October 06, 2009

The trouble with Abu Sharati

Some clever sleuthing by Amanda Taub, who blogs at Wronging Rights, has revealed a potential problem with a source in three mainstream media stories on Darfur. Taub's claim, originally posted yesterday and now making the rounds of the Africa blogosphere (see here, here and here), deserves an answer from the three media organizations she lists.

More fundamentally, however, it underscores the pitfalls that face all reporters working in Africa.

To summarize: Taub believes that "Abu Sharati," who claims to be "a representative of Darfur refugees" and is regularly quoted by the news media, is more likely the nom de plume of a spokesman for one of the main Darfur rebel leaders, and therefore pushing his own agenda rather than representing the views of some 2 million displaced people.

Taub found that Abu Sharati was quoted last month in a story by the Associated Press, and prior to that in stories in The New York Times and Reuters. From the first of a three-part post:

None of my contacts could be sure, but they shared a common theory: that the supposed "refugee spokesperson" was actually part of the PR operation of Abdel Wahid Al Nur, a rebel leader who heads one faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army, or SLA. An activist from a different faction of the SLA, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Sharati was in fact one of Abdel Wahid's men.

Taub, a lawyer, contacted the reporters who wrote each of the three stories, and published their replies (Part II). Then she explains why getting a quote like this wrong is an injustice. It's all very hard-hitting, well reasoned and important media monitoring -- the best reason blogs exist.

A few commenters point out the No. 1 problem with quoting someone like "Abu Sharati" to begin with. How can one person claim to speak for the masses of suffering Darfuris? Surely the title "spokesman for Darfur refugees" should strike a reporter or editor as odd considering how diverse the population of Darfur actually is.

Others argue that this is the sort of "sloppy" work that the Western news media permits when it comes to faraway Africa, but wouldn't countenance on issues in its own backyard.

I don't want to seem like I'm reflexively defending the work of colleagues whose work I read regularly, and often admire. But surely there's more to an apparent inconsistency like this than sloppiness or willful ignorance. Taub has found one troubling problem in three stories over the course of a year of reporting on a major news story that has produced as much copy as any in Africa.

I think we should take it for what it seems to be: a mistake by reporters who are expected to cover and master an immense amount of territory, much of which they can't usually get to on deadline, or even within days or weeks.

The three reporters mentioned all cover Darfur regularly, but none of these three stories were written from Darfur. The region, as you can imagine, is exceedingly difficult and complicated to get to, and sitting in Khartoum or Dakar rarely helps you get a better feel for the ground in Darfur than sitting in New York City.

Yet it is Journalism 101 to get all sides of a story, so reporters try when they can to get local voices - "man on the street" opinions - into pieces they must write from these distant capitals. "Abu Sharati" stuck his hand up as someone who could speak for the masses of Darfur's displaced, the vast majority of whom don't have cell phone numbers and wouldn't be able to answer a reporter's question about a news development before that evening's deadline.

The couple of times I've been to Darfur, I've asked for phone numbers of people in the IDP camps, for just this reason. It's a vain exercise, but one I feel compelled to attempt. Most times I get a blank look. Sometimes people laugh at me. Most wouldn't even have electricity to charge a phone, and besides cell phone networks barely function in much of Darfur. You might find a Darfuri in Khartoum who could offer an opinion, but would he be any more representative of the views of millions of displaced people just because he'd pick up your phone call?

Quoting a "refugee representative" doesn't pass the smell test, and these news organizations should have been more vigilant in their sourcing. Yet I believe what we have here is a problem of overreaching, of trying to file a more complete story on a deadline when better options aren't available, rather than a problem of laziness.

Africa is a big, big place, and the relatively few reporters here must always do more with less. In this case, I believe, the reporters tried to do too much.

October 05, 2009

'It's Our Turn to Eat' update

IIt_s_Our_Turn_To_4a8fd5c53a319n February I wrote about the de facto retail ban in Kenya on "It's Our Turn to Eat," Michela Wrong's eye-opening book about ethnicity and political corruption here. Since then a creative U.S. Embassy staffer helped some activist groups sell a few thousand copies at reduced prices (under a grant by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives).

But the book remains "too hot" for any Kenyan bookstore to stock openly and regularly, and the only Kenyans who buy the book now are those who travel overseas.

Michela e-mailed me last week about a new and innovative distribution project that I'm happy to help publicize. A group of Kenyans in London and Nairobi have launched a website that links customers in Kenya with local distributors who have the book but aren't selling it openly. Here's the best part: the buyers can pay with M-Pesa, the wonderful mobile money service that I believe is one of the best low-tech innovations of the decade. No need for credit cards.

The website is www.thekenyashop.com.

Michela says the folks behind the website are keeping their identities secret for now, but she vouches for them. "This is not a con trick," she says. Sale price is 1500 Kenya shillings (about $20) -- cheaper than what I paid for my copy in South Africa, but higher than the USAID-subsidized price and still expensive for ordinary Kenyans. Delivery is same-day. They're starting off with 150 pilot copies to see what interest is. This morning the website says 140 copies are still in stock.

Michela says:

I'm doing my best to publicise this as there seems to be a real nervousness about using the site. It currently gets hits but very few orders. I'm told this might be because Kenyans have been burnt by various website scams in the past. Or maybe it's because of what Philo Ikonya called "the return of fear." Call me self-obsessed, but I doubt that the potential Kenyan market for this book has been exhausted yet, even if I'd like to see the price going down.

I have to agree with her: the book, despite being out for nearly a year, remains much more talked about than actually read. It's a shame, because it's one of the most important books on Kenya to come out in years.

October 04, 2009

Somalia pirates in Playboy

For those of you who can't get enough of Somali pirates, Playboy Magazine has just published a feature I wrote on the pirates. It draws heavily from stuff I've already reported for McClatchy, but there's some new reporting as well. It's one time you can tell your wife/girlfriend/mother that you're reading Playboy for the articles and (perhaps) mean it.

"Pirates of Somalia" - Playboy Magazine, October 2009

October 01, 2009

Fortress America


I had dinner the other night with two McClatchy folks from California who are vacationing in Kenya. They're staying with some friends who live not far from the diplomat-heavy Gigiri suburb, home to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

That place is HUGE, one of them said.

I've almost forgotten how imposing the new U.S. embassies of the developing world can look to visitors. I've become accustomed to the whole Fortress America thing -- the fenced-off compound a safe distance from the city center, the phalanxes of security guards, the way the hospital-like buildings themselves stand back at least 100 feet from the road (per post-9/11 regulations), as if daring an attacker.

You might expect a fortress in Baghdad (as my colleague Hannah Allam reported this week) or Nairobi, where terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, killing more than 200 people, mostly Kenyans. Last week, however, I visited the new American Embassy in Kampala (pictured above). Kampala is normally one of the most placid capitals in Africa, but our embassy there is, if anything, more isolated and unfriendly-looking than Nairobi's.

The motorbike taxi I rode there had to drop me off 100 yards from the main vehicle entrance. It took me 20 minutes to get through five checkpoints -- including one manned by a hulking American serviceman behind a glass window as thick as his neck -- for the meeting I had scheduled.

Very safe, said the Ugandan security guard who escorted me between two checkpoints. Verrrrrry safe.

Mission accomplished in that regard. But gone are the days, it seems, when our embassies were just that -- ambassadors of American culture and values in the developing world. When the embassy in Nairobi was located downtown, it had a library where ordinary people could come in and read American newspapers and books. The new embassies have libraries, too -- but the architecture doesn't exactly scream "Welcome" and your average Kenyan or Ugandan is scared off by the security.

Other missions are taking cues from us. When I moved to Nairobi, the Australian Embassy located a few hundred yards from my place was set back from the road but separated by a low metal gate. You could see the large glass windows and tennis court. It felt almost friendly, like Australians themselves. But now they've constructed a big concrete wall and sliding steel gate that blocks our view of the building -- and theirs of the city.

Victor Ashe, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Poland, is on the record as saying the post-9/11 American Embassies are too much like fortresses -- and that too many are being built in the same imposing, aloof style. The embassy you'd want in Pakistan isn't necessarily the one you should construct in Warsaw, Ashe says. Safety of American staff is of paramount importance, of course, but in places like Kampala we risk walling ourselves off unnecessarily from a place that doesn't deserve that distance.

September 30, 2009

Gadhaffi leaves his mark


There were a lot of chuckles and eye-rolls at Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhaffi's rambling speech last week at the United Nations, in which he tossed aside a copy of the UN charter, discussed Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of Grenada and suggested that the United States take a page from his own book (the Green Book, perhaps) and make President Obama ruler-for-life.

It certainly wasn't the first time Gadhaffi has appeared erratic on the world stage, and it won't be the last.

Yet as I was driving through the Ugandan capital Kampala last week, I came across a different kind of Gadhaffi trademark. Perched on a hill and dominating the skyline of a neighborhood called "Old Kampala" stands a magnificent new mosque, billed as the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. It's the Gadhaffi Mosque -- named for the man who bankrolled its construction when money ran out.

Yes, that Gadhaffi. (The street alongside the mosque was also renamed for Col. Muammar Gadhaffi, in case there was any doubt.)

There are a lot of snickers in Uganda -- where Muslims account for about a quarter of the population -- about the size of the mosque, which can hold about 15,000 worshipers. There's also been some backlash against its connection to the reviled dictator Idi Amin, who began work on the mosque 30 years ago.

But in the capital of one of the most stable countries in East Africa, you won't see a more eye-catching piece of architecture. Americans may give Uganda food aid and HIV drugs while the Chinese build roads and sell cheap electronics. No one is doing what Gadhaffi did here or in his Libyan hometown of Sirte: build a massive monument that everyone has to look at, and be reminded of the man who likes to call himself Africa's "King of Kings."

It's not subtle, but that's not Gadhaffi's style.

September 24, 2009

It takes a village

I was interviewing women at a prenatal clinic in rural eastern Uganda yesterday. For reasons I'll leave out for now, one woman's story in particular caught my attention, and as journalists sometimes do in these situations, I suggested to the local health worker who was escorting me that we might drive the woman, 29-year-old Catherine, the few miles back to her home for a longer conversation.

You're 9 months pregnant, I said to Catherine, feigning chivalry. You shouldn't walk all the way home.

There was something in Catherine's tone that made me think she might be reluctant. But she agreed, and said she'd wait for us while we interviewed one more woman. About 20 minutes later, we were ready to leave, but Catherine was nowhere to be found.

We described her to some hospital workers, who said they saw her walk out of the gates. Agnes, the take-no-guff health worker, was now as interested in this story as I was, and we were determined to track her down.

Our quiet morning of interviews had turned into a good old-fashioned village caper.

Driving up and down the main road looking for Catherine seemed unlikely to succeed. What if she turned off into a side road? Fortunately, she'd given us some clues in her interview. Her husband worked at a butchery. We knew the name of her village, and that one of the hospital workers was a neighbor. And we knew her cell phone battery was dead, so she might have stopped somewhere in town to charge it.

Africa never ceases to amaze me with how, by describing the broad outlines of someone's life, you can sometimes track down one of their relatives or neighbors. So that's how we learned from some of the hospital workers that the butchery where Catherine's husband worked was just down the road.

We drove past, looking for her, but no dice. Agnes saw the man who she believed to be Catherine's husband, but she hadn't told him she was going to the hospital that day, so we decided it best not to tell him we were looking for her.

That left us with the clue about her neighbor. Her village is small enough that only a few hospital workers lived nearby. One of them was there that morning, and when we described Catherine to him, he immediately knew the neighbor we were looking for.

We set off with the neighbor's name and a vague set of directions, hoping that we could find Catherine walking along the road, or at least her village. We drove our little Toyota sedan up and hill and down, through thickets of bushes barely wide enough for a car, the branches scraping the sides. We stopped at five clusters of huts before finding the health worker's home, except she wasn't there and no one had her cell phone number.

We described Catherine to some people, and then one had a suggestion. William, one of the health worker's sons, was home on lunch break from school and knew where Catherine lived. I started to say something about kidnapping an elementary school child, but Agnes was adamant.

This is more important than school, she yelled to William. This is our visitor from America!

I was embarrassed by the fuss I'd created, which had now lasted well over an hour and threatened to torpedo the rest of the day's schedule. But William, still dressed in his gingham-checked school uniform, had already jumped in the car. Barking instructions from the backseat he led us down some back roads, through more thickets, more scrapes on the Toyota, until we arrived in a clearing of huts that William said belonged to Catherine's family.

Sure enough, here were Catherine's kids and their grandmother, who greeted us like old friends. But no Catherine. She was probably still walking back. I asked if anyone had her cell phone number, and no one did - she and her husband had the two phones in the family. One of the kids had a brainstorm, and found the sheet of paper that had come with Catherine's cell phone SIM card, which had her number printed on it.

I might have kissed the kid, but when Agnes went to dial the number, the phone was switched off.

We could have waited there for hours, but I said we should give up. We'd wasted an hour and a half and had one more clinic to visit before a long drive back to Kampala. We agreed to drop William back at school and proceed on our way. We thanked Catherine's family and drove off back into the thicket.

As we turned onto the main road, Agnes looked behind us and noticed a figure moving slowly way down a hill, several hundred yards away. It was Catherine. I had never been so pleased to see a near-total stranger. Even William smiled. Agnes waited several minutes for her to make her way up the hill before she started to chastise her for leaving us in the lurch.

You woman, she said, as Catherine looked slightly sheepish. You woman!

I didn't ask why she'd left the hospital without us. It could have been impatience, confusion, a language problem -- these things are often unknowable in Africa. We didn't stay with her long, in case we really did make her uncomfortable. But she was gracious and smiled when we parted company. Agnes and I slapped palms and felt like we'd solved a crime, The Case of the Disappearing Mother.

Was I being intrusive by chasing Catherine down like this? Maybe a little. I often feel like my presence as an outsider with expensive shoes and a nice camera makes people feel like they have to talk to me, whether they like it or not. Sometimes it's the local contact, like Agnes, insisting that the visitor's wishes must be accommodated. And sometimes people just don't want to talk to you.

I had to take Catherine at her word - she'd invited us home, and she didn't shoo us away when we found her. Quite the contrary. I felt a little embarrassed at chasing her, but she has a story worth telling, which I'll tell in due course. And it's these little mini-adventures, which end up exposing much more about life in these places than even the most illuminating of interviews, that I'll miss most about this job when it's over.

September 22, 2009

Twitter diplomacy

The U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Mike Ranneberger, has started a Twitter feed. In the inaugural Tweet he wrote that he was "Looking to expand contacts with Kenyan people as part of U.S. efforts to push for implementation of reforms."

So far he's come out swinging.

Already he's Tweeted in favor of the removal of hated police boss Hussein Ali and voiced opposition to President Kibaki's attempt to reappoint corruption czar Aaron Ringera, who's widely seen as incompetent. Ranneberger wrote: "Outraged by Ringera's reappointment. Indication of impunity. A Kenyan told me it's a slap in the face of Kenyans. What to do? Suggestions?"

Last week, after the Kenyan Parliament voted down the appointment, Ranneberger expressed his support not in an official statement, but via Twitter. Moments later, he wrote:


The ambassador has only 155 followers as of Tuesday afternoon, but I imagine that will be changing as nervous Kenyan pols create their Twitter accounts. We'll see how or if Ranneberger manages to balance diplomatic nuance with Twitter's tyrannical brevity.

September 21, 2009

You are most welcome in Uganda

I haven't been to Uganda for three years, which I regret, because it's one of my favorite places in Africa. Kampala was the first African capital I visited, and its oft-remarked upon charms -- sun-kissed hills, laid-back vibe, freewheeling media, generally cool people -- made me think I could survive a long posting on the continent. "Africa for Beginners," I like to call it, even though this place, like others, is much more complicated than that. (Read the Economist's recap of the recent political unrest.)

I once rode with a taxi driver named Lawrence. He inverted his "L's" and "R's" -- a common linguistic quirk in Kampala -- so for several days I thought his name was Rawlings. It wasn't until we parted ways at the airport, sharing a warm hug, that he saw the way I'd misspelled his name in my phone. He looked ashen.

Before heading back to Kampala yesterday, I dug out Lawrence's number. I dialed it this morning and at the other end there was a very happy voice. I didn't even have to introduce myself. "I had given up on you!" Lawrence said. He'd saved my number, too.

So many people in Africa seem to save phone numbers of faraway people like me. It makes calls to onetime acquaintances feel like long-awaited reunions. A lot of correspondents are more judicious about handing out their numbers; mine are printed on my business cards, for better or worse.

Some people flash or text more often than you'd like, and once in awhile someone will find your number to ask for money. But usually the relationship remains pleasantly dormant until you turn up in country again.

After we arranged to meet this week, Lawrence said exuberantly, "You are most welcome in Uganda!" And I felt it.

September 11, 2009

Why are more children dying in Kenya?

There was good news yesterday from UNICEF, which reported that the number of deaths worldwide of children under 5 years old has dropped by more than one-quarter since 1990. The new estimates show a 28 percent decline in under-5 mortality, from 90 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990, to 65 in 2008.

That means that about 8.8 million kids died before their fifth birthdays last year -- still tragically too many, but the lowest figure on record, as The New York Times noted.

How did it happen? UNICEF attributes the gains to simple, cheap interventions: widespread immunization campaigns against measles and other diseases, mosquito nets to prevent malaria, Vitamin A supplements. A rise in breastfeeding has also helped prevent diseases from drinking dirty water.

One of the best stories comes from impoverished Malawi, which had one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world. In 1990, one in five Malawian children didn't make it to their fifth birthday. Today that number has nearly halved.

The news isn't all good, however. In four countries, all in Africa, the under-5 mortality rate went up. Two are Chad and Congo, conflict-ridden and desperately poor places where governments provide almost no services and aid agencies struggle to keep up. A third is South Africa, which has a gigantic AIDS crisis fueled by a government that long denied HIV was a problem.

The fourth laggard, however, might surprise you. It's Kenya.

Why is Kenya on a list with war zones and derelict governments? One of the largest UN missions in the world is housed here, as is the largest US humanitarian office in sub-Saharan Africa. The political situation has deteriorated sharply, but even one year ago, according to statistics I compiled using a nifty tool on the UNICEF website, the child mortality figures here were depressing:


I haven't studied the issue enough to make more than a guess. But the answer has to lie somewhere between Nairobi's gleaming Westgate shopping center and the raggedy-clothed children who beg for pennies on the next block. There is plenty of money in Kenya, as the prices as Westgate's Benetton store will tell you. But the government seems utterly uninterested in the well being of its people, especially the poorest of the poor.

Yesterday the aid agency Oxfam released a damning report on urban poverty in Kenya. Nairobi’s population is expected to double to 6 million by 2025, yet three in five Nairobians live in slums, most without clean water or access to health care. "The Kenyan government has repeatedly ignored the growing magnitude of the urban crisis," Oxfam wrote.

Children in Nairobi slums are now some of the least healthy in the country. In some parts of the city, infant mortality rates are double those of poor rural areas, and half of young children suffer from acute respiratory infections and stunted growth. Acute child malnutrition is a growing concern.

Plenty of cities in the world face massive inequality. Kenya's problems are not unique. Yet the country is moving backward compared with its poorer African neighbors. The fact that more children die in Kenya today than do in Tanzania, Ethiopia and impoverished Malawi is a stunning thing to contemplate.

September 09, 2009

What did the 'Pants Pants Revolution' mean?

N105883283749_5029 Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein was released from prison yesterday, after one night, for refusing to pay a $200 fine for violating an "indecency" law by wearing pants. Lubna had vowed not to pay the fine, to protest a capricious law that ensnares hundreds of Sudanese women every year without explanation. But the Sudan Journalists Union paid the fine for her, and Lubna walked free yesterday afternoon.

With that, Khartoum hopes that it's closed the book on what's been dubbed the "Pants Pants Revolution," a genuine grassroots movement that gained international attention and once again exposed the bubbling discontent in Sudan. Bec Hamilton points out that the journalists union was far from Lubna's savior; it has notoriously close ties to the government. Paying her fine was Khartoum's bid to end this messy little affair once and for all.

The regime's famed crisis management skills kicked into gear. With U.S. special envoy Scott Gration due back in Sudan this week, Khartoum clearly didn't want Lubna's legion of supporters distracting things. With Lubna out of jail, she's no longer as potent a symbol of women's repression. And the fearsom security forces that allowed some pro-Lubna demonstrations to take place outside the courthouse Monday, while the world was watching, will surely not be so permissive of such acts of speech in the future.

Many judge that Khartoum has won this round. It's created a formidable activist in Lubna, who resigned her job with the U.N. mission in Sudan to fight her case, but there are many worthy activists in Sudan who are too rarely heard from because of the government's limits on the press, broadcasting and the Internet. More to the point, most Sudanese are too busy ensuring their daily survival to worry too much about activism.

The one thing that's certain to last from this episode is the image of hundreds of Sudanese women, many wearing pants, marching in solidarity with a brave woman who dared to challenge an unfair, ill-defined and arbitrarily enforced law. Women are repressed in Sudan, but we rarely hear about it with so much attention focused on the war in Darfur. (In his official pre-travel statement, Gration, who's been focusing on Darfur, didn't mention Lubna's case.)

With elections looming and the crisis in the south growing worse, Khartoum is in survival mode. Some protests are tolerable for now, a pressure valve that must be opened from time to time, but as 2011 draws closer space will become much tighter. In that kind of climate I wonder what Lubna Hussein will do next -- whether she continues to take her fight to the streets and to cyberspace, or whether, like so many others, she retreats by force or necessity to the background, joining the millions of silent Sudanese who wait for change but can't demand it.



Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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