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.