Saturday, October 6, 2012

Radio reporting in Dakar

Brendon Butler
M.S. candidate, Scripps School of Journalism
Recipient of Cornelius Ryan Foreign Correspondence Internship, 2012
Multimedia reporting intern in Dakar, Senegal, with West Africa Democracy Radio

It's a tough life out here in Dakar for most of the local inhabitants. Everybody struggles to survive, from the shoeless orphan kids called talibés who wave their colorful plastic buckets under your elbows to the thousands of men and women who wander through traffic with handkerchiefs, water-filled plastic bags, phone cards, shower sponges and other sundries for sale at 100 francs (20-cents) a pop.

Even the animals have it hard, from the scrappy little street kitten munching on spilled rice under a table, to the dwarf-sized horses roped to truck-axle carts who somehow look like they're prancing as they pull their loads of scrap iron or gasoline bottles through the dusty streets.

The ponies here work harder than any other animal I've seen.
Yes, it's a tough life in Dakar, Senegal. Having money helps, but even the upper-middle class people don't have a particularly easy life here. Everybody must deal with the crowded streets, the unreliable electricity, the lack of sewage or water infrastructure, the corruption. Although I've been here now for three full weeks, I've found my hardest task is to make it through each day with enough energy and time left over to produce something worthwhile on my journalism plans, which are going slowly.

But the culture shock is starting to wear off. I've learned to get up between 1 and 6 a.m. to fill my water bottles while the plumbing in my second-floor apartment has enough pressure to pump out a trickle; and I've learned to bathe using those bottles, a bucket and a sponge. I've figured out how to relax my mind enough to go potty in a squatting toilet with flies and mosquitos buzzing around my nether regions.

I've learned where to buy the big 10 liter bottles of purified water to drink so I don't spend too much each day on single bottles. I've figured out where to find food to eat that doesn't upset my stomach, and I've found that Senegalese food has some really satisfying tastes, such as the "chaybu jën" or fish and rice; and some others that I'd rather not try again, such as a dish of stewed spinach and goat meat that I couldn't finish no matter how I tried. (The greenish sauce had tiny pieces of an unknown substance that crunched between my teeth like sand.)

I'm dealing with the constant heat. I've managed to reset my internal scale so that the temperature I used to consider "hot" back in the United States is now just a sort of sweltering normal. I can now think to myself, "Ah, that's cool," when I turn on the fan in my office where it is always between 82 and 88 degrees, night or day, and I feel the blowing air kiss the back of my sweaty neck.

I'm acclimating, but all of these problems make it difficult to produce work. The basics of survival take practically all of my focus and energy to overcome, not to speak of starting a full-time internship at a radio station, or of creating a news report about an important issue or event.

And I have it easy in comparison to many people's lives here. I don't have to worry about where my next $20 will come from, since I've saved enough money to live out here fairly well, at least for awhile.

So this first update about my three-month-long sejour here in Dakar will be more about the ways I've had to adapt to a different culture than it will be about some important news report for my radio journalism internship, which is supposedly why I came in the first place. It's certainly not going to be a blog update about my exploits as a dashing and danger defying foreign correspondent in West Africa, at least not yet. I apologize if you'd been hoping to read something like that here.

In my mind, I've had an idea about what kind of person works as a foreign correspondent. This image is of the tough-as-nails photojournalist who lives out of a rucksack and shines a light on the dark events that occur in remote and dangerous parts of the world. I'm thinking of James Nachtwey documenting the murder and destruction during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts (as a sidenote, if you haven't yet seen the documentary film called "War Photographer," you should find it and see it tonight); or of National Public Radio's Middle East correspondent Kelly McEvers, who calls herself a "mic slinger" in homage to the old West gun fighters.

As McEvers talks about her evolution to foreign correspondent in an excellent interview with PRX radio, she doesn't do much to dispel the stereotype that foreign correspondents are danger-addicted adrenaline junkies:

"I have a problem. I mean that's, you know, yeah. I like that stuff [war reporting]. It's a problem. I mean, I wouldn't do this if I didn't like doing things that are a little bit, you know, not safe. It's a problem. It's a big problem. My husband's theory is that I do not have a worry gene, or a worry compartment in my brain. … I can joke about it, but it's something I've actually considered very deeply in recent months, because things have gotten so out of hand in the Middle East, and two guys who died in Libya, one of them was a really good friend of mine." 

In this same interview, PRX replays one of McEvers' most famous stories for NPR, in which she follows an Indonesian guy who robs ships for a living around the waters of Malaysia. He's a pirate. You should stop for seven minutes and listen to it, because it's really good.

McEvers' kind of radio reporting is exactly what I want to do. Not in the sense that she does dangerous work. No, I don't want to deliberately put myself into dangerous situations, court conflict. But I want to try to connect with the people who live here, to communicate with them and to get them to show me a little bit what their life is like. And I'd like to share these stories with you.

My first attempts at radio storytelling will begin next week when I start my internship with West Africa Democracy Radio here in Dakar. The station is small. It operates out of the ground floor of a white concrete villa situated in a residential neighborhood called Sacré Coeur 1, near downtown Dakar. I made the initial contact with its managing editor, Monsieur Peter Kahler, last spring. He answered my emails with encouragement, and I planned to arrive near the end of August. But I'm not sure that he figured I'd actually arrive here, because he seemed a bit surprised to see me when I called.

The elusive West Africa Democracy Radio villa.

In fact, it took me all of three weeks to finally make contact with him after I arrived in Dakar, partly because of the difficult transition I'd been making after arrival, and partly because the entire station staff took a monthlong vacation during September, a fact that I'd somehow never heard about during our emails.

And a larger sign out on the main road.
But I did finally see M. Kahler last Wednesday. He gave me a tour of the radio station, showed me the control room and recording studios, and he told me a bit about his past. He's Liberian. Got his start doing radio reports during the 1990s civil war there. Moved up to freelance covering the war in Ivory Coast in the late '90s, which was such a terrible war because of the use of child soldiers by the opposing sides. (BTW, have you read this book?) In early 2000s, Peter Kahler came to Dakar and reported for several years for Africa Press Int'l, the mouthpiece of the African Union, before he was tapped to take over as managing editor of WADR in 2007.

So I will attend my first WADR news meeting on Monday at 2 p.m. After that, I will start my planned reportage of "la vie quotidienne" here in Dakar, along with whatever other stories come along from WADR's direction. I'm looking forward to the start of my work here.

Now it's late in the evening and I need to go to sleep. But first, I have to go fill my water buckets — it's 2 a.m. and the water pressure has just come up.

One of the many small newspaper stands that line the streets.

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