Journalism Reality Check

 The managing editor of Ocean FM, in her radio station's control room.

The managing editor of Ocean FM, in her radio station's control room.

"Everyone listens to you, everyone knows who you are, but you don't make any money." This was how one radio journalist characterized her father's lament that his smart, talented daughter insisted on being a radio reporter.

The U.S. Embassy invited five Beninois women journalists to a roundtable discussion with me about what it's like to be in our profession, and what we can learn from each other. The pretense of these setups always worries me — that I have indispensable wisdom to impart, or that the strategies and tactics I've learned in the U.S. will be applicable to their circumstances.

A report by Freedom House describes Benin's press freedom as not great, but better than its neighbors. The problem of access journalism — the ability of reporters to directly question and get honest answers from people in power — is familiar, but the consequences are more dire. In America, over reliance on access can lead to stories that lack important critique or stories that curry favor with the very politicians who should be covered critically. Here, critical reporting might lead to the government shutting down your newspaper for a period of time, as happened to the major publication Le Matinal.

The confluence of social media and “fake news” is also creating problems for news media here, which these women described with grim expressions. The encrypted messaging service WhatsApp is used widely in Benin, often with large distribution lists circulating dubious information. On the one hand, accurate information can spread so easily and quickly that it leaves journalists wondering what their own role is in distributing information; on the opposite hand there have been numerous fictitious stories that spread on WhatsApp, and that then were repeated in mainstream media by poorly skilled reporters who didn’t ground truth the story.

And then there is the problem of per diems. This isn’t unique to journalism, many people in Benin are not paid salaries but instead receive per diem payment for work. For reporters, it means someone is paying you to report a specific story, or not report it. (The Freedom House report names this what it is: bribery.) It puts reporters in the position of getting paid, or not getting paid, in dubious circumstances.

On the surface, many of the problems they face would make their American female colleagues nod in solidarity. Dealing with squirrely politicians. The metastasis of fake news. Low pay.  I listened and took notes as they spoke through an interpreter about their specific experiences with these problems, and it left me feeling like.... wow, do we (Americans) have no idea what our colleagues are facing around the world, even in relatively good circumstances.

And then there is sexism.

Their stories unfolded gradually, their trust in each other growing the longer we spent together. One woman would obliquely refer to the sexism she faces being one of the few women working as a political reporter, and everyone would nod. The next woman would add a little detail, noting that women reporters were passed over for the plum assignment to cover the opening of the parliament that week. By the end of the discussion, one woman had explained that men would sometimes demand sex in exchange for giving her an interview, an anecdote that elicited entirely too little reaction from her peers. They hadn’t had these conversations among themselves before, and they hadn’t yet found support and solidarity with women working in competing newsrooms. Yet they bonded in the shared frustration of trying to pursue their work in an ecosystem that wasn’t built to to honor their integrity.

As they talked, I was thinking of the countless hours I've spent reading and discussing the #metoo stories that eviscerated U.S. newsrooms and shattered journalists' trust in their own institutions. The response to those stories was outrage, and that demonstrates the difference between what U.S. journalists are dealing with and what faces these colleagues in Benin. Meanwhile, I was also internally cataloging the minor grievances and petty rivalries that can preoccupy a break room or give rise to secret Slack channels back home, and I was feeling ill over how those slights compare to the egregious circumstances these women matter-of-factly described. And even as I counseled myself that it's unproductive to compare indignities, I knew in the back of my mind that I am lucky for the things I have to complain about.

 Five of Cotonou's journalists explained to two Americans what it's like to do their work in Benin, but still had energy to smile afterward.

Five of Cotonou's journalists explained to two Americans what it's like to do their work in Benin, but still had energy to smile afterward.

[April 2018]

News In The Garden

 This is what the sky looked like, almost every single day.

This is what the sky looked like, almost every single day.

"Our president just fired our secretary of state."

I was sitting at the wooden table under one of the gazebos with the purest of blue skies overhead, in the midst of carefully designed rock garden surrounded by orange trees, and the shocking fuchsia blooms of a  bougainvillea cloaked the nearby stucco wall. This place is idyllic. The news was not.

"I'm so sorry!!" Oumaima exclaimed sympathetically, as if I personally was the one who just got axed on Twitter.

My volunteer gig at the nonprofit Amal Association in Marrakech was to help them rebuild parts of their web site, and being constantly online meant I could also enjoy a steady feed of news all day while I worked. I could start the day with Monocle and BBC, and then around midday Morocco-time I transitioned to NPR as the east coast of the US woke up. Sitting in a beautiful garden, helping incredibly good people who do inspiring work, mainlining global and political news -- this is pretty much as good as gets!

Oumaima is the director of Amal's Targa Center and was my boss, and the garden was my workspace during the time I volunteered there. The wifi from the upstairs office reached far enough that I could sit in the warm shade amidst the plants and birds while I built web pages, rewrote copy and edited photos. From here, I could watch the daily rhythm of the tourists coming in for cooking classes, the trainees hurrying to their kitchen stations, the kitchen prepping and dispatching meals. At predictable intervals, staff and trainees would congregate for sweet mint tea, and to eat fresh bread dipped in honey and olive oil. At unpredictable intervals, Oumaima would appear full of excitement for new ideas, rushing from meeting to phone call to meeting, but always taking time to focus her attention on the person in front of her. Even when the person in front of her was focused on what's happening in the White House on the other side of the planet.

While energy swirled through the classrooms and kitchen each day at Amal, I found my groove outside. When I hit an HTML snag that I couldn't solve or just generally reached my limit of screen time, I'd leave the shaded sitting areas in the front garden and take my earbuds with me to the herb and vegetable beds in the backyard... and pulled weeds.

 The 'Solidarity' gazebo was my outdoor office, more often than not.

The 'Solidarity' gazebo was my outdoor office, more often than not.

Honestly, pulling weeds was more fun for me than building web pages, but that wasn't what they needed from me most. Pulling weeds was a treat, the web site was my job.

The first time I visited Amal it was February, and the garden beds had tiny sprigs of green that seemed adorably optimistic in the vast tracts of brown dirt. By mid-March though, the tiny shoots had transformed into self-respecting plants and by April the green had overtaken the brown completely, with stems and leaves and vines rioting in defiance of their garden beds' neat edges.

I would happily spend hours in that garden, carefully teasing out individual weeds out from among the coriander, sage and spearmint. I would attack with vicious joy the noxious creepers that overtook the gravel walkways, and feel satisfied when their eradication was complete. While I worked, I would not come close to draining the reservoir of news podcasts on my phone, but I would occasionally instead crank up the Hamilton soundtrack and sing along (badly) while I freed the potato plants from the crab grass that encroached their space.

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The staff and trainees at Amal seemed partly amused and partly mystified by my love of weeding; only the head gardener was unambiguously delighted by my hobby. I loved the satisfaction of applying just the right amount of tension to a reedy, annoying stem and seeing its full root emerge from the ground. I loved the immediate difference that was visible -- rows of beautiful greens in fluffy soil, free of pestering interlopers. I really loved the massive haystack of weeds that would pile up at the edge of the garden as I worked.

I think Rex Tillerson's firing stands out among all the news stories I heard during the untold hours I spent in those gardens for two reasons. First, Oumaima's response was uniquely un-American in that she was thinking of me personally, rather than reacting to the information itself. If I had relayed the same breaking news to an American, it would have been met with a highly charged opinion -- about the president, the circumstance, Twitter, something. So that fact that she said, "I'm so sorry!" struck me as humorously unusual, and also very kind.

But second, my departure for Morocco and West Africa was only weeks away when President Trump reportedly demanded to know why the US should accept immigrants from "shithole" African countries. And now Rex Tillerson was in Africa, apparently to smooth over the fissures that statement caused, and he gets called back to Washington in time to read his firing on Twitter.  I felt a personalized proximity to the bookends of this news story. And I listened to coverage of the fallout while working in a beautiful garden, surrounded by an incredible group of people who are truly making the world a better place every day.

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[March 2018]

Pretty City: Chefchaouen

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Inconvenient to reach but all the more attractive when you arrive, Chefchaouen is among the most photographed towns in Morocco for a good reason: it’s blue.

Like, really blue.

For reasons not reliably documented, people started painting their houses and businesses a eye-popping shade of cerulean more at least a hundred years ago, and now the historic heart of the city is entirely blue. Walls, sidewalks, doors, passageways… blue, blue, blue, blue. The shades range from pastel robin’s egg to a deep saturated shade of BLUE. The collective effect is so striking that even when viewed from a distance on the highway, Chefchouen looks blue. The eastern flank of town is marked by a quick-moving river that cascades over rocks and terraces, making a cool spot to relax with mint tea and enjoy the sound of rushing water.

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Chefchaouen was also my last chance at hiking before leaving Morocco. The town itself is built on steep hillside, not unlike Moulay Idriss; climb up to the top fo the town, and you emerge into a wooded park with a small ecological museum and access to trails and jeep paths. I kept walking from there, occasionally encountering other hikers or locals, and eventually climbed up the pass toward Jebel EL-Kelaa.

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I was following spotty directions, but a goat herder helped set me straight when I missed a turn to the correct trail. From there, I could a solitary hiker with a bright turquoise short a half-mile ahead, and he served as the perfect way finding beacon to stay on the trail to the peak. Sadly for me, he was fast enough that we crossed paths as he was coming down from the mountain and warned me the trail is a little tricky up ahead. I spent at least 30 minutes scrambling over boulders and trying to gain footing among roots while looking at my surroundings and thinking, “this is definitely not the trail.” I had given up on the peak and decided to make peace with views I already enjoyed when my effort to get back down intersected with the trail I should have been on. Reaching the top of Jebel El-Kelaa was easy from there, and the walk down a bit smoother, too.

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In addition to the blueness and the steepness, the cats made me smitten with Chefchaouen. Cats are everywhere in Morocco, seeming to tread the line between tame and feral, enjoying the privileges of pets by wandering in and out of homes and businesses, but without really having a ‘home’ anywhere. Chefchaouen was small enough that in my four days there, I recognized some of the cats — the one with a scar over it’s eye was sitting on a pile of carpets in a shop one morning, and that afternoon was sleeping on a pile of receipts on the desk of another store down the street. “Is that your cat?” I asked the shopkeeper. He kind of shrugged yes and no. One shop was crawling with kittens after a momma cat had chosen it as the ideal spot to hunker down and have her litter. They hid and tumbled amidst the lanterns and wood carvings, curled up on the carpets, and probably drummed up business from tourists who wanted to giggle at the kitties and then felt like they ought to buy something while they were there.

[Chefchaouen: March 2018]

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Pretty City: Volubilis and Moulay Idriss

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Before there were Arabs but after there were Berbers, Morocco also had Romans, and man did those Romans like to build stuff all over the place. At the entrance of Volubilis, a map shows the fantastic spread of the ancient Roman Empire across Europe, the mideast and north Africa, and put context to the stone ruins that have sat for millennia on this pretty hillside in central Morocco amidst the tall grass and wildflowers.

Volubilis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so. The ruins reveal how houses were arranged along a main street, where public spaces existed for worship and government, and how water and heating were manged in the unrelenting Moroccan climate.

I had taken public transportation an hour or so to reach this spot, and among the busload of locals were two people I marked as fellow travelers - as we exited at Moulay Idriss, we realized we were also neighbors: they were father and daughter from a Quebec town just over the Vermont border. We spent the day walking among the ruins, picking over stones, resurrecting in our minds what stood here, marveling at the engineering of it all.

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A short taxi away was the hillside town of Moulay Idriss, a village so central to the origin story of Islam blossoming in Morocco that non-Muslims weren’t allowed in the town until 2005 and a wooden bars them still from getting to close to the Mosque. This reminds of Soviet cities that were closed to foreign visitors for the importance of the military or research secrets that were held there, and I spent a good part fo the steep uphill walk to the top of town pondering the human impulse to barricade and encircle ourselves — whether to keep us in or others out, and what’s the difference exactly?

Moulay Idriss neatly occupies a hillside, with white plaster houses stacked neatly in terraces cascading down from the top of a hillock. We climbed and wended out way through mall residential streets with the help of little kids who tagged along hoping for a coin or piece chocolate, all of us babbling the same conversation about directions to our destination: “Grande terrasse?” “Oui, grande terasse!” From the highest, largest terrace, we sat with a commanding view of the rolling hills below us and Volubilis a few miles away.

[Volubilis and Moulay Idriss: March 2018]

 

Pretty City: Meknes

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A quick train ride and a welcome escape from Fes, Meknes was a joy. Perhaps less “important” in architecture and history, the crush of tourism Meknes was significantly less than in Fes. But fantastic examples of architecture were everywhere in a city that felt more open to the sky and the surrounding countryside.

Meknes is a bit bereft of great places to stay at low price, but I sacrificed convenience for a fantastic riad tucked into a residential quarter deep in the old city. My short stay here had me drawing quick and superficial comparisons to other places I had been - the main square is like Jemaa L’Fna in Marrakech but smaller and less frantic; the medina and madersa is like Fes', but smaller and less confusing.

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A long walk around town led to the horse stables and lovely man-made lake where families strolled and popcorn vendors took a laid back approach to their task. Near the main square, I fell into the stream of locals shoppers for goods at the outdoor market - tables of tennis shoes, housewares and toys filled the center the wide alley, lined on both side by stalls selling Western and Moroccan clothing. I let the flow of the crowd pull me into the shaded medina, where the stalls were modern florescent-lit bodegas fitted into an ancient neighborhood.

Eventually I found my way to the madersa, similar in style to the one in Fes but one major upside: the vibe here, was come poke around and check out the place. Visitors could climb up to the second floor and peek into the tiny dorm rooms where the boys would have lived in pairs while they studied and worshipped here. Keep climbing up, and you emerge onto the rooftop where no one stopped you from walking around the top of the building and staring across the rooftops of the medina and the rest of the city. On a blue-sky day, I sat in the sun on the roof, at the green tiled eave of the mosque and stared at the minaret just a few years away.

It would be mischievous and magical to portray this as a secret foray, but really this is just Morocco. A handful of others came and went from the roof while I was there, everyone please to rest awhile and take pictures.

[Meknes: March 2018]

 

Pretty City Blitz: Fes

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In the last weeks of two months in Morocco, I stared at the long list of places I had imagined visiting but hadn’t managed to yet, and crammed them into a frenetic itinerary built of bus and train schedules and fear of missing out.

From Marrakech, I took a daylong train to Fes, a historic city that had loomed in my imagination as an endless wander among plaster and tile buildings in the classic Moroccan style, intricately etched with centuries of history. I rolled my eyes at the warning that I would get lost in the Fes medina, and that I should hire a guide. Medinas, I’ve seen a few, and this wasn’t my first rodeo.

But in my short stay there, I learned first hand that yes, the Fes medina does exert some kind of disruption of three dimensions and I did find it nearly impossible to navigate. The predominant color of the medina here is white-washed walls with dark wooden trim, and the tops of the two and three-story buildings reached out to each other over the twisting alleys that separate them, creating an ancient urban canopy that obscured my sense of north-south, left-right. I would walk confidently for 20 minutes, and find myself back where I started.

And the advice on the guide was frustratingly true: guides were everywhere, ready to “help” those lost or confused tourists wandering the medina. We were easy to spot, roaming aimlessly and unattached to the massive chattering tour groups that swarmed and eddied around historic buildings, filling the alleys, pushing everyone else to the edges. The Fes medina was suffocating in a way that I hadn’t expected. It wasn't the getting lost that was frustrating, it was the crush of humanity accompanying you along the way.

But take a few steps away from the major sites, and the streets were calmer, cooler. You could actually look up and around and take in the place, without worry of trammeling someone underfoot or being trammeled.

[Fes: March 2018]

Bus People

This week, I took a city bus from Meknes for about an hour to visit Moulay Idriss, and back. These were some of the things I saw:

  • As a blind man boarded, and another man got up to help him get to a seat. Later, two people helped him exit at the correct stop, and helped him down the steps.
  • The bus was full, and every young person got up to offer a seat to elderly people and women with small kids.
  • There were three of us who were obviously foreigners and the passengers sitting near us made an effort to find words in a common language with us. One man said to me, “You are welcome here.”
  • Waiting for the return bus, we were encouraged to stay in the shade on the opposite side of the road until the bus came. The man who ran the corner bodega there was seemingly mute, but the kids buying candy from him communicated with him like it was no big deal, and we understood him when he gestured that the bus would be coming soon.
  • A vegetable seller dropped off a huge sack of fresh peas and the bodega guy offered us a taste, then showed us how to turn the empty pod into a noise maker. He waved us a heartfelt goodbye when we got on the return bus.
  • When the bus was really full, people sat on the steps in the aisle, and everyone helped everyone else stow their packages out of the way to make as much space as possible.
  • Sitting on the aisle step next to me was a man of about 30 years. He saw that there wasn’t space for a woman with a baby and a toddler to sit. He beckoned for the woman to hand him the baby and it slept on his lap for the next half hour.
  • Getting off the bus, people wished us well, waved at us. One woman kissed our cheeks and told us, "Peace be with you" in Arabic.

All of this humanity on a city bus.

On the same day, I also saw Volubilis and Moulay Idriss -- two ancient sites that have massive cultural and religious significance. But the 70-cent bus ride left a lasting impression.