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I don’t know about journalism in Africa – but I know my journalism

In my apartment, I have pushed the bed so close to the window that I always notice the first rays of sunlight sneaking in through the blinds.

When the day breaks, I rise to take a lazy walk around downtown Oklahoma City and beyond. There is always a group of people running or jogging, delivery trucks driving into the city, and the smell of coffee lingering deliciously near.

During my walks, sometimes my eyes will meet someone’s and we will both smile. Or wave. Or nod. Anything to acknowledge each other.

Sometimes, like last Sunday, someone will walk to me and introduce themselves. Whenever I say I am a journalist from Africa, they beam in surprise and ask me what reporting in Africa feels like.

It is a question I have been asked too many times during my stay here. By Uber drivers, random people at the store, neighbors in my apartment – anyone who meets me for the first time.

“How different is journalism in your country?”  

Well, the truth is – there isn’t one definition of how reporting in Africa or Kenya is or feels like. People report on different beats. Some write about politicians and the interesting things they do. Others report on art, music, culture – struggling to paint a picture of what is going on in the world of artists who are battling with a new age that wants a particular kind of art that they see on TV.

For me, I mostly report on war, conflict, crime, death and all those sad things that happen in the world around me.

Ever since I was a freelance journalist, before I found my way into a national newsroom, I have covered difficult stories.

When terrorists attack a college in Northern Kenya and massacre more than 140 students in cold blood, I carry my notebook and pen, head to the buildings peppered with bullet holes and attempt to give life to the fallen students.

My role is to build a strong narrative that will give hope to the parents who are throwing themselves on the ground, wailing because their children have ceased being students and are being referred to as “bodies” because of a war they are not a part of.

That is my journalism.

When a young mother is attacked, raped, killed and dumped inside a forest, I always find myself among the group of journalists who head toward that direction.

I gather the language that will describe the brutalities. Every single detail. The way her hair remained neatly plaited. How if you looked carefully, you could see teardrops dried on her fragile eyelashes. Or how her palm remained slightly open, as if she was trying to have one final grasp at life.

But the deeper story remains embedded on what journalism ethics does not allow us to talk about. The bloody brutality, the things they did to her – terrible things that make you lose belief in humanity. We are supposed to protect the vulnerability of the audience.

Those things we do not write remain with us. We carry them.

My role is to sift through the devaluation of humanity and morality – find a story that is not so breaking, and report it. My role is to filter it so that it doesn’t break my readers. I am like a sieve; I retain the bad parts and give the rest.

A while back, I covered a murder/suicide in one of the sprawling slums in Nairobi. The man had killed his wife by stabbing her several times, then he killed himself.

The door was still locked when we got there. When the police broke it open, signs of struggle were all over the room – a broken plastic cup on the floor, a paraffin stove leaking on one of the chairs, the bodies sprawled on the potholed dirty floor and streaks of blood everywhere.

It was chilling.

Then something started moving from one of the many suitcases stacked in the corner of the room. A little boy, about 3 years old, was hiding in the heap. Their son had witnessed it all!

Police tried keeping the crowd milling around to stay behind the yellow tape securing the house. One of the policemen held the little boy’s hands and led him out. He walked so slowly. One painful step after another. He was visibly scared.

I could feel chills inside me.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t take photos. I stood still and watched, frozen with pen and notepad in hand.

People from the crowd kept mumbling “Ni pombe – it’s alcohol” to explain why the man could have killed his wife as his son watched.

As the little boy walked out, he started whispering “Ni pombe…,” trying to imitate the crowd.

Those words have never left me.

How do you tell the story of that little boy without losing a part of you?

But that is my journalism.

Those are the stories I do.

Every. Single. Time.

Reporting has led me to different places. It has broken me. Built me. Killed me and then cut me whole. Resurrected me.

A few months before I came to Oklahoma, I visited the hospice and palliation center in Nairobi.

I wanted to tell a story of hope and dispel the myth that hospices are a final place for the terminally ill to find death.

It is at one of the hospices where I encountered things that I cannot describe without losing the deepest, basest part of me.

There was an old woman who was in her last stages of breast cancer. Her hands were crossed delicately on her chest. She was breathing in and out in a slow pattern. Sometimes her eyes would flutter, then open and look around briefly before slipping into a light sleep.

When I stepped next to her, she stretched her hands weakly to greet me. I held her hand and what happened next has been immortalized in my entire being.

She clasped so tightly. Her hands were dry and cold. But she held onto my hand with so much strength, as if her whole life depended on it.

I tried to nudge her to let go, but she kept holding. She tried whispering something and the more I tried freeing my hands, the tighter she held.

“Shiro, Shiro!” she called out in an eerie whisper.

“No. I am not Shiro. I am Mercy. I am a journalist, not Shiro,” I said.

Slowly, so slowly, she let go. Opened her hands and released mine.

Her eyes were fixed on me. Then she sighed deeply, tried turning, and shouted: “Loooord!”

That shout became one of the most powerful prayers I have ever heard. I walked out without looking back. Several nights later, I could still see her bony frame in the darkness of my room.  

But our journalism doesn’t allow us to say such things. No. That is putting yourself too much in the story.

Our role is to stand aside, watch and report.

We have mastered the 5Ws and H: who, what, why, when, where and how.

But nobody prepares you for the L – the losses.

The losses you will experience when telling these tales. Loss of belief in humanity. Loss of something inside you. Loss of the feeling of security. Loss of emotions.

And the sneaking loss of self that you experience with each tale you craft.

I have known losses.

The greatest gain is when you shatter from these tales and you tell yourself that you will use your brokenness to tell the story that will shake everyone else.

So, you sit, gather all the adjectives, verbs, language, emotions and reality and write your piece with all you have.

You write it with your blood.

You close your eyes and inject voice to the voiceless, tell their stories with so much intensity that the following day heads of departments call you and say: “We read the story, something is being done.”

Or even that random call from an old grieving father who calls you months after his daughter was buried and says: “Thank you for telling her story.”

This is my journalism.

Mercy Adhiambo is a Kenyan journalist with the Standard Group, the oldest national newspaper in Kenya. She reports on human interest stories, with a focus on topics around the marginalized in the country, crime and religion. She will be working with The Oklahoman until September as part of the Alfred Friendly Press Partners Fellowship program, which brings journalists from developing countries to the U.S. to experience how newsrooms in America work. She has been a reporter for four years.

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Mercy Adhiambo

Mercy Adhiambo is a Kenyan journalist with the Standard Group, the oldest national newspaper in Kenya. She reports on human interest stories, with a focus on topics around the marginalized in the country, crime and religion. She will be working... Read more ›