Q&A with Kelvin Lewis, editor of Awoko

For a larger story I’m working on about journalism in Sierra Leone, I interviewed my former editor Kelvin Lewis, who is the editor-in-chief of Awoko Newspaper and president

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Kelvin Lewis. Credit: Awoko

of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). This is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What’s the story behind how you helped found Awoko as an independent newspaper?

I was reporting for international radio – Voice of America, Radio France International, Radio Deutsche Welle. We were going to the source to get the stories. Like for example, during the war we were going to the war front to interview people there to get the news firsthand. And we found out that we were the only ones who out there getting the story firsthand. Most of the journalists here, after we had gone over the radio and had broadcast our stories, that is when they would take those stories and publish in the newspapers. So I said to myself, why don’t I start a newspaper — because I always get the big stories, I get them first before most of the journalists here. The journalists here are very lazy, they always wait and copy from what you have done. So that was what motivated us. But I didn’t have enough money, so I brought together two other friends and we then came up with money to start.

But this was not my first attempt. I started journalism working for a newspaper. Even after college I tried to work with some other people to set up other newspapers and to run them. So then after the war and all these things were happening, I had the opportunity to do it. And that was how Awoko started.

Who were the friends who helped you start Awoko?

One of them owns the Citizen Radio now, he’s called David Tam Baryo and the other is called Joseph Rahall – he’s also a journalist, but now he’s moved into the NGO world, he now runs Green Scenery and he is one of those advocating for land rights.

Was Awoko an independent newspaper right from the beginning?

Yes, right from the beginning. The background I came from is, if you’re reporting for an international news agency, you have to be very objective, nonpartisan.

You have fewer newspapers now who are independent. But this was not what it was like in those days. In those days you had independent newspapers. You had Party papers, which were obviously run along Party lines, ideology. You also had the government newspaper. And so you had to find a niche in between.

Why are there fewer independent newspapers today?

Well the reason is that the brand of politics that came in in 2007, the ruling party wants to control everything. It wants everything under its control, and so you have a lot more politics involved in all areas. And as a result of that you find out that the newspapers all became skewed towards politics. In fact it became either or. Either you are for this party, or you are for the other political party.

In 2007 the government came in with, I would say, a lot of handouts for journalists. A lot of the journalists who were supporting the party got rewarded by being given diplomatic press attache positions. And so it became lucrative to support and publish along lines supporting the ruling political party, in the hope that you too would be rewarded with the high-paying diplomatic press attache job. And obviously those who were left out, who were considered to have been working with the opposition political party, those ones became real opposition mouthpieces, they too are hoping that if the party they are supporting comes into power, they will be rewarded with diplomatic positions and get high pay.

So because of the love of money, it was left with only a few of us who decided to play the middle of the road, and so being perceived as impartial, nonpartisan.

If it became easier for those who supported the ruling party, did it become harder to run an independent newspaper after 2007?

Considering the trappings of money and influence, it certainly became a challenge to stay as an independent publisher.

What are the biggest challenges for journalists and editors in Sierra Leone today, as you see it?

Well, we are practicing under a cloud of repression. The spirit of the law says you can publish, but the spirit of the law also says if you cross the line, you will be punished.

There is the criminal libel law, and the criminal libel law criminalizes free speech. So continuing to practice under that law means you are ready to face the threat of the consequences.

How does that law affect the way journalists and editors do their work?

It has cowered journalists into submission. Journalists can go just that far, and they can talk just that far.

This law applies to criticizing government officials, right?

Yes. If you do that you’re going to held, you’re going to be locked up, spend some days in jail.

As the editor of Awoko, has this been an issue, where you’d want to pursue some story, but it’s just not worth the risk?

The thing is, this law hangs like a sword of Damocles over your head. There is always the threat over your head. And a lot of people cannot bear that threat, so they step out of journalism. We are ready to risk it, as we can continue to publish even when that law is there.

When you say risk, does that mean it’s not always clear when a story is potentially libelous? How sure can journalists be whether something they’re writing is risky?

This law is unique. All other laws say you are not guilty until you are proven to have committed the act, and then they say you’re guilty. This law, the criminal libel law, says you’re guilty. And the worst part of it is truth may be inquired into, but it is not a defense. And the bedrock of journalism is publishing truth, unveiling the truth. If the truth is not a defense, then anything you do has the risk of you being jailed. Because it is not whether you publish the truth or not, it is just whether you publish.

As long as the government official doesn’t like it, you are in jail. And that’s the cloud underneath which we are practicing, which makes it repressive and inhibits the best coming out of us.

I don’t think any journalist publishes something knowing fully well that if I publish this, I would go to jail. If he knows that, he would not publish it. But then, the burning spirit in us is to reveal the dark truths and we sometimes are not mindful what are the consequences. The fact is, we have to come out with those dark truths for us to force change in our society. And if in the process you are arrested, then you go and suffer the consequences and come out again.

How does the Independent Media Commission (IMC) detract or contribute to journalism in SL. Is it a positive or negative addition?

The background for the IMC is that there had been too many cases in which journalists were taken to court. So we wanted to find a way of stemming that. And so we proposed a system of gradual self-rule. It was thought that when the IMC came in it would start regulating, and sometime in its lifetime, the rule and regulations would have stuck in and nobody would be violating them. And so with that self-censorship, that self-regulation, we would then disband, dismantle the IMC.

So the idea was that journalists and editors would learn and internalize the regulations?

Yes, having your own internal regulatory unit.

We wanted people to come complain to the IMC where the issues are resolved quickly before taking them to court. After the IMC it’s not the end of the road. If you still feel aggrieved you can then go to court.

I went to a press conference where representatives of Parliament were responding to rumors that Parliament had embezzled money. A member of the IMC who was att he conference said there are a lot of false and damaging rumors spread in the media. He seemed to be saying that because this was a major problem in Sierra Leone, it justified these legal restrictions.

Well from that angle, that is his feeling, and I cannot defend him. But from my own angle I would admit that yes, a few of the guys step over the line. But generally speaking the media performs very well, both radio and print. But in any situation you have some bad eggs and some bad apples. And definitely we have some really bad apples.

And how does that affect the journalists who are doing good work here?

It affects them because when one journalist does something that is bad, people tend to generalize and look at use that to classify all of the other journalists, and that is not a good thing for us.

Are there some issues that should get more coverage, but because of the legal situation of journalists, it’s too risky?

Well there are quite a few. Because of the presence of this law again, you cannot go overboard and talk a lot about government issues. But over and above that, people are not too open to talk and give interviews. Like the banking industry is very secretive, you can hardly get them to talk. The insurance industry too. And perhaps out of a fear of being misrepresented in the media, they are all media shy and refuse to talk extensively to the media. And because people don’t open up and talk to the media, journalists are usually frustrated in finding stories, and getting people to say things which they can quote to back up their stories.

In its report on journalism in Sierra Leone, Freedom House mentions the financial difficulties of practicing journalism here. Can you talk about this?

It is difficult. The pay is not too good, and because the pay is not too good, in a lot of media houses there is even no pay. And because there is no pay, journalists want to go to workshops and press conferences where they are given handouts as transports. So instead of going to look for the hard news you would always see them giving workshop story news and press conferences. But all that is because people who have money are prevented or are scared of investing in the press. Because the laws, especially the criminal libel law, is tailored in a way in which the proprietors are held responsible for what the journalists do. And because it is criminal, they are taken to jail. And so ordinary businessmen only want to do business. They cannot do that with the journalism industry because of the law.

So the owner of a newspaper could get in trouble for something a journalist does?

Yes, the owner is in trouble, the printer is in trouble, the vendor who sells the newspaper is in trouble. And we have seen examples of innocent people in those categories who have been taken to jail, who have suffered.

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A response to my China-skeptical column?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post here explaining my earlier column in Awoko that expressed skepticism about China and Sierra Leone’s relationship — mainly the idea that it should be thought of as a “friendship.” I’m sure there’s a lot going on with the business relationship between the two countries that would require many in-depth investigations to tease out. My column didn’t speculate on that, and mostly focused on reasons why China and Sierra Leone’s relationship has some problems (which I backed up with some limited research I found online). I also criticized the rhetoric of “friendship,” saying the relationship is more business than the enduring brotherhood the Freetown papers wax poetic about constantly.

A piece published in Awoko earlier this week (without a byline) seems to be a direct response to my column, and if so, declares me to be “ignorant and short-sighted.”

Here a some quotes from my column:

“…Friendship is not the right way to describe the relationships between nations, and certainly not that between China and Sierra Leone. China and Sierra Leone are more like business partners….The basic problem with China’s investments, unlike other aid, is that they are not intended to better the country as a whole as much as they are to make money. These two goals don’t always align.”

And here’s some of that piece:

“Chinese Ambassador Zhao Yanbo has debunked reports that the China-Sierra Leone relationship is more of business than friendship…[Chinese Ambassador Zhao Yanbo said] ‘When someone says that China is in Sierra Leone for business purposes, shows how ignorant and short-sighted he can be, because since 45 years ago when both countries signed the friendly relationship, we were not doing any business in Africa or Sierra Leone, we were in Sierra Leone to show our appreciation for what they did and to work as brothers….’

‘We have helped Sierra Leone with so many permanent structures from stadiums to hospital, from agriculture to education. Are all of these supports based on business transaction? What are we gaining from Sierra Leone that we should be spending millions?’

‘These projects have nothing to do with business, but clear friendship and respect between the two countries. Those that give conditions before they help us are the ones in Sierra Leone for business not China.’

The Minister admonished the Ambassador not to listen to detractors, but continue to work with the government as they believe in the friendship and trust because China understands what it means to be victimized and bullied, so helping Sierra Leone is very important to all.”

I don’t think it’s too narcissistic to think this was a response to my column in some way, especially since as far as I can tell my column was the only “report” arguing that the relationship between the two countries is more business than friendship. In fact I haven’t seen anything remotely critical of China’s intentions in Sierra Leone in any of the Freetown papers.

What indeed is China gaining from Sierra Leone from the millions it’s spent? I guess there’s no possibility it could be access to Sierra Leone’s vast mineral wealth. I’ll link again to this briefing from the South African Institute of International Affairs, which  gives a good overview of the relationship between the two countries and areas of concern.

Sure, I can’t deny that I’m “ignorant and short-sighted,” when it comes to most things, but the amount of spin in this response piece (if it is a response) is amazing.

 

Awoko turns 18, and unbelievably, I’m halfway through my internship

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Awoko newspaper celebrated its 18th birthday on August 10. And it just so happens that the 9th, the day before, marked the exact mid point of my time here in Sierra Leone. I can’t believe it’s gone by so fast. As of today I have just four weeks and two days left before I fly to Morocco for a week of travel, and then back home to Seattle.

I can’t deny it’s sometimes been challenging and frustrating here, but overall it’s been an amazing experience. Just being in Sierra Leone is such an eye opening life experience in itself. But being able to see and understand how things work in Sierra Leone — a country unique in so many ways, but similar to so many around the world in the traumas it’s experienced and the need for development — through the lens of journalism is just the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m convinced that every American should at least visit sub-Saharan Africa (and the Middle East), and preferably not in vacation mode. When Americans remember that Africa exists at all, it’s usually in the context of so many stereotypes. If people understood what it’s actually like here — and in so much of the world — our discourse as a country and relationship to the world would be so much richer and more reality-based.

Anyway, my ramblings aside, Awoko newspaper deserves a lot of credit for thriving as a rare independent newspaper for 18 years in Sierra Leone, through civil war and the ebola crisis, the threat of harsh libel laws, and an environment for journalists way more difficult than what most American journalists have to deal with.

Congratulations Awoko, and here’s to many more years!

I wrote a column for the occasion, if you’re curious. I wanted to interview a lot more members of the staff about what they like best about their newspaper, but as is typical of journalism, I was struck with a deadline and I had to just turn it in with only one interview. The next day my colleague asked why he was the only one quoted. Sorry Ophaniel!

Awoko newspaper turned 18 years old on Wednesday, which was celebrated in the office with food and a huge cooler full of ginger beer. “It’s like a boy who’s all grown up,” one of the staff said. As it happens, Tuesday this week marked the midpoint of my time here in Sierra Leone. I’ve been here five weeks, and I have five more weeks to go. Working at Awoko has been an awesome way to spend five weeks in Sierra Leone, and I’m looking forward to the rest.

Early in my internship, I asked one of my colleagues what makes Awoko newspaper different from the other roughly 100 other newspapers in Freetown. He told me Awoko speaks for itself  read Awoko, and then read how the others cover the same stories, and it’s plain to see, he said.

Full piece: Happy 18th birthday, Awoko Newspaper!

Sierra Leone’s harsh libel laws

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This story in Awoko newspaper inspired me to write a column against Sierra Leone’s criminal libel law the next day. On the right, Awoko editor in chief Kelvin Lewis, also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, is at a detention center where a journalist was released after a weekend in jail

Sierra Leone’s libel laws are always mentioned in world press freedom rankings as a major reason why the country has such a mediocre score.

There are two types of libel laws on the books, and for years journalists here have been calling to an end to the one that makes seditious libel a criminal offence. As far as I understand (and I could be a little off as I’m not a law person), this law makes it easy for journalists to be put in jail for “libel” — and libel is easy to prove. In practice seditious libel can mean writing something a government official doesn’t like. The ridiculous justification is that it’s libel because it would put the government in contempt of the public. And even worse, according to one commentator I read, truth is not a defense (I know it isn’t a bulletproof defense in the US either, but it does help). In fact, the greater the truth, the bigger the libel, because it would put the government even more in contempt of the people.

This law dates back to around 1700 and it’s essentially a remnant of the libel law Britain used to have back then,  designed to protect powerful people from criticism. Sierra Leone’s version was modified slightly into the Public Order Act of 1965, which is what journalists here want reformed.

I don’t want to delve into the legal details, but the effect, my colleagues told me, is that journalists are often detained over a weekend after committing “libel,” the idea being that this will teach them a lesson. And it can be worse. A man was jailed last year for implying on the social networking site WhatsApp that the president had killed someone, and for calling him a “wounded beast.” Imagine if anyone who made some unsubstantiated comment comment about Obama on Facebook or Twitter, or even talked about people killed by drone strikes, was immediately imprisoned. In 2013, two editors were arrested for comparing President Koroma to a rat.

My colleagues say that journalists here want the criminal libel law to be changed to a civil one (like in the United States), so that the penalties would be fines instead of jail.

During the four weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen at least two statements from the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) in newspapers calling for a change in the Public Order Act, and a few op-eds saying the same. So the column I wrote isn’t anything new, but I thought I should use my platform to add to the voices calling for an end to the law.

I always knew I would eventually do this column, but what prompted it was a story the previous day about a journalist who was detained over the weekend for asking a question a government official was not fond of. He was also randomly held on bail 20 times higher than normal. Awoko editor-in-chief Kelvin Lewis, who is also president of SLAJ, can be seen in a photo picking him up at the detention center. You can read a speech Lewis gave on World Press Freedom Day earlier this year here.

Here’s my column:

A Sierra Leonean journalist was detained last weekend because he asked a question a government official didn’t like. As Awoko reported on Tuesday, journalist Sam Lahai asked the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, “how Mr. Sengu Koroma’s work as Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs relates to the running of the Kenema District Council to the extent of summoning the Kenema City Council’s Chief Administrator…to his house, and threatening them with police arrest if they fail to obey.” For this, he was held in a detention center for two days and released under a bail amount 20 times higher than the normal maximum bail, according to lawyers.

As much as I and my journalism classmates back in the United States worry about the future of the field we want to enter, and sometimes gripe about the challenges of getting enough experience, we’re some of the luckiest journalists in the world.

I know this because, unlike my colleagues at Awoko, us American journalism students don’t have to work under the shadow of Sierra Leone’s cruel criminal libel laws, which should have no place in a modern democracy. These 300-year-old laws were introduced to Sierra Leone by the British, but they’ve long since been repealed in Britain. The versions of them that survived in the United States, another former British colony, have since been transformed into something far more protective of freedom of the press.

You can read the rest here.

 

Extra! Read all about…press conferences in Freetown

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I’ve been to three press conferences during my time as an intern with Awoko so far. They’re really different from what I’m used to in the United States in a bunch of ways.

On my first official day at the office, I went with a colleague to a press conference held by the National Electoral Commission, which was presenting information about the process of dividing up the country into electoral districts and wards based on population. At least, I think that’s what it was about. I was relieved afterward to hear my colleague say she was also having a hard time following it. That certainly made two of us.

At one point during that press conference, the lights abruptly shut off, and because it was a rainy, cloudy day in the afternoon, the room was plunged into darkness. I guess the power went out, which happens from time to time in Freetown. No one reacted whatsoever – they just continued as before and waited for the lights to come back on.

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Said press conference. The man seated in the center is from one of the country’s largest TV news stations. As you can see, there are people with DSLRs filming everyone who speaks — I saw that at another press conference as well

Press conferences are always in English, and it’s clear that speakers differ in how comfortable they are in English as opposed to Krio. The president’s spokesman Abdulai Barraytay, who I heard at a conference on the return of the Sierra Leaonean diplomat who had been kidnapped in Nigeria, speaks confident English with what sounds like the tinge of a British accent. Others have stronger Sierra Leonean accents. At a conference on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an economic union of African states, one man asked at the beginning if he could speak in Krio. The assembled journalists said no, but he broke into it for the occasional sentence anyway. (Here’s the piece I wrote about that one if you’re curious)

Press conferences all around the world (I’m sure) are always held for specific reasons beyond a desire to help journalists out. The people holding them obviously want something out of it, whether publicity, positive press, or, well, non-negative press about an important issue that they have to inform the public about. These pressures play out in different ways.

At the press conference at the State House, they only allowed about five questions. My colleague said that if the president had been there, they would have only allowed three. They wouldn’t answer two of them (did the diplomat escape, and did the state pay his ransom?) for “security” reasons. I think it’s more likely that the authorities had nothing to gain from the answers to either of those questions becoming public.

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State House press conference. The seated man on the far right is the Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, who was kidnapped, and then released not long before the press conference. You can read my coverage here if you’re curious

Just judging by the three I’ve been to so far (which is a small sampling, but still), press conferences can be light on actually new or substantive information, and heavy on jargon and minutiae of complicated and abstract things. For example, the substance of the press conference on the return of the Deputy High Comissioner to Nigeria was basically that he had returned safely and in good health, Nigeria is going after the kidnappers, and relations between Nigeria and Sierra Leone are even stronger after the incident. For the elections and tariff press conferences, I wasn’t clear on much, least of all what exactly the news was.

The press conferences are always well attended, and I’ve seen many of the same journalists covering them. There’s a lot of comradery between the journalists form various radio, television, print and online media at the press conferences. Journalists ask good questions and aren’t afraid to be adversarial. At the ECOWAS conference, which was about a common tariff between member nations, the man presenting kept referring to the media essentially as “partners” or stakeholders in the process. This annoyed one journalist, who said something to the effect of, “Everyone keeps saying this, but when will it actually be true?”

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The West African economic union press conference on a common tariff was held in the Santano House in Freetown, which is a Catholic space

Interestingly, at two press conferences I’ve been to so far, they’ve specifically made an effort to take a question from a woman to somewhat balance the gender ratio, saying “Let’s take a question from a lady if we can, before we call on the next person.” This helps balance the gender ratio, since the room is usually dominated by male journalists.

It’s well known that journalists aren’t supposed to accept gifts, even if it’s something small like food. This is according to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics (and probably others), but at least when it comes to food, it doesn’t seem to apply here. It turns out that press conferences, if you’re a Sierra Leonean journalist, are a great place to get a free lunch. At my first press conference, I was handed a drink and a plastic container of food. I was about to refuse it when my colleague insisted I take both.

“Always take the stuff they give you at these things,” she chided.

“Okay, how much does it cost?”

“It’s free!” (you silly, silly person was implied).

At the dry tariff press conference (my colleague outright said it was boring, which was true, even if the subject was interesting for its broader implications), they served tea and sweets to start, then a full lunch with fried rice, french fries, salad, and whole roasted fish. They also gave out a thick notepad and pen to each journalist along with the information packet. My colleague said no one at the office has to buy those supplies because they can get them for free at so many press conferences.

I thought about all the trouble those putting on press conferences were taking. I would have expected one of the poorer countries in the world to not have such lavish press conferences. But it’s clear that, as always, they wanted something from the press conferences.

At the tariff conference, one of the men speaking would tell journalists to be quiet or pay attention at certain points (there was some arguing over the specifics, some bouts of laughter). He basically implored the press to write stories covering the conference, to get the word out. So, maybe press conferences are even more blatantly calculated investments.

It may not always be an investment that works, though. At the tariff conference, my colleague told me that out of the whole room full of journalists assembled, from dozens of news outlets, only a handful would write a story on this. Which, I guess would make them taking the free food more ethical in the end?

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Introduction to Awoko Newspaper

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View from a window in the Awoko office

My colleagues at Awoko say there are about 100 newspapers in Freetown, and they’re proud to work for the best. They say this is self evident — just compare how Awoko and the other newspapers in the country cover the same stories. Awoko is totally independent, so it differs from the papers that favor a political party, or the Sierra Leone Daily Mail, which is government run.

The Awoko office is located in the city center of Freetown, opposite a Christian school. On the same street are several of the makeshift, shack-like dwellings with tin roofs that are ubiquitous in Freetown. From the balcony of the Awoko office you can see the bustle of the street, and the nearby electrical utility building marred by black scorch marks from a fire.

Anyway, I started my first day at Awoko on July 7. The newsroom has at least 10 editorial staff members (and I’m probably forgetting someone), along with many more supporting staffers. They work in a second-floor room outfitted with several computers and printers, a TV and some big desks. There are always copies of some of Awoko’s many competitors lying around.

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A not great photo of the Awoko newsroom I took on my first day

Editor in chief Kelvin Lewis is also the president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. He introduced me to the Awoko staff members with a deadpan joke about each of them.

I’ve been coming in to the office for less than a week now, bus it’s usually a similar routine every day. Several staff members meet just before 9 am to look over mock-ups of the next day’s paper for any mistakes or things to change — these are first drafts of the paper to be officially circulated the next day.

Then, I usually go with one of the reporters on an assignment. So far I’ve been to three press conferences, including one at the state house, and to a murder trial. More on all of those in another post. This is not a nine-to-five office, and I’m not sure whether or not that’s normal for Sierra Leone. But people continue working in the office well past 7 pm, and sometimes later.

I’m the 7th intern from the University of Washington that Awoko has had — the partnership started in 2007, I believe, and has had one or two years missed (most notably 2015, when the university wouldn’t send anyone for fear of ebola).

The staff are just awesome — they’re serious about their craft, and they’ve been incredibly welcoming, friendly, helpful and accommodating of my silly questions. They’re always quick with a joke or quip. And I’m happy to say  I’ve been assigned serious, real work right away — the staff assume I’m up to the task, and expect nothing less, which is perfect.

I’m looking forward to the next nine weeks!

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Today’s issue of Awoko (top) and yesterday’s (bottom), though it’s actually more like “tomorrow’s” and today’s. Each contains one of my columns, and the bottom headline is for a story I wrote, covering a press conference at the state house.

Anticipation

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Hopefully I can fit them all in my suitcase…

When I first learned I would be spending my summer in the capital city of Sierra Leone interning with a local newspaper called Awoko, I was excited to no end. Then, at some point during the final few weeks remaining before I fly out across the Atlantic, the panic set in a little bit – actually, more than a little bit. I felt drastically underprepared, especially psychologically. Some lazy, survival-instinct-ish part of my psyche – quite apart from any of my real wants or rational thoughts – simply didn’t want to leave the comforts of home and drag myself to somewhere that probably wouldn’t be comfortable at first.

Now, I’m happy to report that the excitement has come back. I’m thrilled at the prospect of starting on this reporting adventure, and I can’t believe how lucky I am.

And yes, I’d still be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious, nervous and maybe a little terrified. It’s now less than a week until I board a plane for Sierra Leone. Here are a few of the things I’m nervous about, in no relevant order:

  • Writing something that will get me or my editors in serious trouble
  • Reporting successfully in a foreign country, culture, city and land
  • Navigating and finding my way. Full stop. (This is a weakness of mine). Particularly in a city that isn’t amendable to this
  • As a strict vegetarian who doesn’t compromise, finding food I can eat
  • Knowing enough Krio, the local language, which sounds like English sometimes, but is very hard to understand because it’s a distinct language of its own
  • Biting bugs, snakes and rabid dogs or bats
  • Malaria. Enough said
  • Other diseases my feeble American immune system might have trouble handling
  • Basically, getting sick at all in a place with a severely incapacitated healthcare system
  • The sun
  • The rain (every day in August!) and resultant floods
  • Unintentionally being insensitive in my reporting or writing — or otherwise causing offense, acting ignorant or arrogant. One piece of advice I’ve heard twice now, and which I will try hard to heed, is to be humble and not assume I know everything. I can sometimes jump to conclusions and think I understand something when I don’t

It’s probably reasonable to feel anxious about going anywhere that requires me to jab myself with, and ingest, quite this many vaccines, take 100 malaria pills in my suitcase, and spray my outfits with a bug-killing chemical that’s “safe” but nevertheless I shouldn’t let touch my skin, or breath in. And of course, find room for lots of DEET and a mosquito net. I’m lucky that mosquitoes don’t seem to bite me all that often, and I hope it stays that way. But still.

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Just another necessary precaution…

On a more serious note, I’ve been thinking a lot about the traumas Sierra Leone has gone through and how they have affected the country. These include the recent Ebola crisis, preceded by a ten-year civil war, corrupt governments, colonial exploitation and more. They seem vaster and more important than any of my anxieties about my comfort. Reading books like Lansana Gberie’s A Dirty War in West Africa, I’m simply overwhelmed trying to process what Sierra Leone went through.

Despite the general flippancy of this post, this has been on my mind more than anything, and I don’t mean to make light of it. I guess I should say that’s a good general assumption to make about anything in this blog.

When I was accepted to the Foreign Intrigue scholarship through the UW journalism program I didn’t have final say in where I would be sent (my fellow students were sent to Jordan, India, Cambodia, Mexico and Indonesia), but in my application I said Sierra Leone was one of my top choices. I knew a bit about the country — not much, but enough to make me really curious to learn more.

In middle school I saw a talk by the Sierra Leonean former child soldier Ishmael Beah, who wrote a memoir called A Long Way Gone. Actually, Beah was one of the speakers introducing the Dalai Lama, the headliner that day. But Beah’s talk stuck with me just as much as the Tibetan spiritual leader’s did, and I read his memoir sometime that same year. It’s a powerful and devastating (and apparently, sometimes questionably accurate) book. (I’ve almost finished rereading it now, and it’s a lot more difficult and painful to get through than I remembered). I watched the movie Blood Diamond years ago, and one of the only things I remember was the beginning, when rebels from the Revolutionary United Front movement brutally hack off villager’s limbs with machetes. I’d also heard a fantastic album from a group called the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars (really, give it a listen — in the link), which is plaintive and sad at times, but mostly very upbeat and warmly positive.

So, that was most of my knowledge of Sierra Leone – basically a random mix of things. In the past month, of so I’ve been ordering from online just about every book on Sierra Leone I could find, with the assumption that the more I know, the better. And really, that not doing so would be irresponsible. I also realize that no amount of reading can really prepare me.

My hope and expectation is that the opportunity to do delve into my passion for journalism – writing and reporting, interviewing, taking photos – is just the right way to adjust to what will be my new home and reality for the next ten weeks. I’m beyond excited for this opportunity. I could make a list of the things I’m looking forward to doing, the skills I hope I’ll be able to learn and develop. Actually, why don’t I do that – I wouldn’t want the only list in this post to be a negative one. I’m excited about, in no particular order:

  • Learning how to be a better reporter through more challenging circumstances than I’m used to. I’ve done most of my reporting among English speakers in Washington, my home state, and mostly my home city of Seattle
  • Learning how journalism works and what it looks like in a developing country
  • Learning what journalism looks like in Africa
  • Learning from journalists and editors who work in sometimes difficult conditions, and for whom the media means something different and has a different significance than for me in Washington state
  • Finding stories! I’m excited at the thought of what fascinating stories and issues there are to report on
  • Practicing being a creative storyteller
  • Finding positive stories, and stories about everyday life in Sierra Leone and Africa. For no good reason, these don’t seem to make their way to the West much
  • Covering community journalism while also finding stories that are interesting to a national or international audience
  • Learning how to write first-person and opinion pieces, if end up doing what other interns have done
  • Just getting a taste of international reporting.

Who wouldn’t be excited at that last one? Or going to Sierra Leone in general?