Knight International Health and Development Fellows gather for first time in Uganda

Jul 222010

Kampala, Uganda: Gathering our Knight Fellows working in Africa to share successes and frustrations has been inspiring.They have started (or are on a path to start) health journalists’ associations. They have launched new newspaper sections on agriculture and new radio shows on poverty-related issues. They have guided journalists in producing reports that averted polio and measles epidemics and brought desperately needed funding for hospitals and irrigation systems. They have helped change the way news organizations work, from holding their first regular story meetings to doing multimedia projects with audience engagement on their Web sites.

Knight Fellows gather in Kampala, Uganda, for a first-ever meeting of fellows working in Africa

And yet, to hear the fellows tell it, the frustrations can sometimes outweigh the triumphs. The nine Knight Fellows gathered here are working in nine very different countries, from Senegal to Kenya to Mozambique. All have been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help African journalists improve the way they cover health and poverty-related issues. The goal is to spur better public policies on these issues.

Each works alone in his or her country, and they are overcoming obstacles that are sometimes unique to the specific country and sometimes common to all of them across the continent. Bringing them together for the first time has given them a chance to share ideas, offer each other advice and forge ties that will continue to help them as they return to their work. For the newer fellows, it has been great to hear from those who have been in the field longer – for almost all of them, the first four to six months have left them wondering if they were really doing any good. But at about that stage in their fellowships, all of them hit a turning point where they managed to find ways around the obstacles, really connect with journalists and begin showing truly outstanding results. For a fellow still in that frustrating early period, it can be a relief to hear assurances that it will get better.

They are not a group inclined to “toot their own vuvuzelas,” one might say. As amazing as their accomplishments have been, they always want more of themselves. And their frustrations have been mostly out of their hands. The media organizations they are trying to help are understaffed and sorely lacking in resources. Power outages and molasses-slow computer lines make simple tasks we take for granted almost impossible. Turnover on the news staffs is huge – anyone who shows talent is snatched up by higher paying NGO or government jobs. (And sadly for fellows working to improve health coverage, the turnover in a few cases has come because HIV-positive staffers have grown too sick to continue working or have died.)

Those are only a few of the things the fellows have had to overcome to bring about substantial changes in the countries where they are working. The obstacles only make their achievements more impressive. We’re incredibly proud of all that they are doing!