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.