies over the past few years. And next week, seven Kenyan journalists will spend five days learning about that process, thanks to the Wellcome Trust Grant. I’ll also use the lessons learned and information gathered at the launch to fuel everybody on the KAHSR mailing list, hoping to stimulate a really impressive body of journalism when the new policy launches in two months time. It will be an internationally recognized event, and for once, I’m hoping African media will be able to say that we covered “our own” accomplishments as well, or even better, than Western Media did.

In a way, next week’s KAHSR Workshop will feel like I’m celebrating Thanksgiving a week late, and Christmas a few weeks early. The possibilities really can feel endless, when you don’t sweat the small stuff!