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TheNewYorkTimes.com: A Reporter’s East Africa File Cabinets Yield Untold Stories

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 27 July 2017

A Reporter’s East Africa File Cabinets Yield Untold Stories

 
The author in Kenya’s Kibera slum in 2013. Credit Peter Muller for The New York Times

On one of my last nights in Nairobi, Kenya, after serving as The New York Times’s East Africa bureau chief for more than a decade, I sat down on the office floor under one of those grim energy-saver light bulbs that gave off a cold bluish light, pulled open the file cabinets and began excavating.

I found plugs for computers that they don’t make anymore, receipts from Somali hotels that have since been bombed and some rain-stained notebooks of stories gone cold. I didn’t know what to do with the satellite phone I used to pull out all the time, when the region had no functioning internet. Just about every place these days is wired with Wi-Fi; I can’t tell you the last time I made a satellite call.

In 11 years, so much had changed in East Africa, and as the progression of my press-pass photos showed, with a few more gray hairs and wrinkles in each one, so had I. It can be depressing clearing out an office, inspecting all the old stuff like an archaeologist sifting through the layers. Even the most mundane objects seemed meaningful and close to my heart. I loved this job. It had been a dream to get. And as I reached into a drawer and discovered a small stack of Somali shillings so soft and worn they were about to crumble apart in my fingers, it hit me. These are my last hours in this place. It’s over.

The Times employs one staff person in Nairobi to cover Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Seychelles — 13 very different countries that sweep up more than 400 million people and 3.3 million square miles. We have similar hubs elsewhere around the world. How does one person cover an entire country, let alone 13? We rely tremendously on stringers (local journalists) and get occasional directives from our bosses back in New York, but an enormous amount of what we do is left up to the judgment and interests of the individual correspondent.

My file folders revealed the decisions I had made. Here were some of the bulging ones: “Laptop Bomb,” “Drought 2016,” “Male Rape,” “Ivory Poaching,” “Kidnappings,” “Pirates,” “Pirates 2013,” “Pirates in Kenya.” The thinner folders were on subjects I had hoped to pursue but hadn’t. Like one on a moving friendship in a Nairobi slum between two boys, one with spina bifida. Because the slum’s footpaths were too muddy and decrepit for a wheelchair, the other boy carried his disabled friend every day, to and from school, on his back. That could have been a front-page story for us. Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper wrote a beautiful piece on it. I regret to this day that I never met those boys.

Why I didn’t and how I became such a specialist in despair is a longer story. Suffice it to say that I felt a responsibility to cover conflict and injustices, because maybe, if I wrote about them, things would change. I think many journalists go into this profession with a similar sense of idealism, though of course we have to keep our guard up about being sanctimonious. I don’t believe it’s our job to present news as good or bad, positive or negative. Most stories contain both. But we need to be mindful about the bigger picture we paint. And though I did write many stories that weren’t centered on war (or pirates, for that matter) I’m sure I could have done more. I wish I knew the right balance.

It was only in cleaning out all the drawers and leaving the cupboards as empty as I found them that I saw, for the first time in such clear terms, how I had covered this part of the world. In a week I’m off to a new beat, as the next bureau chief for South Asia. Note to self: Step back every year and go through the files. Then you can make adjustments to your course while you’re still on it. And this doesn’t have to be limited to journalism. It could pertain to anything.


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