Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peace Journalism talk show enthralls, delights

OK, that's probably an exaggeration... Still, the program posted here (in two parts) is pretty interesting. It first aired on OPG-FM in Mbale, in eastern Uganda. The show features yours truly and some of my students talking about the Mbale workshop, as well as radio pieces produced by the workshop participants.

International Right to Know Day Resonates in Uganda

Today is International Right to Know Day—an event that spotlights the importance of citizen access to government information. In Uganda, a good Access to Information Act (AIA) was passed five years ago.
However, the AIA clashes with the Official Secrets Act, which the Ugandan government often uses to shield information from public disclosure. Journalists here say that getting information from government agencies is difficult if not impossible. Access to government information is an important characteristic of free speech and press. Until they get access, Ugandan citizens can’t fulfill their role as fully informed participants in a democratic state.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back from beautiful southwestern Uganda

Great seminar in Kabale, which is perhaps the most beautiful spot in Uganda. I'll post a complete photo album soon. Of course, all this travel is tough and tiring--just ask my assistant Gloria, who is attempting (below) to get a little rest in the car.

FYI, the Kabale I visited last week (south west) and the Kibale Park described below (west central) are two separate places. Yes, I'm confused, too.

Pick a cliche headline: Tree House of Horror; Terror Tree House; Going Batty

Note: If this sounds familiar, I wrote a paragraph about this a few weeks back, and promised a more detailed report would follow. Here is that report.

From the Parkville Luminary

KIBALE NATIONAL PARK, UGANDA—I cowered under my blanked when I heard the flapping sound inside my room. When the racket ceased, I grabbed my flashlight, and shined it toward the high ceiling in my tree house.

Yes, in my zest for adventure, or as part of a quest to prove my stupidity, I booked a night in one of the most unusual lodgings anywhere—a tree house. My night in the tree house, however, was just the epilogue to a day filled with adventure/stupidity.

As I arrived at Kibale National Park, I was struck by its awesome beauty—rolling hills, lush jungles, and abundant primate life. (Click here for Kibale photo album)

Seeking commune with some cousins, I booked a chimpanzee tracking tour led by a park ranger. The minute we left the ranger station, it started raining, light at first and then more heavily. Seven of the eight people on the chimp tracking tour had rain gear. The eighth hiker stupidly came without rain gear, and was drenched from the top of his curly hair to the bottoms of his flat feet. At least I brought along some plastic bags to protect my camera and wallet.

We plodded through the now slippery jungle for about an hour during the downpour, seeing nothing except one another—the only primates obtuse enough to be out in a monsoon. As the rain let up, the two of us bringing up the rear were attacked by about a dozen aggressive, small bees. The poor guy in front of my got the brunt of the blitzkrieg, and was stung 4-5 times. I only got one sting. For small bees, these babies packed a pretty good punch. I also figured out, as I was swatting and running, that insect repellent washes off in the rain.

Despite the bad weather, our chimp tracking expedition was not a wash. Once the rain subsided, we saw probably 50 chimps, including many babies. They were moving all around us, both on the ground and up in the trees. These chimps are habituated, meaning that you can get to within 10-15 feet of them, which we did on several occasions.

Not having enough of the jungle during the day, I had booked a tree house, instead of a comfortable hotel room, that night at the Primate Lodge in the park. I should have chickened out when I learned that the tree house was 1 ¼ miles away from the main lodge, literally in the middle of the jungle. The allure of the tree house is that it overlooks a clearing frequented by elephants, and also that it’s cheap--only $20 a night.

I arrived at the tree house, perched 15 feet in the sky, to watch the sun set, which was beautiful. Unfortunately, no elephants came the night I was there, even though you could see their tracks all around my elevated lodging, a small room supported by a tree and some beams and reached by a long staircase. There were no screens, only ill-fitting flaps that just semi-covered the windows.

Of course, any insect smaller than a Buick could have found its way into my room. As it turns out, although the buzzing and droning of millions of insects was disconcerting, they weren’t my problem. As I lay in bed, under a mosquito net, I heard the flapping noise, shined my flashlight, and discovered, to my abject horror, a bat hanging from my ceiling. Mr. Bat helped himself to my room, on and off, all night. He unabashedly announced his arrival each time with a couple of swoops around my room, followed by a few squeaks. I buried myself under the covers, wondering what to do if Mr. Bat got caught in my mosquito net. I could have left my room to Mr. Bat, but that would have meant a 20 minute hike alone in the dark through the jungle. No thanks.

As I lay there worrying about bats, my mind started thinking about other critters, like snakes, which could easily shimmer up to the tree house.

As the sun rose, my ceiling was bat free. I’m sure Mr. Bat had re-joined his friends, and told them all about how he scared some stupid tourist to death in the tree house. If bats could laugh, I’m sure they did. If nothing else, they probably squeaked with delight as Mr. Bat demonstrated how he swooped around my mosquito net while I hunkered down.

I told my wife this story, and she said she actually wants to stay in the tree house when she comes to Uganda. Honey, it’s all yours.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Managing radio station managers in Kampala

We held our first seminar today for radio station owners/managers in Kampala. The central messages: 1. Peace, and peace journalism, is good for business; 2. Professional, responsible electoral reporting is not only good for the community, but enhances a station's profile and reputation; 3. Professional reporters need to be treated like professionals, which means they need to be trained, paid decently, and their transportation expenses must be paid by the stations (this rarely happens here). A perceptive, receptive, reflective group of 22 owners/managers made teaching today a delight.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fresh photos posted will no doubt thrill, delight (in theory...)

I've posted pictures of my recently completed peace/electoral journalism seminar in Mbale. Great group, great work, great experience being there, despite some hiccups. See also new pictures of a hike my friend Caesar and I took at Sipi Falls, near Mount Elgon National Park. The short trek, after lots of rain, was slippery, but definitely worth the effort. Spectacular.

Doing some hard thinking about my goals, expectations

From the Parkville Luminary

MBALE, UGANDA—I lie awake at nights wondering if I’m engaged in an exercise in futility.

The goal of the Peace, Development, and Electoral Journalism project I’m leading here in Uganda is the prevention of violence, especially media induced violence, before, during, and after the 2011 Ugandan presidential elections. However, recent events here have left me questioning whether the whole effort isn’t destined to fail.

During the last month, the ruling party here, the NRM, has held its primary elections. These “elections” have been a disaster. Ballots have been lost, voter registrations have gone missing or been suspiciously altered, ballots have come to polling sites with candidates’ names pre-selected, ballots have been hours late being delivered to polling sites, ballots have been burned, and local primary elections have been postponed repeatedly. This might all be marginally comical if this NRM chaos hadn’t led to mayhem—injuries, beatings, tear-gassings, etc. as partisan supporters of candidates, and sometimes even the candidates themselves, exchanged blows. For example, in Kibale, a member of parliament’s car was stoned, while in Butaleja, NRM elections were cancelled after a testy mob attacked election organizers, injuring 12. In West Budama, a government minister drew a gun on his opponent’s supporters. (independent.com/ug ). Many have been arrested. These ugly scenes have been repeated nationwide.

Remember, these are just the primaries.

One small silver lining is that everyone from the president on down has sharply condemned the violence. The NRM and the opposition both vow that the general elections will not end in violence, and that a lesson will be learned from the NRM primary debacle. Given this backdrop, it’s easy to understand why I feel like I’m paddling upstream.

Still, I am working hard to try to cling to at least a little optimism. There are a number of efforts here by non-governmental organizations to combat violence during this election cycle, and I am hopeful that these will make a difference.

I have taught Peace and Electoral Journalism to about 140 Ugandan radio journalists and announcers thus far. Our seminars are scheduled to reach about 260 more journalists by election time next year, for a total of 400. Now, if even half of these journalists/announcers take our lessons to heart, this means Uganda will have about 200 radio professionals covering the election in a way that reduces inflammatory rhetoric, empowers voters, discourages violence and promotes cooperation and reconciliation.

I am encouraged by the reception our seminars have received thus far. The participants have been interested, active, and engaged, with the exception of just one seminar. Generally, the journalists/announcers have left the seminars promising to concentrate their efforts to prevent violence. In follow-up meetings and emails, it’s clear that the principles of peace and electoral journalism have taken root in some places. In Gulu, one journalist wrote that she is concentrating on holding candidates accountable for what they say, which is a pretty good lesson for American journalists, too. Radio stations are also broadcasting anti-violence radio spots (PSA’s) in Gulu. In Fort Portal, one journalist told me that his station is working harder to balance election coverage, and is focusing now on issues of community concern. Another said his station is looking beyond campaign rhetoric, and forcing candidates to take positions on vital issues. Several participants said they have shared election coverage and peace journalism tips with colleagues at their radio stations, which is definitely encouraging.

So, there is some small reason for optimism, though this is clearly overshadowed by the NRM primary mess, which has forced me to reassess my goals. Perhaps the prevention of all election violence is too tall an order here in Uganda, at least for right now. Maybe the most that peace and electoral journalists can do is reduce the number of violent incidents, and keep the violence from spreading when it does occur. As I tell my seminar students, the very least they can do is to not pour gasoline on the fire.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Short-circuit in Mbale

In Mbale, in Eastern Uganda, for five day peace/electoral journalism seminar. Rough going--no electricity in hotel most of the time means depending on battery power for my seminar; no electricity also means no hot water, which is no big deal since the water pressure is too low to power a shower at any rate. Don't get me started on the food. Still, my spirits have been lifted by the seminar participants, who are interested, engaged, and energetic. They're out reporting on peace/electoral radio stories this afternoon. I look forward to hearing their completed pieces, if the power holds out long enough to finish editing. I also look forward to my merciful return to Kampala Friday night.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

News and multimedia updates

Just returned from Hoima and seminar #6 (of a total of 24). Photos of the Hoima workshop, and some of the others, are now posted at a new site dedicated to shots taken at the seminars.

Also, I continue to receive positive feedback about the radio story I did (posted here) about how one radio journalist changed the lives of six orphans. If you haven't heard it yet, try it. Two columns about the journalist and her orphans are also posted below.

Death on the Nile (well, not really...)

From the Parkville Luminary

ON THE NILE RIVER, UGANDA--When I flew into the water, the power of the rapids dragged me under, and smashed me so hard it tore the helmet off my head and snapped the string holding my glasses in place. It was like being repeatedly and rapidly punched. I felt the tremendous pressure against my face, which must have looked like the contorted, smushed faces of the pilots who do those g-force tests.

I thought I was going to die.

Since I am not writing this posthumously, I obviously survived my encounter with some major-league rapids on the Nile River in Uganda, near the source of the Nile just north of Lake Victoria near Jinja. Whitewater rafting is big business here, so I decided that since I was in the neighborhood that I’d have to give it a try.

(Photo--NY Times)

When I entered the staging area, I immediately noticed that I was twice as old as everyone else there. I quickly discovered that my rafting mates were all Peace Corps volunteers on an outing, and were all fresh out of college. I was fresh out of college in 1984. A smarter person would have abandoned ship at this point, realizing that this activity is for the young, and that young-at-heart just won’t cut it when you’re thrashing about in some rapids trying not to drown.

Being equally stubborn and obtuse, I found myself stepping onto a big rubber raft and into possible oblivion. I had rafted before in Colorado, so I figured this would be a breeze. Of course, my rafting in Colorado was 20 years ago, and consisted of grade 2 and 3 rapids. These were 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s. (Experts grade rapids on a 1 to 6 scale, with 6 being so intense that rafts can not go over them, only kayaks, according to our rafting guide Eric).

My raft-mates were five enthusiastic, energetic 20-something ladies ready for adventure. As we began, I wondered if I was stuck with them for the day, or vice-versa. As it turned out, I think we made a great team.

The first rapids weren’t too frightening, a little like an intense log ride at an amusement park. This wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought. Eric said the second rapids were grade 3, sort of medium-harrowing. As we slid into this maelstrom, I wasn’t worried—the trough didn’t seem that low, nor the waves that high. I was wrong. As we hit the trough, all five ladies and I (but not Eric) were jettisoned from the raft, which never did tip over. I don’t mean that we just plopped over the sides. No, this was much more like the unequivocal ejection one might receive from a burly barroom bouncer.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I hit the water, nor should it have come as a shock that the current was so powerful. Still, no mental preparation can steel you for this terrifying experience. I was probably under water only five seconds or so, but of course it seemed like an eternity. I tried to swim up to the surface, but was held underwater and pushed downstream. As I finally bobbed up, I noticed my glasses and helmet were gone, but damn, I was alive. I had floated maybe 50 yards away from the raft. One of the kayaks buzzing around (a safety precaution) picked me up and ferried me back to the raft. I was stunned, frightened, and exhilarated.

Fortunately, this was the only traumatic experience during the six hour trip. We successfully navigated grade 4 and 5 rapids for the rest of the day without capsizing or being ejected, and it was a blast. There was one little incident, however. During one nasty rapid, the six of us were crouched in the raft, hanging on for dear life to a rope on the side. As we were sliding about, the young lady behind me, Amy, lost control, and her foot slid underneath me. I teased her afterwards about our new-found intimacy. Without intending to be funny, in referring to what she felt with her foot, she said, “I thought it was a rock.” All six of us cracked up, and I told Amy that yes indeed it was a rock.

It was comforting to me, after a day of feeling old and out of place, to confirm that I can still can still rock with the youngsters.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Multimedia--The Kyenjojo Orphans

I've received a great deal of positive feedback on part one of the story I did (see below, Sun., Aug. 29--"Finding some perspective") about six orphans in Western Uganda. Click here for photos of journalist Betty Mujungu, the six kids, and their old and new homes. The original radio story Betty did, as well as a follow up radio report that I produced, are both posted here. Part two of the story is below.

Radio's power lifts orphans to better life

From the Parkville Luminary

KYENJOJO, UGANDA—As you look at the one-room mud brick hut—cracked, crumbling, and depressing--it’s incomprehensible that six orphans lived alone in this shanty for 13 months.

The hut sits in a small valley in rural, isolated Kyenjojo district, about five hours west of Kampala by car, and about 45 minutes from the nearest town, Fort Portal. The village where the hut is located, Mbale-Kaigoro, is inaccessible by car, and is a strenuous 20 minute hike from the nearest rutted dirt road.

Annet, at 14 the oldest of the orphans, recently accompanied us back to the hut. As we reached the site of her former home, Annet was somber, as was Betty Mujungu, the radio journalist who first told her listeners the story of the six orphans about three weeks ago. This hut is in the place that the father of the six, drunk, frequently beat the kids’ mom. The father went too far one night, and killed the mother. Remorseful, the father then killed himself. The six children were suddenly orphaned, and left alone with no relatives or neighbors willing or able to help them.

Betty, a journalist at Life FM in Fort Portal, produced a report about the orphans’ plight, featuring the kids telling their pathetic story. In the radio report, the children talked openly about how they were suffering, about enduring a leaky roof in the hut, and about how they didn’t have enough to eat. Annet told Betty about how one of the younger girls injured her leg escaping from a would-be rapist.

It’s hard to listen to Betty’s report without crying.

Life FM’s listeners were touched by the story, and immediately sprung into action. Ten different donors generously gave food and clothing to the children. Shortly thereafter, the biggest miracle of all occurred for the kids. Betty’s mother, Edith Birungi, offered to take in the orphans, all six of them. (This is on top of two other orphans Edith and Betty brought into their home two years ago).

The Kyenjojo orphans, Adolph (5 years old), Patrick (7), Violet (9), Peter (11), Janet (13), and Annet (14), told me, in soft voices, how grateful they were to have food, clean clothes, and affection at Edith and Betty’s house.

However, one final hurdle remained for the orphans--getting into school. In Uganda, as in much of the developing world, students have to pay to enroll in primary and secondary school. For these six kids to enroll in school and buy uniforms, the price tag was $250—much more than Betty and her mom could afford. However, a benefactor stepped forward, and gave Betty the $250 to cover school fees and uniforms. The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, also pledged to pay the orphans’ school fees in the future. His money won’t be wasted. Janet said she wants to be a teacher, while Annet is determined to become a doctor.

Life still isn’t perfect for the six children. The orphans all share one room, so things are cramped. The kids don’t have beds, and sleep on pallets on the floor. When I visited the house, the children clung to one another very closely, and seemed eerily quiet, even depressed. Also, Betty and Edith’s house has no electricity. An electrical line runs along the street in front of their house, but they don’t have enough money to drop a line to serve their home. Finances are very tight. Edith can’t work (she had a stroke several years ago that left her weak on her right side), so the only regular income coming in to the house is Betty’s small radio station salary. Edith said God will provide for them all, somehow.

Betty attended one of my peace journalism workshops about a month ago. She told me that it was this workshop that gave her the tools and encouragement she needed to report the story about the orphans. In the workshops, I tell my students, all radio journalists and announcers, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to strive to make their communities a better place. Betty was obviously listening.

All too often, radio in Africa has been used to inflame hatred and spark violence. Betty’s story will be a good lesson for my future students that the power of radio in Uganda can be harnessed for the good of society. Thanks to Betty’s report, the six orphans, including seven year old Patrick, are now looking forward to a better life.

In a radio story I produced about Betty and the orphans, Patrick observed, “At least we (now) see that there is some future, some hope.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chimpan A to Chimpan Z (from the Simpsons); Treehouse of Horror (also the Simpsons)

At Kibale National Park in Western Uganda, I went chimpanzee tracking last weekend. Was soaked by driving rain for an hour, then stung by small, testy bees. But it was worth it. We saw probably 50 chimps of all ages, many on the ground moving about all around us. We got at close as 10 feet on several occasions. These chimps are habituated--oblivious to human visitors. We also saw chimps in trees eating fruit, and raining the pits down upon us. There's no feeling like seeing animals in their natural habitat.

At the park, I spent the night in a treehouse, located about a mile from the main lodge. I'll write more about this later, but for now, click here to enjoy a video about that experience that I've posted.