Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ugandan Journalist Gets Hitched in Rwanda

Inside the van, as it plied the long route from Kampala to the hilly town of Nyagatare in Rwanda, it was impossible to tell the groom from his friends. They were all young and loud, as if this was their last chance to enjoy moments of youthful banter with a young man who was about to get hitched so far away from home. If the road trip was inspired by love, the dominant tenor of the conversation was far from it.

The talk was mostly about the good old days, about the joy of being young and reckless, and about the possibility of losing all of that. The groom --- nearly everyone called him Emario --- bore the brunt of this nonsense, this searing parody of marriage, but he seemed to take it in good stride. He understood what they were talking about. They visualised the road he was taking. All of us knew there was no turning back. Jackie Umuganwa, Emario’s beautiful bride, was waiting in Nyagatare.

“You are coming down,” one of Emario’s friends yelled early in the journey. Another deadpanned: “I am also going to plan my downfall.”

If this silly banter was a brilliant critique of marriage, it was also a paean to boyhood. And no one anticipated this fact better than the groom’s uncle when he decided, early on, to lecture us about metaphysical questions. “If you have money and life, what is there to stop you from enjoying this world, from having many women?” he asked. “You need to live responsibly, and you must have God in your life.” The response from the young men was encouraging but wild, attentive yet dismissive. Nearly all of us had decided from the start, long before we crossed the border into Rwanda, that we would be stubborn in all the ways available to us. We would recall our days in high school. We would pour scorn on each other. We would make sure it was fun for all the 30 or so people inside the van, even if by sheer force.

By the time we arrived in Nyagatare, several hours later, it was already March 13, on the warm afternoon that Emario was set to be engaged to his bride in a traditional Kinyarwanda ceremony. The groom was still with us, but this time he could be distinguished from the crowd. He was now more attentive than most. And yes, he was in the thick of things. A traditional give-away ceremony in Rwanda, or Gusaba, is not spectacularly different from what obtains in, for example, Ankole. The head of the host family and the leader of the visiting entourage engage in what might be construed as pretentious dialogue, but they mean serious business. The long chat between the two men, which lasted about two hours, put enormous burdens on both. It required each of them to be funny, to be serious, and perhaps to be a good actor. You do not have to be Denzel Washington (or even Abbey Mukiibi) to excel in this exchange, of course, but you need to project machismo. It was as if the men were fighting for superiority, with the host asking tricky questions and the visitor trying hard to appreciate the experience. There is no excuse for weakness. At some point, the head of the host family asked our delegation what the groom did for a living, and I heard the letters “c” and “v” mentioned in a long question. It was time for the head of the visitors to say all the good things he knew about the groom. I glanced at Emario and noticed that he was at ease. Good.

Then, moments later, the host family announced that the groom had been accepted into the family. In our case, because most of us did not understand Kinyarwanda, we missed most of the jokes and often had to be asked, in a language we understood, to clap whenever the host said something gracious. If the ceremony was tough on the head of the visiting delegation, it was so kind to Emario himself. For the most part, the groom was required to just shut up, to wait until his time came to do the glorious walk from one tent to another, to greet his in-laws. He had taken a back seat in the visitors’ tent, perhaps in honour of a norm that requires the groom’s identity to be mysterious in the hours preceding his eventual appearance, and later, along with his best man, had been invited to occupy the seat of honour. In his sofa, appropriately coloured red, Emario watched proudly as his bride joined him there, setting the stage for the glory to come. Traditional dancers, in black-and-white ensembles and matching headgear, would soon torment the ground in a rhythmic dance routine, the dust rising out of the ground to bless the ceremony. It was the dust of joy. Nothing could beat it.

As he put the ring on the lucky finger, around 5 p.m. local time, Emario’s friends cheered for him one last time. It was the moment, as many of them had joked, that he “went down”. In that instant, as everyone scrambled to see what was happening in the tent, Emario had achieved so much more than going down the marriage path. He had found a wife and a new family, united two cultures, and given many of us the chance to make new friends. If Emario was actually going down, we were going up.

As the van took the opposite direction, the ceremony finally over, it was not long before the groom and his best man loosened their ties. The jokes resumed, sometimes with greater tempo, often with nostalgia for the days when Emario and his friends were unencumbered by the new responsibilities he had just assumed. In a good sign, he was still smiling. Emario, whose real name is Emmanuel Gyezaho, is a Daily Monitor journalist. He is my friend.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kampala Is Feeling Hot

The first thing Ramadan Kiraga had to give up when he saw a passenger was his prized spot under a tree. Then, before his motorcycle gave a violent lurch to the right, and just as someone prepared to take his place, the man also had to empty into his stomach whatever was left in his water bottle.

Later, after doing the trip, Kiraga would claim that he was spending as much on water as on fuel, the inevitable result of surging temperatures in recent times. “I have taken two liters by now,” the motorcycle operator said. “The heat is killing us. We may have to charge people for this. I don’t know when this is going to end.”

Kiraga is not alone in his misery. After all, the whole of Kampala is feeling unseasonably hot. In the capital, as in some other parts of the country, especially in northern Uganda, temperatures have been rising since late January, severe conditions that are forecast to last until the end of February.

Jackson Rwakishaija, a senior communications officer with the Meteorology Department, yesterday said that, while the month of February has traditionally been hot, there is now a marked rise in average temperature over the same period last year. “For about five days, the temperature has been 31.6 degrees Celsius in Kampala,” Rwakishaija said. “I think it was 32 degrees Celsius yesterday. I am sure even today it will be 32 degrees Celsius. It used to be a maximum of 30 degrees Celsius [in this period] in Kampala. On average, there is an increase of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius around the country.”

Despite this significant rise in temperature, Rwakishaija was reluctant to sound the alarm bells, saying that some of the heat would be lost starting in March. “February has always been like that, except that that the degree now makes a big difference,” he said. “Maybe our bodies have now become very sensitive. I can say that we are now more conscious about climate change.”

The dry spell, he said, would “continue for the next three weeks,” towards the end of February. "It is mainly in the central and northern parts of Uganda because the dry winds move from the north southwards,” Mr Rwakishaija said. “It’s winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the southern hemisphere. The intensity of winter [there] creates a similar intensity [in the degree of heat] here.”

The heat in Kampala has recently attracted a frenzied discussion of the subject on social networking sites, especially on Facebook, where some young people occasionally post comments to reveal how “hot” they feel. “Oh, Lord, it’s too hot,” one of them cried out. Another raved: “There’s almost nothing as disgusting as inhaling truck exhaust on a boda-boda on a hot day in Kampala. Okay, maybe a few things, but this one is up there.” And one even offered greetings from “a steaming hot Kampala.”

Their cries, like several others that do not get heard, seemed to represent a growing consensus among Ugandans that climate change is upon us in a real way --- in conditions we can actually feel. In a 2008 assessment of climate change in Uganda, a study commissioned by the Department for International Development and conducted by sustainable development consultants LTS International, it was noted that temperatures would continue to rise over the next 20 years and beyond. “Human-induced climate change is likely to increase average temperatures in Uganda by up to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next 20 years and up to 4.3 degrees Celsius by the 2080s,” the report said. “Such rates of increase are unprecedented. Changes in rainfall patterns and total annual rainfall amounts are also expected but these are less certain than changes in temperature.”

The report noted that the grim forecast was not unlike what was being expected in other parts of the world. “In Uganda, as for the rest of the world, there are likely to be changes in the frequency or severity of extreme climate events such as heat waves, droughts, floods and storms,” the report said.

Maruzi MP David Ebong, who chairs the Parliamentary Forum on Climate Change, a pressure group whose mandate was partly derived from the grim statistics mentioned in the LTS report, yesterday said his group had failed to find its rhythm. He did not say why. “Our forum is still a young forum,” Ebong said. “Nobody can demand too much from us as this point. This is the year when we could do more.” The forum, the first of its kind in Africa, was established in mid-2009 with the hope, Ebong said, of making Uganda “responsive to the challenges of climate change." A realistic goal, he said yesterday, would be the passing of legislation that deals decisively with climate change in Uganda.

Independent experts, citing everything from the unrestrained importation of second-hand vehicles to the destruction of swamps and to poor regulation of industries, say Uganda is not doing enough to combat climate change. “The worst is yet to come,” Frank Muramuzi, of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists, said yesterday. “Many things are going to happen, and people are going to fall sick. Ask yourself: How many junk cars are in this country?”

Every ministry must have a climate change unit, according to Muramuzi, who charged that Ugandans have not been sensitized to lead environment-friendly lifestyles. “All they need is to be guided,” he said. “The rise in temperature is abnormal. I don’t cover myself these days. This is the effect of climate change.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Confessions of a Former Disco Maniac

There was something about Michael Quintanilla that drove expectations sky-high long before he owned the stage. Flamboyant at once, and energetic to the point of mystery, Quintanilla was quick to declare how much he loved women, setting the stage for a sensational performance in which his mom was the absent hero.

Most of the journalists attending Quintanilla's session had probably heard good things about a writer who searches deep inside his personal story to find the compassion and courage necessary to write narratives, but it seems i had underestimated the impact his performance would have on me.

In the end, Quintanilla, brilliant and funny, was for real.

He started his journalism career, he said, at a paper where an editor told him he had no place, apparently because the aspiring reporter had gay tendencies. Quintanilla had a talent for hairdressing, his editor told him, driving the young man into uncertainty.

It is proof of Quintanilla's spirit that he would become a successful writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered everything from dancehalls to fashion to crime. Now with the San Antonio News-Express, his workshop, appropriately called "Confessions of a Former Disco Maniac," had been brought to Indianapolis, where he was ministering to the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Let's face it, Quintanilla acts and sounds like he still is a disco maniac, but it is in his emotional energy, and in the brightness of his personality, that every journalist can find redemption. He spoke of his mother, a woman who ultimately divorced her husband after years of silent captivity, as the force behind his success. Quintanilla recalled how, in his early days as a writer, he lied to his employers that he had a car and could drive. Meanwhile, his poor mother was doing all the hard work. "We covered the police beat together," he said.

In reality, the connection between Quintanilla's journalistic success and his mother's loyalty is rich in sentiment, but the lesson is reasonable: we can be good storytellers if we summon the compassion that keeps us alive. "Anything can be an important story," he said. "Be clever and audacious...Writing is seduction. It is a seduction that begins with listening."

Yet his most important advice came when he asked journalists to be more outgoing, to spend less time in their newsrooms, to shun their phones. "I don't see us hanging out," he said. "It is the only way to get surprises for your story."

It was not hard to see why the audience inside Grand IV, at the Indianapolis Westin, never stopped applauding when Quintanilla was done, forcing him to ask us to "relax." Quintanilla had made "a human connection," in the manner of his mantra, and in the style of his journalism. He had not faked it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

In Google's Name, For My Sake

I look forward to 9 a.m. these days. Which is a strange obsession, considering that i don't gain full sobriety until about noon, by which time my caffeine intake has driven me to torment Google with all sorts of questions.

Mr. Google isn't on the Star's editorial board, whose morning meetings i have been attending since July 27, regularly taking my seat next to the men and women who voice the paper's stand on the day's major issues. The foreigner that i am, i have been less inclined, or perhaps not qualified, to contribute greatly to the discussions, choosing intead to listen while retaining the possiblity to ask an important question or laugh at a clever joke.

Even if i have lived in Kansas City for nearly five months, and while i have been to some places of the type i would never care to visit in Kampala, Kansas City is still not my turf. I do not care whether Mayor Mark Funkhouser should be recalled for allowing his relatives to be a ubiquitous presence around City Hall, and i do not give a damn if the cash-for-clunkers program is not taken to the next level.

What i really care about, and what makes the meetings special for me, is the kind of intensity that often defines them, the question deployment that dismantles a hot topic and leaves it so exposed, even ugly. In the rare moments when there may be some disagreement among the board members, it is still not hard to see where the path leads. And almost always, i have stepped out of the meetings hungry for some answers, ready to do my endless Google searches. The lesson: It is never enough to have a debate that does not raise new questions, or at least one that does not leave room for further debate.

As newspapers go, the search for information is endless, especially as our readers become ever more sophisticated. To keep up with them, and to avoid embarrassment, we must resist the urge to think that we are always more informed than they are.

Recently, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was about to conclude her tour of Africa, the board decided there was an editorial to be written about her trip. I was a natural fit for penning that one. But i did so after defending the idea that she had brought a diplomatic nuance to Africa-U.S. transactions when she told Nigerians that democracy was a work in progress even in America.

My editorial said in conclusion: "As Clinton said in a major speech in Kenya, the U.S. is now seeking Africa as a partner instead of patron. Clinton seemed to read the minds of Africans who, correctly or not, believe that U.S. transactions with Africa are often disrespectful. Her candor disarmed them."

I think i got it right.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Feeling Called Feedback

The messages never stopped coming. In fact, they are still trickling in, the latest from a reader who told me she'd "never taken the time to write a columnist before."

Even if it's not that good, there's something about feedback that stimulates me to reach for my cup of tea, or playfully grab the phone, as if i can't believe what i just read or heard. Trust me, it's a good feeling.

One of my recent articles for the Star, the one that's kept the messages flowing in, plumbed the subject of homelessness in America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner. Recalling the plight of one homeless woman i had seen downtown, and set against the stellar fantasies of my friends in Kampala, my article was an opinionated attempt to make America look bad or less good, in the words of a Kansas Citian who called in to tell me she hoped i would have "a safe flight" back home. In reality, however, my article tried to put some of America's glory, at least in the eyes of foreigners whose only window into the country is whatever appears in the movies, in its unHollywood context. Still, the outcome was nowhere near cynical.

To be sure, the lone negative message, for all its silent rudeness, was nothing compared to tens of messages from readers who thought they had been awakened to look at a sad phenomenon in a new light, to consider being more helpful. But what they all do not know is that, in their unique ways, they left me with something to ponder, nuances no book or movie could ever lead me into. I say this because, at my newspaper (the Daily Monitor), it's not often that readers write or call to express their feelings and opinions about certain stories. Feedback is not such a thing that's practiced there, at least not in the strict sense of the word. As i see it, there's something we are missing that nothing else could ever provide.

As i spend more time on the Op-Ed section of the Star, i increasingly see why it's terrible to write an article and not expect to hear from at least one concerned reader. To the extent that i now appreciate how uncool it is to be aloof to feedback, i am going as far as saying it's high up there among my most important lessons. Valuing feedback from readers is part of the growth process for any newspaper, more so for one that's not yet 20 years old.

In Uganda, where state tyranny over the media is sometimes taken for granted, reporters know they are doing a good job when the state comes down hard on them. It has become one crucial, if painful, way of measuring influence, yet one that ultimately shows a blithe disregard for what the ordinary Ugandan thinks. If we are as good as we think we are, then our journalism should not merely aspire to draw the wrath of angry dictators. Above all, it should get the local people, the silent ones, talking.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Poynter to New Things

On the day the 2009 class of Alfred Friendly Press Fellows left Poynter, one after the other, each nostalgic from four days spent in good company, two curious things happened. Five men in crisp suits looked on intensely as one of us, an Egyptian, gave a presentation. Then, when it was time to hear from them, there seemed to be no time to ask the right -- but hard -- question: What the hell were they doing at Poynter?

The question, debated informally among the Fellows after it was revealed that we would meet a group of Egyptian professionals, would preoccupy me well into the night i left St. Petersburg, and long after my memory of the men's intense gazes had been lost to the summer heat. One of the Egpytians spoke of plans to start a program in Egypt along the lines of the Alfred Friendly Foundation, and all of them seemed to be genuinely interested in cutting-edge journalism.

Back home in Cairo, however, they are the men (there was no woman among them) who give independent editors and reporters nightmares, the censors who run the dreaded agency whose role is to crack down on the critical press. If these men allegedly worked to kill the free press in Cairo, they had no business learning the hallmarks of good journalism. Period. Yet, like us, they were at Poynter, one of several groups that visit the respected institute hoping they'll leave with something, something valuabe.

Looking back, i realize that asking the question, however good, might have been considered rude. What's more, it may not have been necessary to ask the question at all. It was a tribute to the greatness of Poynter that these men had visited the institute, perhaps the only one that might challenge them to be conflicted about the kind of work they do to muzzle the free press. It's difficult to know what effect, if any, the Poynter visit had on the Egyptians, but i hope they left feeling good like me.

In the four months since i arrived in America, one of nine international journalists on a working fellowship at various newspapers, i have not felt as comfortable as i did when i was at Poynter. The reasons for that are legion, but significant among them was the teaching style -- and affability, of course -- of Bill Mitchell and Paul Pohlman, our shepherds there. Not only were they engaging teachers, they were also brilliant exemplars of a journalistic conspiracy, only the right one: Ask questions. Listen carefully. Then ask more questions.

It was magical.

We were at Poynter to take stock of our achievements and frustrations so far, to map ways of doing things even better (and differently), and to imagine ourselves in the role of mentor or coach. It was new territory for most of us. In the end, having listened to the presentations of all the Fellows, i got the impression that i was not alone. Nearly all the Fellows had come to Poynter as stricly print journalists, a clearly dangerous attitude to have in a tough new world. In my case, that demon was exorcized at Poynter.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Look What They Did to Me

There is no easy way to say this. For over two weeks now, i have been taking endless strolls down Main Street, staring into the humid air whenever i see a Yellow Cab and occasionally making an abrupt stop just to be sure i did not miss a certain Abdul Sharif. He has not been answering his phone lately, and i am yet to see him again at the shady part of Pershing Road, outside the Westin Crown Center, where he once had been one of three cab drivers manically breaking down the business for me.

Like the two other men, Sharif is originally from Somalia, one of hundreds of immigrants from the Horn of Africa who have embraced the trade in Kansas City, eventually forming a disproportionate number of the entire cab-driving force here. The problem is that they tend to look alike, and even their Abdulesque names can be excitingly similar. If you are not careful, or at least if you are as unlucky as i have been, you will see so many Abdul Sharifs in just one yellow moment. The images will be fleeting.

But the real Abdul Sharif, for all his recent reticence, had been a darling when i met him, eloquently letting me into the joy and agony of being a cab driver in a new city. Even as he announced that "i was not born to be a cab driver" early in the interview, Sharif was at once comfortable with his keys. He never struck me as a guy afraid of commitment, and i let him know that there was a good chance we could do it again. I was wrong. When all the voice messages have been counted, and when the somber picture of all the empty stares has been drawn, my energy will have taken a big hit. Sharif will also count his losses, or at least he will not know why he should do the math.

The story was supposed to be a human-interest feature about why Somali immigrants were embracing cabs in such huge numbers in Kansas City, and how the business helped them adjust to a new life away from home. On the face of it, the questions would range from the simple (Do you enjoy what you do?)to the provocative (Is there any other job you would rather be doing?) and to the intense(What's your worst experince as a cab driver?). The feel-good nature of the story far outweighed any of the embarrassing questions i may have had to ask, and this particular story was of the kind where the questions could be legion. Still, i told Sharif, i would keep the queries germane to my original pitch. My draft generated even more questions, but the now-futile hunt for Sharif and company means that they may forever be unanswered. What's more, i may never know why these men were reluctant to take it the extra mile.

If truth be told, I have seen this before. Only that i am experiencing it away from home, inflicted upon me by men i thought should not be nearly as paranoid about journalists as some of the people i have interviewed in Kampala. I hate it that their possible paranoia now means that i may also have to be paranoid about their silent intentions. If Sharif and company have done me any favor, it has to be that they have done their best to improve my aptitude for patience. I still want to meet them, of course, not least because the list of questions keeps growing, but essentially because they have not given me the last word. Kansas City is not the place that is going to teach me how frustrating interview subjects can sometimes be, yet this example is a hell of a good one insofar as it is a test of my tenacity. And here's why: Ordinarily, i could forget about Abdul Sharif and friends, find other cab drivers and tell the story anew (but maybe not too differently). No, because that's no way to learn something new, and since that's the simple way out. I have intriguing questions that only those three men could answer, and so I choose to hang in there.