October 12, 2007

Leg Two: Kwacha Kum'mawa

When the sun rose over Chipata, it revealed an eloquence I hadn’t expected for a trans-shipment border town on the very edge of Zambia’s eastern frontier.

Hulking trucks from Malawi ploughed their way through the river of cyclists navigating the bustling downtown strip, pleasantly lined with purple-flowered jacaranda trees and ringed by brownish tree-topped mountains.
According to Binion, the Ngoni people – fleeing the genocidal Zulus in South Africa – settled here in the late 19th century in the protection of the surrounding hills.

Cool winds swept down into the valley from over the mountains, giving the air a refreshing, if dusty, quality. At least it wasn’t Lusaka’s alveoli-destroying combination of diesel exhaust and burning garbage.

That’s what I thought, anyway, until we left the confines of the guesthouse and fumbled our way to Kwacha Kum’mawa, the magazine whose staff we would be training over the next three days. The only regional print media in all of Eastern Province, their office is located behind Kapata Market’s smoldering garbage dump. A dubious locale for a workshop to be sure – their production room/internet café had been converted into a ‘conference centre’ fully equipped with a small blackboard and no chalk.

Computers were piled everywhere because the room they were supposed to move them into was also being converted – into a hair salon for re-trained commercial sex workers. Obviously, Kwacha Kum’mawa interprets its role as a community stakeholder differently than most publications. The magazine is on the frontlines of a program that physically goes around to bars at nighttime distributing condoms and leaflets to help curb Chipata’s appalling 26 percent HIV prevalence rate. As I wrote about for JHR, they also offer skills training programs for sex workers who want to be journalists.

In speaking to some of them who had come for the training, I was surprised that they considered commercial sex work a natural segue into community journalism. I’ve heard those ‘I became a journalist by accident…’ stories before, but this? They need basic literacy and reporting skills, but who else gossiped more, had as many contacts and was used to getting information out of people?

And they were just part of the motley (see photo) crew – poets, plumbers and homemakers all turned up, basically anyone who was loosely connected to the magazine and wanted some free training and lunch. It made the workshop frustratingly hard to design – how do you teach layout to someone who’s never used a computer before? – but there was something exciting about the difference-making potential of working with such raw reporters. For once the experience differential was enough on my side for some knowledge osmosis to take place.

1 comment:

Scott said...

It sounds like the social status ladder is a bit more fluid in Chipata than Canada. I can't imagine many sexworkers-cum-journalists in Ottawa.