By Paul Shalala
While attending Thomson Reuters Foundation sponsored training in Advanced Financial Reporting course at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg in June 2013, I came across a call for applications from the African Story Challenge for African journalists to submit their story ideas on Agriculture and receive funding to cover their respective stories.
Initially, when veteran Malawian journalist Collins Mtika showed me the link for the competition, I hesitated to apply. I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t make it. Two days after I was shown the link, Collins came back to my room at the Courtyard Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg. He asked me if I had prepared my 500 word story proposal. I answered in the negative and assured him that I would apply later. After he left my room, I debated within myself whether to apply or not. Finally, i decided to give it a shot.
Seeing that my friend had already submitted his proposal, I spent four hours of that night typing the 500 word proposal and I made sure I sent it that very evening so as not to disappoint my good friend Collins who I first met in Berlin, Germany in 2011 and later met him again in Kampala, Uganda in 2012.
In my proposal, I had asked to do a story on the effects of the huge investments by multi-national mining firms in Zambia and their effects on peasant farmers who are usually displaced to pave way for mines. In those 500 words, i gave examples of displacements at Munali Nickel Mine in Mazabuka and at Kalumbila mine in Solwezi.
A few days after I submitted my write up, I received an email acknowdging receipt of my application. Immediately, I went to Facebook and “liked” the African Story Challenge page to keep track of the selection process.
In the following weeks, I kept checking the African Story Challenge website and facebook page for updates but nothing was forthcoming.
Finally, on 10 July, 2013, I received an email confirming that I had been shortlisted among the 20 finalists for the Agriculture and food security theme. I received that email while I was covering debates in parliament. And I remember after I read it, I couldn’t keep the joy to myself, I shared the email with two of my colleagues Bangwe Navilley from ZNBC and Steven Mvula of the Zambia Daily Mail who next to in the press gallery.
Now that I had been selected, it was time to switch from waiting for the selection process to preparing for the story Camp in Naivasha, Kenya.
I must say that from the start, management and editors at the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) had been very supportive of my application for the African story Challenge. ZNBC Director General Chibamba Kanyama and TV2 Assignments Editor Yvette Tembo made my work easier as they kept checking on me on how far I had gone with my application. I kept them informed from the very day I submitted my application until the day I was shortlisted. This made it easy for me to prepare for the story Camp and seek permission to travel.
I left Lusaka for Nairobi on 3rd August at lunch time but I only arrived in Nairobi in the early hours of the following day due to my itinerary which took me to Zimbabwe and Ethiopia before I landed at East Africa’s regional aviation hub Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at around 01:00hrs.
Since the Story Camp was starting the same day I landed, I only had a few hours of sleep at Hotel Emerald before we embarked on an hour long road trip to the Kenyan resort town of Naivasha which is situated on the picturesque Lake Naivasha.
On our way, we witnessed the real Great Rift Valley and not the imaginary one I learnt at Primary school back in Zambia in the 1990s. It was shocking to note that within 30 minutes of leaving cosmopolitan Nairobi, the landscape had completely changed. This proved to me that Kenya is a country of different faces. On our way, we snaked through hills and made our way through the Great Rift Valley were millions of cattle, goats and sheep are reared for various purposes.
We arrived at our destination close to two hours after we left the bustling city of Nairobi. Enaisipai Resort andSspa was to be our home for the remaining part of our stay in Kenya. The resort is located on the shores of Lake Naivasha which is a tourist attraction hosting the iconic crescent island. On this lake, one can watch such animals as Wildebeasts, antelopes and several birds which live on the island which is completely surrounded by the inland lake.
Of particular interest to me was to learn that most of the tourists who visit Lake Naivasha are Chinese. And indeed on our second day at the resort, we went on a boat cruise on the lake and met more than a dozen boats laden with excited Chinese tourists who wasted no time in taking pictures with virtually everything they saw on the water and in the surrounding trees.
The four days spent at the secluded Enaisipai Resort and Spa were memorable. Meeting other 19 finalists from across Africa made me feel proud of myself and get motivated to aim even higher.
Meeting Africa Story Challenge organisers Joseph Warungu and Maimouna Jallow was a dream come true for me. As a small boy at my village in Mumbwa District, I grew up listening to these two people on BBC Focus on Africa and BBC Network Africa program. A few days ago, when I hinted to my father that I had met Joseph and Maimouna in Kenya, he kissed my hands in the traditional Lozi way and showered blessings on me for having met his heroes who he never thinks he will ever meet in his life.
The most humourous of all facilitators at the Story Camp was one i would call the “Mr Bean” of Nigeria, Declan Okpalaeke. This Knight International Health Journalism Fellow is one of the most jovial Nigerians I have ever met. In his presentations, he mixed journalism best practices with jokes to ensure that even dozing finalists are kept on their toes laughing, smiling and yearning for more.
As a TV finalist, I learnt a lot from Rob Finighan who took us through script writing, pitching a story and video editing. His emphasis on telling a story with a human face compelled me to re-look at the way I do stories for Zambia’s national broadcaster.
Of all the memories I have for Enaisipai, Wednesday night was the best. Joseph and Maimounna surprised us with a night time live band in a tent. Finalists danced the night away with various forms of music. Each journalist was given an opportunity to showcase their traditional dances and songs from their country.
Some of the best dances were the ‘violent’ Ugandan dance which most finalists enjoyed and was performed by three Ugandan finalists. Mustapha El Mehdi’s Arabic song also caught everyone by storm and we danced in an uncoordinated way.
Nana Boakye Yiadom of Ghana was the star choreographer for the night. He took us through the popular azonto dance and many danced to his tune. With the fact that am not a fan of night outs, I secretly and smoothly sneaked out of the event at 23:00hrs and went to have my well-deserved rest. Other finalists partied till 03:00hrs the following day.
When we arrived in Kenya a few days earlier, we thought it would all be smooth, we were wrong. What we didn’t know was that August is the worst month in Kenya in terms of deaths and bad incidents. While we were enjoying our stay in Naivasha, back in Nairobi, the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was on fire. Authorities closed the airport forcing hundreds of flights to be cancelled and thousands of travellers stranded.
All finalists for the African Story Challenge who flew into Kenya were affected by this disaster when leaving Nairobi. My flight which was supposed to leave Nairobi at 05:00hrs on Friday was brought forward to midnight. Together with four other finalists from Malawi, Cameroon and Nigeria, we queued at the airport from 20:00hrs and only managed to check in at 23:00hrs. The plane which was supposed to fly us out at midnight only came in at 01:00hrs and we left Nairobi at 04:00hrs on Friday. All through that difficult time, none of us slept as we kept vigil to observe the whole episode unfold.
My arrival back in Zambia on that Thursday afternoon gave me another challenge: to start working on my final product for submission to the African Story Challenge. Management and editors at my office received my arrival with joy. For the first time ever, my employer gave me a slot on the main news. I was interviewed to give my views on the nomination and explain what it means for ZNBC and for the nation as a whole. ZNBC Director for News and Current Affairs Kenneth Maduma was also interviewed and his clip was aired on ZNBC TV and TV2 on successive news bulletins on 13 August.
With time ticking, I now need to head in the field to operationalize my story on the impact of investments of multi-national companies on local peasant farmers.
This story will not end here, it will continue till the eventual winner of the African Story Challenge Agriculture and Food Security theme is unveiled at the conference of African Media Leaders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November, 2013.