Sunday, May 31, 2009

Please Leave a Message

In the grand scheme of things, journalists tend to want it quick. It's the logic behind the idea of "a scoop." Among reporters who casually aspire to get the next big story, it's the kind of attitude that quickly defines incompetence. All things considered, however, who is to deny the role mobile phones play in helping reporters balance stories, cross-check facts and, above all, beat deadlines?

In Uganda, one of a handful of African countries that have witnessed a perfectly furious growth of mobile telephony, jobless peasants who can't afford the next meal can be seen carrying expensive handsets. They talk. They think they are happy. And President Yoweri Museveni is happy to claim bragging rights.

In the same way those peasants don't realize how much those phones are hurting them, Uganda's reporters -- i am one of them -- have found the mobile phone a reliable partner in crime. In Kampala, you could call a Cabinet source at midnight and have a silly chat on what he thinks about the alleged shenanigans of the government ombudsman, Faith Mwondha. The culture of voice mail as practiced in America is unheard of and, as i've found out, even dubious.

Almost all the sources i've interviewed as a reporter for the Kansas City Star did not answer their phones when i first called. My first instinct, at least when one source called me seconds after i hang up, was to imagine that there was some kind of sinful pleasure to be derived from listening to voice mail. Keen to satisfy my curiosity, i tried it at home and walked away dissatisfied. It was an act of great dishonesty; i should have picked the bloody phone!

To be sure, voice mail is an important part of the American lexicon. I've seen reporters at the Star record messages in the most farcical ways possible. It works, however funny it may sound. And it may be good for journalism in ways Ugandan (or African, for that matter) journalists could benefit from. The patience it takes to leave a voice message when working on an important story is a virtue to be cherished by every self-respecting journalist. It is not a routine that will improve a reporter's overall craft, but i find that leaving a message, even if grudgingly, is to reaffirm your commitment to seeking the truth. It is to do journalism nice and slow.

In the weeks since i discovered the beauty of voice mail, only once has it failed to serve me. Back home after a slow day, i realized that i had left some of my valuables at my office desk. Calling my desk phone would have been a hopeless idea, of course, but i was also sure that the reporter who sits next to me would have given me a please-leave-a-message deal -- a bad deal.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Girl on Walnut Street

A few blocks from my apartment building, a one-time warehouse whose rugged exterior belies its inner beauty, a pedestrian is likely to see what looks like a human shape rolled into a denim-covered ball. This coil, lying next to a dirty backpack and cigarette butts, is probably replicated in many parts of Kansas City, but there's something quite unusual about this homeless person. Until i got to see her face -- girl's smile, woman's comportment, cigarette in hand -- i had no interest in writing about a person who reminds me of where i come from, a place where panhandlers and beggars rule the streets. Until i got to see her face, pale and gaunt, i didn't care.

Now, because i get to see her almost everyday, the girl on Walnut Street intrigues me in a way no beggar has managed. And, coming from Kampala, where city authorities have to arrange nightly raids to sweep itinerant kids and women off the streets, i have seen many beggars. Very many. A good number have asked me for money, some of them very aggressively. But, informed by conventional wisdom that being generous with beggars encourages them to stay on the streets instead of going back home where they might have a decent place, i tend to shrug off importunate requests. The beggars i saw in Columbia, where i spent at least two weeks before coming to Kansas City, usually asked me for a cigarette, and the beggars i've encountered in Kansas City wanted money they would use to travel on a bus. They all looked fit and healthy, much like the Kampala beggars whose stock in trade is fooling wimpy Ugandans. They never have luck with me.

But the girl on Walnut Street does not ask for anything. In fact, she does not seem to be asking for anything. The rare beggar who attracts you even in her sleep, she is the kind of homeless person that most Africans cannot imagine would be a fixture on a street in a metropolis as modern as Kansas City. The image of America, in the mind of the typical African, is that of a place full of glory and wonder -- a veritable Garden of Eden. Even among educated Ugandans, some of whom i call friends, the idea of homeless Americans does not make much sense. Even worse, some of them don't imagine that people here, as elsewhere in the world, wake up thinking about how to keep their jobs, how to survive. This perverted perception is the reason they keep asking their African friends who live in America if they are foolish enough to consider returning home. It's the reason i keep repeating myself when dealing with them: Give me a break!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Importance of Being at Large

On the afternoon of May 20, when i face Kansas City Star editorial staffers for what will be a welcome party, it will also be an opportunity for me to set the record straight on many things. It will be the first time i am doing a presentation using PowerPoint, and for many in the room it will be their first time to hear so much about Uganda in 20 minutes. In the weeks before i arrived at the Star, which has won eight Pulitzer prizes over the years, a dubious picture of me that would have made Osama bin Laden proud was pinned on several boards. The picture, a photocopy of the original, has me sporting a goatee that, as it turns out, gave everyone at the Star a very exciting (if lousy) portrait of the reporter from Uganda. For those who were hoping to meet a bearded guy with Buddy Holly glasses, i can imagine how deep the disappointment has been. Mara Williams, higher education reporter for the Star, spoke of someone asking: "How old is that guy?" Well, when other factors are not held constant, i am 27 going on 17.

And so, for good measure, i will circulate the original picture in the room where reporters and editors will converge to hear about Uganda and, yes, Idi Amin. The picture will happily send fiction to the grave, and I will undertake to bury it with the youth on my face. My time at the Star will have officially started.

Yet i have already spent well over two weeks at the Star, for the most part making independent obervations, getting situated and building rapport with reporters and editors. After all, one of my stated objectives is to observe the camaraderie and energy among reporters and editors. A former Friendly Fellow at the Star, Peter Makori, told me long before i entered America that i was lucky to be going to a newsroom that tends to be friendly and helpful to visiting journalists.

He was right. Everyone i have met at the Star has expressed a willingness to be helpful in any way they can, and some have really walked the talk. Greg Moore, Kansas City Star wire editor, has excelled in the role of mentor and friend, regularly taking me places and giving me advice as intriguing as the importance of keeping a handshake firm. On that and many other tips that, quite frankly, i find hilarious, i am a work in progress.

But the story may be quite different from my journalistic work at the Star. I took the necessary stand, in keeping with my own values (and sense of vanity), that if i was going to pen a few stories for the Star, they had better be well written and cool enough. My first story, a human-interest piece on a plumber who assumed that being fit meant being healthy until he suffered a heart attack, was important to the extent that it appealed to a wide section of people that think like Bill Torres, who, interestingly, was given the grim diagnosis during a chance converation with a photo lab supervisor at a Leavenworth CVS store. The rest, as they say, is history. Subsequently, i penned a story about a cultural exchange program that allows Kansas City area teachers to spend at least 11 days in Turkey, and will soon be interviewing two students with extraordinary survival stories. The more i venture out into Kansas City's oft-deserted streets, the more i see opportunities for fantastic human-interest stories. To do this thing, and possibly escalate it, I need to turn off the telly more often than i switch it on. I need to be out. At large.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gimme Some Cheese, Baby!

There's a legitimate tale from Buyanja, the Ugandan sub-county where my father was born, about an irritable old man who never ate pork. Then, one day, his sons pulled a prank that may have turned him on forever. Unbeknownst to him, they prepared a meal laced with slices of pork, a delicacy that left him asking for more. His boys had done the unthinkable, but soon he would discover the thinkable: pork tastes real good, even if you hate the animal.

That's where my beef comes in. For the record, I don't do a lot of dairy products. That means that i hate cheese. But this is cheese country, and America will be my home for at least five months. Mike Fannin, Kansas City Star editor, was taking me out for lunch the other day when he asked what my favorites were. With no quick answer in mind, i offered: "All i know is that i don't do cheese."

Fannin smiled a bit. But i had told a lie.

While i have always told waiters to decheese my food, it's not true that i have not ingested a significant amount of cheese in the four weeks i've been in America. In Columbia, the college town that i dearly miss, my favorite eatery was Chipotle, where it was easy to spot the sliced cheese and rule it out of the equation. Almost always -- and i found this interesting -- the person behind the counter nodded in approval.

But it was not always easy for me to do cheese control at other restaurants.

When, at a recent dinner for Center for Practical Bioethics, i was given a cheese cake while everyone else on my table got a chocolate cake, the irony was wicked. But it was obviously funny when Coleman Hutchins, seated next to me, complained that he handn't gotten a cheese cake. I wanted to give him mine, but it was already too late; someone else had grabbed it.

Like pork, cheese won't kill a man. In a country where most meals are incomplete without cheese and where most waiters take it for granted that the average customer doesn't mind a cheesy topping, it is a stupid man who says no to cheese. Since I am no idiot, at least according to my mother, i am asking my friends to show me the cheese.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mobama or Nobama, America's a Mixed Bag

What happens when your American barber asks if you've seen a lion in the wild? You crack up. What's the story when, on a flight from Chicago to Kansas City, the flight attendant is so fat she has to negotiate the aisle with the finesse of a matador? You crack up. And, let it be said, how's one supposed to react to the idea that so many Americans, most of them ostensibly independent, need their dogs for a shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough? It's good material for a neutral comedian, and it's hard for me to say that i've not enjoyed the comic routine.

Missouri does not lie. After all, planted firmly in the heartland, this is the "Show Me" state, perhaps the best place to measure the American soul and make value judgments---for better or worse. In the three weeks that i've been in Missouri, where i will spend at least five months, the sheer depth of the ironies that define this powerful nation have been hard to miss, in large part because they are actually obvious. Not once have i needed to misrepresent my identity to be able to see that black Americans are comfortable playing pool amongst each other. And i have not yet found it necessary to apply my journalistic skills to notice that, even in these topsy-turvy days of unemployment or worse scenarios, it's mostly Latinos who clean up the shit in hotel rooms. What's more, at the Kansas City shop where a black barber asked if i had seen a lion in the wild, perhaps mauling a zebra in the African savannah, the only white man who walked in while i was around had actually come to make small talk. Not to have his hair done, OK? As the story was told, it's highly unlikely that a sensible white boy would spend his $15 there, a shop where the barber plays rap music and the radio bellows out the baritone of a popular black presenter. Not long after my experience with the barber, a slightly chubby man with the stupid smile of a teenager, i had the pleasure (or is it the agony?) of having a fast-talking middle-aged man as my driving instructor. "What does the red mean, Rodney?" the guy would ask me, apparently doubtful that i knew what the red light signaled. Soon, to my utter amusement (and relief), this white man would ask if i knew Idi Amin.

At once, in that grey saloon car that gave me nightmares for all of 120 minutes, i diagnosed the man's problem: LACK OF EXPOSURE. Those three beautiful words. If he came to Uganda --and he's never been out of his country-- he may not be able to move his car an inch. Yet, while he meant no harm, he's not a lone ranger.

For the most part, the trait that unites Americans black or white, especially in terms of how they relate to the rest of the world, is their shallow grasp of events elsewhere. They have to work hard to get it right. I am lucky to be in an environment where i get to interact with some people who know good things about Africa and who have grown up with the rest of progressive America. The story can be so wonderful. But, like most good stories, the beast wants his share of the cake. Just over 100 days after a black man was sworn in as America's chief executive, the fissures and frustrations that made his campaign message attractive are still evident. Only that they are are much more obvious to a foreigner, even a dumb one. I've not spent a lot of time in America, but i've been here long enough to discern the subtle lines that chase hopelessness away from hope. The interesting part is that some anti-Obama posters from 2008 proclaimed the wisdom in "Nobama." I hope the spirit of "Mobama" keeps winning.