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2009 Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture

Gwen Thompkins
East Africa Correspondent, National Public Radio


Nieman Foundation
February 5, 2009


I can’t thank you enough for inviting me to talk this evening. It’s so flattering.

When I’m working on my stories by candlelight in Nairobi... when the power in the neighborhood is off for no good reason and dogs are barking while I’m recording in my little home studio... and when I’m screaming profanities because the batteries in the machine are running low... the last thing I’m thinking is that the folks at Harvard want to know about my job.

In a way... from so far away... it’s like being on another planet. I send out dispatches like time capsules into space. And it’s nice to know that there are earthlings out there who are hearing them and who want to hear more. 

So my major concern at this point is not to bore you. Talking to journalists isn’t quite like talking to civilians. You people know all the good storytelling tricks. So tonight, we’re like fellow magicians at a trade show. “How do you get your rabbit out of the hat?”

If you’ve ever heard one of my stories, you know that I can never tell it exactly straight. But I’ll tell you some stuff I’ve noticed so far about reporting from East Africa and you can fill in the rest. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to shout.

Alice

And speaking of not telling it straight, my Africa speech is gonna begin on Martha’s Vineyard. Years ago I was driving a car full of friends to a wedding there. We were lost, because I was driving, and it was getting dark. But we were in high spirits and the radio wasn’t working so we started singing all the songs that we—as a group—knew.

Half the people in the car were white and the other half were black. And we started singing Aretha Franklin songs. You know, “Do Right Woman,” and “Ain’t No Way,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which, technically, is a remake. But we were getting desperate for songs that everybody knew. Then my friend Alice Winkler, who’s white, said, “What about ‘All the Kings Horses?’”

The black side of the car—including me—said, “There’s no such Aretha Franklin song called, ‘All the King’s Horses.’ We’re black, we would know.”

So Alice started singing the song:
“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put our two hearts together again …”

We sat on a wall of happiness

We sat on a wall of love

We sat on a wall of security

So high above

OK, here comes the Humpty Dumpty …

The wall started shaking …

I heard love cried out!

Happiness was giving away!

Security was coming down!

He fell

I fell

And all there is left to tell

Is all the king’s horses

And all the king’s men

Couldn’t put our two hearts together again.
So when we heard the song, we all realized a couple of important things: First, that’s a damned good song. And second, assumptions don’t work. Especially when the assumptions are based on what you think you know about race or some other such foolishness. The biggest beef listeners have with my stories is that the stories don’t talk about things they assume all stories about Africa should talk about. But assume too much… and you’ll miss a good song. Assume too much … and you’ll miss a great story.

Mr. No Shoulders

I assumed I was alone one Sunday afternoon in my office in Nairobi as I was pounding out yet another story that I was late handing in. I remember it was a pretty, CinemaScope kind of afternoon. Looking at the garden out my window, all the colors appeared to be straight out of the Crayola box of 64—the one with the built-in sharpener. It had rained overnight and the trees and flowers were still dewy. My house is the Nairobi bureau and it looks out over nearly an acre of unfettered nature… The birds love it.

So, I’m in the office writing this script. And because words on a screen don’t seem real to me, I hit the print button. And the printer—which is on my desk—starts whirring and bellyaching and then some papers ease into the tray and a big, fat gasket comes out on top of the papers. Well, that just made me start cursing. Because where I am, there’s no such thing as a day when everything works. And that’s terribly frustrating. So I’m getting hot and loud and saying a lot of things that I’m sure you good folks at Harvard do not say. And then it hits me. That printer doesn’t have a gasket. And sure enough, that big, brown thing was snake.  I liked to died.

Well, I cajoled the guard, who stands watch outside my house for burglars, to come and deal with it. But by the time we got back to the office, the snake had vanished into the broad piles of paper on the desk. And just like a Hitchcock movie, we stood there in suspense, waiting for something to happen next.  Then, slowly the papers started moving—like a leg under a bed sheet… or like a Klansman scratching himself.  

At first, I said to the guard, “You’re not going to kill it are you?” and then I thought, “Gwen Thompkins, you don’t have the guts to deal with that snake, so you don’t get a say in what happens to it.” So I handed the guy a broom and, like the coward of the county, I walked out. Soon, there was a clatter and a lot of banging. And then, slowly the guard walks out of the office with the earthly remains of a semi-poisonous, white-lipped brown snake draped over the handle. All I could say was, “Out!”

Danger

But in that instant—or probably just after—I thought about the story that the great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski tells in his book, “In the Shadow of the Sun.” He had a similar experience discovering a big, scary snake in Africa where he least expected it. And after the racket was over, he said he felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. He said he hadn’t come to Africa to kill anything. And that’s how I felt. But if the snake—otherwise known as ‘mister no shoulders’—died for anything that Sunday afternoon, I suppose it was to impart a lesson on danger. There are lots of different ways to trouble trouble in East Africa.

There are the obvious dangers of the road… the stray bullets in Somalia or eastern Congo. And then there are the guns that are trained right on you in Sudan… or in Kenya, when the last presidential election was called. 

But there are other dangers. In Somalia, I’ve seen men whip women with saplings. In Ethiopia, I’ve seen a man hit a woman so hard with a wooden stick, I heard the sound of her head crack through the closed windows of the car. In Kenya, I saw a mob of guys with arrows and sticks moving toward a man who had no idea he was going to die that day.

Before going to Africa, I hadn’t been in a fight since Nigel Fields re-arranged my teeth in the fifth grade. In two years in Africa, I’ve been in two fights - one with a six-foot-four Dinka in southern Sudan and the other with the head of security at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi. Part of the reason, of course, is that I’m not very bright and both times, I should have walked away. Those guys could have beaten me like an old, dusty rug.

But truth is, I’m just not going to let some Joe push me around. Truth is I don’t want to kill anything in Africa, but sometimes I do want to brush back a few people here and there. A fighting spirit is probably what’s gotten me this far in the world. But I am, of course, well aware that the same fighting spirit will likely take me out of this world one day. So do what I say and not what I do. Walk away. 

And then there is what I call, death by “Oops!”  In East Africa, you’re more likely to die from sheer ignorance than for any intentional reason. In Kenya, I’ve seen a man drop a power line on a pedestrian. He just didn’t know any better. In Nairobi, one afternoon last week, there was a huge supermarket fire. It took more than an hour for the fire trucks to get there and they didn’t have any water. So far, more than 40 shoppers and employees are known dead.

In the summer of 2007 I was detained about 200 miles outside of Khartoum. This was in Kordofan Province and I wish I could say I’d done something worthy of such notice from the Sudanese authorities. I wish I’d gotten hold of state secrets... or at the very least I wish I’d slapped somebody. But like the song says, if wishes were horses, I’d have a ranch. (Lucinda Williams)

The gist of it was that I wanted to do a story about gum arabic, the miracle resin that comes from a particular kind of acacia tree and that makes the whole world go round. Gum arabic is a binding agent that makes all the ingredients in a long list of products hang together. A glass of orange juice will eventually separate into pulp and liquid. But a glass of Coca Cola never separates. And it will look like a Coke ten years from now because of gum arabic. Gum arabic is in cough medicines and other drugs... in newspaper ink ... paints. The Egyptians used gum arabic in the mummification process. It’s lovely.

And most importantly, the best gum arabic in the world is found in the acacia trees of Kordofan Province in Sudan. So, no matter how many sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Sudan for various human rights infractions, there has always been an exception for gum arabic.

I was with a fixer—a young man who was from southern Sudan, but who spoke beautiful Arabic, which is the language of the people where we were in northern Sudan. And we had hired a truck and a driver. We were going to a place called El Obeyid and along the way we’d heard about a gum arabic farmer who wanted to talk. So we stopped in the town, talked to the guy and then headed over to a warehouse where the stuff is sold. In Africa, you pull out a microphone and you’ve got a crowd on your hands. So all these gum arabic farmers are complaining about how the government has been lowballing them.

I got some good tape and we piled into the truck and lit out for the next town. Well, a fellow on a motor bike stops us and says he works for national intelligence and wants us to come to his office. He’d been watching us, posing in the crowd at the warehouse. And it was clear that he didn’t like what the farmers had to say.

I knew he wanted the tape. And in Sudan, the government nearly always gets what it wants. So, as we turned the truck around, I discreetly pulled the mini disc out of the recorder and replaced it with an empty one. I didn’t tell anybody because truth was I wasn’t sure whether the fixer was on my side or the government’s… or whether he was on his own side and was willing to sell me out to the government. Nor was I sure about the driver. Sometimes you never know whether the people you meet are who they say they are … or what their ultimate motivations might be.

So there came a chain of events where—after much bickering—I handed over the blank tape harrumphing the whole time like it was the real thing. They had my passport and wouldn’t give it back. They didn’t jail me, but they made us stay overnight in a nearby hotel. And overnight, I destroyed every piece of paper I had with any names of sources or fixers. I drowned all the batteries for my mini disc player in the bathroom. So if the authorities wanted to hear the tape, I could honestly say the machine didn’t work.

The next day we met with the commanding officer and I did everything I could to charm his socks off. Eventually, he let us go… with the tape. But not before he meticulously took down the name and number of my fixer, whom I’ve never seen or talked to since.

Bravery

And this brings me to the part where I wanted to talk about extraordinary acts of bravery—which are something to see. Bravery can be hard to write about because you run the risk of lionizing the person… making the person a hero, when the story is far more complicated than that. Bravery isn’t necessarily about moral fiber or noble intent. But when you are watching it up close, it’s like seeing something fleeting and spectacular in nature—Like watching a block of ice split from a glacier and fall booming into the sea.

During the post-election violence in Kenya, there was a coffee plantation in the Rift valley where a lot of men and women of different ethnic groups were living and picking. They were overrun one night by a rival community that knocked down their huts, looted them, and tried to burn some of the coffee pickers alive.

The Kalenjin tribe, who were the aggressors, wanted the land. But many of the coffee pickers were still there when I saw them a day or so later.  And they predicted that that night they would be under attack. I said, “Where do the people come from who did this to you?” And they all pointed to a group of houses just up the hill… clustered together like a raptor’s nest. And they calmly said, “those people.” The way you would point out the party ahead of you in line for a table at a restaurant.

Many of the coffee pickers were old farmers. They didn’t know anything about fighting. And they were carrying rusty machetes and farm tools, hoping to get some licks in before the inevitable. They stayed, not for the same stupid reasons that would have tempted me to stay. But they really had no other place to go. And sure enough, a few days later, the Kalenjin came back and scattered them in every direction. But it was quite a privilege to sit with hose coffee pickers as they prepared themselves for a fight they knew they would lose. No bravura. No bullshit. Where I’m from—under similar circumstances—somebody might have been moved to sing an old Negro spiritual. When my sister was in the hospital having a baby, she yelled out, “Somebody sing a Negro spiritual!” But though the farmers and I look almost exactly alike, we are not the same.

On Humor

OK, riddle me this: If you’re interviewing a woman with a full beard, do you mention that in your story? I’m not talking about a few whiskers… or a light, downy dusting of hair.  I’m talking Burl Ives as Kris Kringle in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Except this was a woman called Empress Baby Eye and she was a Rastafaran living in Ethiopia.

Or how ‘bout this one??  Let’s say you’re in some hot, dusty corner of Kenya where even the camels look thirsty and an old man walks up who is the spitting image of Bing Crosby—a black Bing Crosby, mind you, but Bing nonetheless. He’s got a sassy little hat on with a feather on the side,  a sports jacket and he’s wearing a skirt with a kicky pair of sandals. And he’s got the nicest legs you’ve ever seen. Then you notice that there are plenty of other Bing Crosby look-a-likes walking around and every one of them could give Betty Grable a run for her money. Do you mention those legs?

Or you’re interviewing a farmer who is so harried, that when he stops to tell you the names of his children he realizes what his wife has known for some time now, that they have 13 children and not 12. A farmer’s dozen. But then, this shouting and hollering and twitching man is calm enough to make friends with hundreds of thousands of honey bees. When he walks into their apiary, they treat him like an old friend. When I walked into their apiary, they swarmed me so bad I almost cried.

Or then there was the shameless old flirt in Khartoum, who may or may have been rendered impotent by torture who takes your hand and describes Sudanese foreign policy as a mating dance. “The Sudan and China are exchanging kisses,” he said, “and the U.S. has turned its face away.” Do you report it?

There’s a lot of the ridiculous in everybody and in every situation.  And that’s true of Africa just like any place else. Those silly little details are what make us real. So I think it should all go in. And sometimes it’s the best way to challenge the listener’s assumptions about how reporting should be done in the third world. The listeners love to write, “What about the suffering people?” And they seem to want some kind of eulogy.  They seem to want to sit there and cry, cry, cry about those poor Africans. And my reaction is to say, “Get off the cross lady. Somebody needs the wood.”

None of the people I interview sit around and cry, cry, cry. So why should we??? Laughing helps every situation. As far as I’m concerned, comedians should win the Nobel Peace Prize. And a giggle in a story is often the thing that will open the listener up to appreciate Africa in a different, more realistic, way.

My assistant, the ever-patient Linda Morgan, is Kenyan. And she was telling me the other day about a movie she saw based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book. “You know,” she said. “Love in the Time of Malaria?”

Well, that said more about what it’s like to live in the Third World, than any of the latest Doctor’s Without Borders statistics. In East Africa, “Love in the Time of Malaria,” would sell. Just like, “Love in the Time of Dengue Fever” would sell too.

My friend, Stephanie McCrummen, is the Washington Post correspondent and she and I are always talking about what we are going to name chapters in our respective but as yet hypothetical books on reporting from East Africa. And when we were in eastern Congo, we were staying in some fancy-pants hotel that had no stable water supply. So, after a full day out in the dust and heat of Congo, she’d get back to her room and there would be no water. So she’s decided to call her book, “Shower of My Own Tears.”  

But my favorite story, wraps up all of tonight’s themes into one scene… the silliness of assumptions, danger, bravery, humor. Just a few weeks ago, I was at a hotel in Nairobi sitting poolside with a man who lives and works in Somalia. Just to get to work every day, he has to pass through a number of check points controlled by a variety of militias, including Al Shabab - the radical, fairly thuggish Islamists who control most of Somalia now. And the Shabab don’t sanction music or movies.

But this man loves music. He hides a different CD in his trousers every morning and plays it secretly throughout the day. When he encounters Al Shabab, he keeps his face totally impassive so as to not let on that he’s listening to Beach Boys, or Sam and Dave or Bruce Springsteen or Pavarotti and friends. So, as the sun set on us that evening. I turned off the tape machine and we just sat around singing songs. We looked and sounded awfully silly… whispering about “Summer Love” and being “Born to Run” and hoping that none of the other Somalis present, many of whom were spies connected to the Shabab, would hear us. It was brave. And as the darkness covered us the people who were listening closely could distinctly hear:”
If you ever

Change your mind

About leaving

Leaving me behind

Oh oh

Bring it to me

Bring your sweet loving

Bring it on home to me.
Sam Cooke never sounded so good.

Thanks for listening.