belly laughs at twenty to nine

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, The Current had a discussion about online dating this morning. The host, Anna Maria Tremonti, interviewed a couple who met in an Internet chat room in 1996. He lived in the U.K. and I didn’t catch where she lived, but I think it was in Canada. After a week of chatting, he bought her a ticket to visit him in England. An excerpt of the interview, paraphrased:

Anna Maria: Weren’t you afraid he was an axe murder?
Her: That’s what my friends were worried about, but I figured that an axe murderer doesn’t buy someone a plane ticket.
Him: Plus I’ve never hurt an axe in my life!

I laughed most of the way to work.

Speaking of axe murdering… well, murdering, anyway… here’s a cheerful (but sort of fascinating) read.

the first draft of history

When people ask what I like about being a journalist, I can boil it down to one word: access. Journalists go places and meet people and do things that are out of reach for most civilians — it’s an incredible privilege, and we pay that honour forward by doing our best to accurately and fairly report on what we’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled.

They say journalists write the first draft of history. Sometimes, that history isn’t pretty. I recently read a statistic that around one in 10 Americans suffer from PTSD, which seems high… but if it’s true, journalists are certainly no exception. Newsrooms increasingly offer counselling and support to reporters covering difficult topics, but journalists rarely discuss trauma as openly and honestly as CBC Radio’s Dave Seglins in this piece, on the sentencing of Col. Russell Williams. I recommend you give it a read, no matter your profession. [Via -30-]

Not only reporters, but everyone, can take a lesson from this unashamed account of psychological trauma. Unwillingness to discuss mental illness (whether temporary or chronic) only makes it that much harder for sufferers to cope. If you sprain your ankle or struggle with lifelong back pain, there’s no shame in casually disclosing it — but mental weakness is a spectre few are willing to candidly raise. Well done, Mr. Seglins.

Of course, not every journalist is working in psychologically taxing conditions (although it’s a good excuse for the hard drinking and cynicism). Sometimes being a journalist means bearing witness to moments of peace and harambee (“pulling together”), such as my chance to attend the celebration of the life of Dr. Wangari Maathai today. When I arrived, the crowds were already thick in Uhuru Park. But a flash of the press pass, and I was above the fray on the media riser — with an unobstructed view of the casket, the ceremony, and all the dignitaries, there to wish a truly remarkable (and tough as nails) woman well on her next great adventure.

a bamboo, water hyacinth and papyrus casket -- Dr. Maathai's final chariot before cremation.

Paige and I went to the funeral together. She provides her account here.

a day of contradictions

As Nairobi shook itself awake on Saturday morning, I was already beelining through downtown, averting taxi-drivers and newspaper vendors with a smile and “hapana, asante” (“no, thanks” — one of the Swahili phrases I use the most). It was nice to be out early, before the crowds gobbled the streets and it became more a matter of weaving than walking. I was off to visit my cousin — in town on business from Ottawa — who had kindly offered to treat me to breakfast at his glorious hotel. But when I entered into the lobby of the Serena Hotel, I thought maybe I was still dreaming. A day of contradictions began.

one of many tables sagging under the weight of my desire

The breakfast spread was stunning. It would have been decadent in North America or Europe, but the smorgasbord of food on display was even more amazing when you think that just a few hours’ drive north, Kenyans are literally on their deathbeds due to malnutrition. There was hot and cold cereal with all the toppings: hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, dates, pecans, toasted coconut. There were fresh-squeezed  juices: watermelon, passionfruit, paw-paw, papaya, cucumber, orange. A server was on hand to make custom waffles or crepes, topped with maple syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce. There was lime jam, croissants, chocolate ganache, brioche, crusty breads, marmite, pain au chocolat, peanut butter, marmalade. There were foods I couldn’t recognize and can’t pronounce. Cut fruit was piled high on platters: papaya, jackfruit, watermelon, pineapple, kiwi, banana, strawberries, passion fruit, honeydew melon. Smoked sailfish, ham, Italian salami. Most of all, there was cheese. Gouda, blue, herbed goat… OH MY.

Oh, and that’s not even including the hot buffet — eggs with caviar, lemon chicken, two kinds of sausages, potatoes fried or curried, rice, beans, grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, chapati, ratatouille, grilled fish, Mount Kenya toast. I can’t even remember what else. Oh. BACON. (My now-favourite cousin — I’m easily bought — invited me back for breakfast again this morning, and it’s possible that I’ve eaten an entire pig in the last 48 hours.)

there's a famine in this country?

I’m not going to lie. I gorged. Many, many thanks are due to my amazing cousin Curtis for his generousity. And for not judging how many times I went back to the buffet.

Stuffed to the point of verging on pain, I returned to reality to do a few more interviews for my feature article on the Kenyans for Kenya campaign. Across the street was Uhuru (“freedom”) Park, where hundreds were gathered to raise money for the 3.5 million Kenyans at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from my fortunate self — those that are at risk of starvation, living in the arid and semi-arid areas of the north, north-east and south of the country. It was the last day of the four-week campaign, which mobilized corporate and individual Kenyans to donate to the Kenya Red Cross — and had raised more than 680 million shillings (CDN$7.2 million) before the concert even started on Saturday.

400 tonnes of UNIMIX -- high-nutrition porridge -- bound for southern districts of Kenya

Even though the campaign only ended this weekend, the Kenya Red Cross has already been able to use 101 million shillings of the funding to buy 1000 metric tonnes of high-nutrition porridge, which has been distributed to about 200,000 children through school feeding programs. The outpouring from “ordinary” Kenyans has amazed many of the organizers, as donations as small as 10 shillings rolled in from thousands of people. Kenyans gave what they could. I spoke with the partnership coordinator of the Kenya Red Cross, Rosemary Mutunkei, and she said that in a strange way (a contradictory way, one might say, if they were trying to engineer a unifying theme for their blog post), this crisis is actually allowing Kenyans to regain their dignity — to demonstrate to the international community that Kenyans can look inwards and test out local solutions to their internal problems. Aside from food aid, the Kenya Red Cross is working on a number of long-term food security initiatives for the drought-affected areas, like greenhouses and boreholes… initiatives that have been successful in other parts of the country. (For more, pick up Wednesday’s copy of the Daily Nation!)

The Kenyans for Kenya benefit concert in Uhuru Park -- the skyline of Nairobi in the background.

The concert was uplifting — the sunshine and the dancing and the laughter in the lush greens of Uhuru Park made it easy to forget that it was a fundraiser for people who are on the verge of death, in parched lands only a few hundred kilometers away. As the head of the Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet, said, “You just have to get a few hundred kilometers out of Nairobi and you face a different terrain.” It’s easy to forget that Nairobi isn’t Kenya — gotta get out of the city soon.

sightseeing, fried chicken and the first president of kenya

Hard to believe I left Canada only a week and a half ago — nights warming my toes by the bonfire, breezy afternoons on the back porch with a book, and sleeping-in mornings in my cluttered bedroom at home seem like years ago. (Yet, I have no doubt that clutter will be waiting patiently for me in seven months.)

Exploring downtown Nairobi, finally in the sunlight.

Saturday was a glorious day for exploring the city — just wandering downtown to see what we could find. We got almost-hustled at a Maasai market, dodged traffic, and predictably found a bar with a couple cold Tuskers, some samosas and a football game.

Monday was the big day. Paige and I started work at the Daily Nation. It was an early morning coming off a late night, but we managed to scrape ourselves out of bed for an 8 a.m. start, which we promptly re-negotiated to a 9 a.m. go-time starting on Tuesday. We’d already been to the office last week for a quick tour and HR logistics, but this was our first time reporting to the newsroom.

On the editors’ desk there is a big book, with line-upon-line of loopy handwriting. This book is the bible of the Daily Nation — it lists all the assignments for the day, and beside each assignment is the name of the reporter slated to cover the story. Paige and I each got to pick a reporter to shadow on their assignment, and that was that — we were off to the races. (For the moment, we’re working at the Daily Nation, which is the English-language daily newspaper. The Nation Media Group has many, many media holdings, and once I figure them all out myself I’ll fill you in.)

Waiting for a glimpse of the president.

I went out with a reporter named John, to cover a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the 33rd anniversary of Jomo Kenyatta’s death (the first PM-then-president of Kenya). Aside from Kenyatta’s family, the mayor of Nairobi, and many other VIPs, the current president himself was slated to lay a wreath. So all the journalists stood out in the sun waiting for him to arrive. (And so did all the people in the picture to the right.) Of course, it was one of the first hot days we’ve had, but in a burst of professionalism I chose to wear a blazer and pants. Making a good impression on your fellow journalists isn’t so easy when you can feel the sweat trickling down your spine.

When Mwai Kibaki showed up, everything went nutty — Stephen Harper sure doesn’t get photographers into that kind of a tizzy just by showing up to a ceremonial event. The president (accompanied by what I’m sure were the who’s who of Kenyan political society) went into the mausoleum, laid his wreath (presumably, we weren’t allowed in, being mere print reporters), then they played the national anthem and we were off to church for a service in the late Kenyatta’s honour.

Photographers and camera-operators jockey for position.

President Kibaki and his entourage (mostly security). The fabulous woman in blue is Kenyatta's widow.

The Holy Family Minor Basilica in downtown Nairobi.

We headed on foot to the Holy Family Minor Basilica, where a 90-minute service treated us to hymns in Swahili and English — plus a little dancing in the aisles. The structure is impressive. High vaulted ceilings, stained glass stretching to the heavens. During the service the journalists on either side of me alternately crossed themselves and checked their smartphones, then John and I weaved our way back to the Nation building. “There’s no story here,” said John as we dodged pedestrians and traffic, which is exactly what I had been thinking but was too shy to voice. The president hadn’t spoken, and the tributes to Kenyatta were heartwarming but generally predictable niceties. The president is apparently not one for speaking at public events; Prime Minister Raila Odinga, on the other hand, can be counted on for a speech on most occasions.

Inside the basilica. Not pictured: TV screens projecting the lyrics to the hymns.

Aside from seeing the president it wasn’t the most compelling first day, but things are picking up. Tuesday I went out with another reporter, Beryl. She’s an intern from Eldoret, working at the Nation for 10 weeks (and hoping to get a job when she’s done — the job market is tough). We were assigned a story on the Kenya Red Cross, which meant a drive out to their office in a part of town called South “C”. It was a basic story about a corporate donation for famine relief, so when we got back to the office I figured I might as well take a crack at it to see if my print reporting skills were just rusty, or seized up entirely. Apparently I shook off the dust — and I got my first byline (shared with Beryl, happily). I also successfully pitched a feature story to the editor of DN2, the current affairs pull-out in the Daily Nation. Not bad for Day Two, although now I actually have to navigate writing a 2,000-word feature in a country where I’ve only lived for eight days.

We’re finally settled into our two-bedroom apartment, so the city is actually becoming home. For the first time today, I had a pang of oh-my-time-is-ticking-by! and I had to remind myself that March 31, 2012 is still very, very far away… which is a change from the predictable homesickness that kicks in at unexpected moments. In a departure from toast and instant noodles, I also cooked a real meal for the first time in our new place — spaghetti bolognese with carrots and kale. The kitchen is pretty well-stocked in terms of utensils, and you can find most ingredients you want at the super market… but what I would give for a block of parmesan and a grater.

Officially no chance I'm coming home thinner than I left.

In the meantime — check out what I chowed down on for lunch today at Kenchick Inn, on the street behind the Nation Media building. Yup, that’s friiiiied chicken and chips! The chicken is already cooked, but when you order it they pop it in the deep-fryer for about a minute, just to make sure it’s good’n’saturated’n’crispified with oil. Pop it on top of a bed of fries and boom.

Then go home and eat a carrot for dinner. (Or leftover bolognese, shhhh.)

a battle cry for Canadian journalism

Kai Nagata’s July 8 blog post (on why he quit as CTV’s Quebec City bureau chief) has been making the rounds in media circles. If you’re interested in journalism and politics, or you just generally give a damn about public discourse and democracy and the responsibility of the press, read it now. When you’re done, you can read his follow-up post.


This isn’t an unconditional endorsement of his blog posts, but I do admire Nagata for his eloquence, his thoughtfulness and how he hits some of the issues pretty close to the bullseye. He has put into words a lot of the things I feel about the media dynamics in Canada — things I didn’t know how to verbalize, or I felt I had no authority to say. Not only has he written a damning account of the Canadian media’s failures as the fourth estate (I think there are lots of successes too… maybe more than there are failures… but, yes, there are failures), he put his money where his mouth is. Speaking as a fellow 24-year-old, I can tell you it would not be easy to flip my superiors the bird, pack up my pick-up truck, and watch a promising career crash and burn in the rearview mirror — but this is where it becomes clear that a promising future is only useful if you want what it’s promising. I think it is the job of the media to promote understanding — to provide citizens with all the aspects of the issue, so that they can make their own informed decision. If I found myself in a job where this was no longer my mandate, I only hope I would have Nagata’s courage to stand up for journalism. (Although I hope I would be a little more humble about it.)

The things Nagata is describing are particularly prevalent in television news, which works within the confines of shorter items and pretty pictures. I think the trend is also more obvious at the CBC these days, as the organization moves towards boosting ratings by being more like the other guys (if you want a long-time but now former CBC-er’s take on the process of dumbing down the media, please drop in on Andy Clarke. I have a hunch he and Nagata would get along.) And, of course, there is the newest entry into our media landscape: SUN TV. Enough said.

This may all come across as a criticism of mass media in Canada, but it is also a criticism of Canadians. The media have many interests, but one major interest is giving the people what they are asking for/willing to accept, because if you don’t have an audience, you don’t have advertisers (or a legitimate claim on continued funding from the government). So when you see wall-to-wall coverage of Will and Kate in a dragon boat race, just remember we are getting the media we deserve… and it will go on like this until the audience stands up and asks for something different. I think I would also be remiss to leave out the fact that this issue doesn’t just apply to covering federal politics. It covers all levels of government, from the echoing halls of Parliament to the sleepiest town council chambers. It also applies to covering international affairs and multilateral agencies, like the UN or IMF. These are all annals of power, and they all need a watchdog. If not journalists, then who?

That said, I don’t think Nagata’s manifesto applies to all of the media in Canada. There are certainly smaller media outlets that make it their mission to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” or whatever journalism adage you want to employ (like The Tyee). There are also admirable reporters at the big media outlets who aren’t trying to make any friends (Terry Milewski comes to mind). And there is the point that journalism is about more than holding power to account — some of the best journalism I’ve consumed or produced has been simply about telling a story or sharing a viewpoint, because the more we know about the world around us the better equipped we are to interact with it (I’ve been talking about this New York Times Magazine article for weeks).

But, the general direction the mass media discourse is heading isn’t pretty, if you want to see journalists elevating the debate instead of letting it get lost in the sound and fury (and fascinators). Just months ago, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in Tahrir Square to demand the very rights that Canada’s major media outlets are squandering. So whatever your political stripes or ideological leanings, if you value accountable government and public discourse, I think you’d have to agree that Canada needs more Kai Nagatas up in here… as long as they’re willing to work to change the system, instead of quit it altogether.

Brynania uncovered

McGill public affairs made a mini-doc on Rex Brynen’s fabled peacebuilding simulation this spring, and I finally tracked it down. It does a good job of capturing the elements of the sim, from formal meetings to whispers in hallways. The only problem is no one looks tired enough.

The simulation remains one of the most valuable experiences of my master’s degree, and not only because it was when this guy and I became ridiculously close ridiculously fast. (We’ve since concluded that one week of sim bonding is like being friends for three years in real life. It also explains why, more than a year later, we still reminisce about the sim with the excitement of recounting a crazy three-day bachelor party in Vegas where we met Bono and stole a private jet, instead of the 18-hour-per-day laptop-and-coffee marathon that it really was.)

The simulation gave me my first taste of what it’s like to actually go out there and work in development, instead of reading in my cushy office and criticizing what’s going on in the field. Turns out, the world out there is incredibly complex and confusing, even when it’s just a bunch of 20-something McGill students playing make-believe. There are so many choices to be made, and the options are rarely ideal. There are the relationships and informal channels under the surface that foreigners can’t see at first, or may never see at all. And finally, you just can’t know if the information you’re getting is reliable. It felt like running blindfolded and backwards into a minefield.

I can’t say enough about how useful and valuable simulations are, and I think they should be incorporated into the classroom more often. I actually loved the sim so much that this year, I put together an item for CBC Montreal, as well as harassed Brynen until he rewarded me a minor role as a political prisoner — which mostly meant I wrote revolutionary poetry and checked my email 95 times a day. (Bonus: I make a guest appearance in the mini-doc.) The year I participated, I was the head of the U.N. mission. Looking back, it would have been way more fun to be a rebel, so I’ll keep that in mind as a career path if this journalism thing doesn’t work out.

Finally, what I imagine will be the highlight for POLI450/650 students: we finally get to see inside Rex Brynen’s torture chamber, where he is literally rolling the dice. Honestly, I expected it to look a little more like a panic room.

Rex Brynen runs a blog on simulations, if you’re intrigued.