December 5, 2007

Playing Guest Editor

Of all the PANOS projects I've been a part of so far, guest editing a special edition of Ground Up magazine has easily been the most rewarding. At least when people ask me what I did in Zambia, now I'll have a physical product to show them.

At an NGO where my impact can be difficult to measure at times, it was a privilege to design, implement and execute a project of my own. On a short-term internship (compare my seven months with the usual two years of UK and US volunteers), this was probably the only chance I had to start something from scratch and see it through.

With the generous support of the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation (it's been a crash course in donor politics, too), in late August I got my own budget to pay African journalists to write about how communities have adapted to climate change. Eventually, their work would be published in Ground Up - an international environmental magazine - and distributed at this week's climate change conference in Bali. So off I went.

With a $500 award for each feature, there was no shortage of applications coming in from all corners of the continent. We eventually agreed on writers from Namibia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Swaziland, and an award-winning photographer from Nairobi. My nagging demand was that they tell the stories of those most affected by climate change, usually small-scale farmers and their families in Africa's rural areas, and what they have done to respond or adapt.

That might sound simple enough, but it was a real struggle. The culture of journalism here in Zambia (and across the region as I'm learning) is to repackage official pronouncements, speeches and press releases as 'news'. Everyday people, unless they're rioting, lynching or dying, rarely matter. Last Saturday's lead story in the country's leading (only) independent newspaper was that the president has been feeling lonely lately.

It's not usually the reporters' fault as they lack the resources, time and editorial direction to write investigative, interview-based stories. Most of them are so poorly paid, pumping out one-interview stories with officials who pay for transport is the only way to put food on the table. So it felt good to give the Ground Up journalists the financial freedom to get out of their respective capital cities and talking to some real people. With their storytelling potential released on an unsuspecting African public, I thought I could just sit back and watch them to tear the lids off climate change stories across the continent. That was three months ago.

Old habits died hard for most. First drafts came back mostly with how NGOs, scientists and governments were trying to mitigate climate change for small farming communities. Line ministers were quoted at length. The main adaptation they 'discovered' were genetically-modified seed varieties, one of the most top-down, unsustainable and unrealistic responses to climate change. One story contained no interviews whatsoever. Another completely plagiarized an Associated Press story. "Yeesh!" as the say in Zambia.

While the narratives were mostly salvageable, almost all the reporters had to be sent back into the field - the real field this time - to capture the voices we were looking for. The storytelling potential was certainly there, but it was taking a lot more than money to realize.

Finally, through an elaborate system of editing, emails and phone calls, we managed to anchor each story in community-based oral testimony. People in Swaziland's low veld were cultivating drought-resistant crops in water-saving trench gardens, irrigated with recycled dishwater. Villages around Mount Kenya were reforesting the hillsides to earn carbon credits. Our man in Nairobi came through with a stunning photo essay on how climate change is driving Africa's rapid urbanization. It was all very exciting. And then came the production process.

Having spilled water on my Mac during the long writing process, using Adobe InDesign was out. That meant borrowing my co-worker's laptop in the evenings to use an eight-year-old version of CorelDraw was in. Let's just say I can see why that program is obsolete in most parts of the world.

After the magazine file went mysteriously corrupt, I misspelled 'community' on the cover and we acknowledged the wrong donor organizations in the credits (which led an actual "stop the press!" command), I don't know who learned more from the process - myself or the journalists. I think we're both proud of the end product, though, which was hot off the press hours before my colleague left for the climate change summit in Indonesia.


Scott said...

So you found the African equivalents of Brian Fantana, Champion Kind, and Brick Tamland to do the tearing of lids for you? Well, at the very least I am shocked that you weren't out there leading a tear the lid off parade through the continent.

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Kris said...

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