Monday, August 6, 2007

Malicounda Bambara

Jeez... sorry for the delay!

My first out-of-town trip for work was... to say the least... interesting. It was the 10-year-commemoration of the first public declaration from village women in Senegal that they were abandonning female gential mutilation. From the get-go the set-up was unusual from a Canadian perspective. UNICEF, which organized the event we were reporting on, also organized a bus for all the press (about 30 Senegalese print, radio and TV reporters - and me!), fed us the whole weekend, and gave us cash for our hotel... Can you say conflict of interest? (yes, still.searching, i agree that media realities in Africa might be different - perhaps the media can't afford to cover things any other way - but one Senegalese journalist said her media organization never accepts money, so maybe things aren't so different after all. And certainly UNICEF wanted to make it easy for the journalists and get them onside the cause). In any case, the whole thing was disorganized. The bus didn't leave on time, of course. There was no air conditioning, and it was SO HOT. Seriously, I don't think I've ever lived a day where I was continuously sweating like this day.

We stopped first in this town called Thies, about 3 hours (actually 45 minutes, but with traffic 3 hours) east of Dakar. There, a bunch of delegates from different countries met to discuss strategies in the fight against female genital mutilation. The sound was horrible. I had no idea who the various speakers were. Parts were in a language I didn't understand. Overall, it was rather useless. When it was over, the MC asked if the media had questions. No one said a thing. Then, when the group dispersed, it was like a free-for-all, with all the journalists going after different people to interview. I kinda stood there, lost in the crowd, not knowing who to talk to or what information I wanted. It was a challenge to say the least.

Before I had the chance to do even two interviews, the bus swept us away to take us to a hotel in the neighbouring tourist town called Syla. I tried comparing notes with some of the other journalists, but most didn't get that much out of it either. At least they helped me with the spelling of some of the names, which were totally foreign to me. Funny, in Canada, when you quote somebody, you always have to ask them to spell out their name, so that you get it right. Here, if they hear a name, they know how to spell it - I guess because all the names are spelled the same way.

So, on this very "informative" trip, we wasted the night away waiting for the bus at the hotel, which was to take us to dinner and a cultural night. The bus was so late, that after dinner, it was midnight, and we cancelled the culturnal night and went back to the hotel. So in a whole day of travel, we got barely any information.

The only useful part was when Marie (a local journalist I met on the bus) and I went off into the village to try to find out if despite the big hoopla about abandoning the practice, FGM was still going on. We found a village elder who said exactly that. She spoke in Wolof. I didn't understand a thing. Marie would translate after every answer. She said that just a week ago, a girl had been circumcised in the village. But of course, she had no proof.

The next day was the big ceremony in the nearby village of Malicounda Bambara - complete with a marching band, posters, music, dancing. There were thousands of people there gathered around this square, with speeches etc. It was such a difficult day, because almost all the speeches were in Wolof. I had no idea what was being said. Talking to people without a local journalist by my side was near impossible, because most of the villagers didn't speak French. I felt totally handicapped. And even when you do have someone translating for you, the answers are never as good. You can't get the real emotion, or for that matter, more than a yes or no answer in a lot of cases. On top of that, there were so many different people present and different avenues you could take with the article, so it was pretty overwhelming.

At the end of it all, I came home with more confusion than anything, a whole bunch of notes without anything too useful, a headache and a tan from being in the gruelling sun. And of course, a bunch of new friends !

(A note on the friends. When you make friends with a Senegalese person, they expect a lot out of you. You're supposed to call them everyday to say hello, how you doing... When you slack off in the communication, they get offended (somewhat like my friends in Canada!). They could easily text/call you 2-3 day in the course of the day, without anything meaningful to say!)

Anyways, that's my report on my trip to Malicounda Bambara... the town where 35 women made history in Senegal. My article will explain the story... I'll post that with pictures soon....

But basically, it opened my eyes to the difficulties of reporting in a foreign place. And this wasn't even a conflict zone. Imagine if you had to deal with a language you don't know, names you don't recognize, an environment you don't understand, and bullets flying over your head ! It's a whole other world - and one that requires a lot of patience and dogged hard work. I wonder if I'll ever find myself there !


Still.Searching said...

Thank you Heba for sharing your experience. It is indeed scary to think that there are reporters for all American television stations reporting on conflicts in countries where they do not speak the language, do not know the culture and simply report on whatever is given to them in English. At least you recognize your limitation and are trying to do something about it!

Now at the risk of offending you or making you feel I am intruding, I will dare suggest that the concept of buses arriving on time or calling people only when there is a reason to do so is certainly a North American one reflecting the view that one has to manage life as one manages an efficient business minimizing waste. People in third world countries do not see the need to make their lives that efficient.. They have time for a lot of things and they do not mind using it for the little stuff.. they do not consider it waste.... Even business in North America is starting to realize that humans by nature need some “waste” in their daily activities and indeed it is that “waste” that makes them more efficient.. sort of like psychologists arguing that taking breaks when you are studying results in better studying despite the fact that it uses less time to study.

You should change your mindset, expect the buses to come as soon as it can but at no specific time, expect people to call to say Hello and without having a specific objective in mind, expect the system to be overall inefficient, do your best to understand how it works and allow yourself to flow with it.. You will find that in the end it actually works!

Finally, let me share with you a quote I just came across from Tommy Douglas, a Canadian Hero : “Courage my friends, it’s not too late to make a better world.” It is engraved on his tomb. take your time.. you'll get there.

Now, I thought you would have figured out who I am as soon as I started posting. When you did not, I was getting a kick out of freaking you out, just a little bit. I think this email may really push you far so, relax, you do know me, you know me very well.. if you guess who I am, send me a private email on my regular email.. If not, I will solve the puzzle for you after I torture you a bit.. I thought I needed to have a google account and hence the nick name. Maybe we can keep otehr readers freaked out?

Natasha said...

hey hebster. well anything i write is just going to sound silly after still searching's deep thoughts so i'll just say hi and i hope you're feeling better.