ZOMBA – A few days ago the Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Lilongwe,Malawiâ€™s capital, asked me to give a presentation to a group of Malawianjournalists. I was happy to do so, and not only because the U.S. PAO is the most helpful Iâ€™ve ever met in my African travels. I like African journalistsand always benefit from meeting them on their home turf. On my first nightin Malawi, Iâ€™d dined with the top independent political journalist and was surprised to learn that, in addition to his reporting skills, he also wrote novels and works of history. This one man is a literary firehouse, the Malawian equivalent of George Orwell. His name is Willie Zinga and, sadly, none of his works are in print in either Britain or the U.S. I am still hoping for the chance to dine with him again before I leave the country â€“ and get one of his novels as a gift.
I also want to tell Willie the story of my meeting with about 35 journalists, split roughly equally between radio and print people. In my presentation, I emphasized the importance of â€œgiving voice to the voiceless,â€ by including ordinary people in reports. Iâ€™m especially insistent that radio stations do so, since radio is the medium of the masses in Africa and call-in programs are increasingly popular. The trouble with call-in shows, however, is that the only people who can afford to telephone are wealthy and advantaged. So the disadvantaged are never heard on radio. One way to remedy this deficit, I proposed in Lilongwe, is for radio stations to bring ordinary people â€“ police, nurses, farmers, street peddlers â€“ into the studio for vigorous discussions. Alternatively, radio producers can take to the streets, and broadcast from a central market or a hospital or even a football pitch. As far as I know, few radio stations in Africa have done this and mostly African airways are dominated by elites. This is a big improvement from the days â€“ as recently as 10 years ago â€“ when government controlled everything that was said on radio. Still, radio will become even more vital in Africa when a greater diversity of voices fill the air.
I spent most of my 90 minutes with Malawiâ€™s journalists talking about how to identify ordinary people as interview and profile subjects â€“ and then how to both protect and present the views and life experiences of these people. I wasnâ€™t prepared for any wrenching ethical questions, so I was taken aback when a younger journalist earnestly asked me, , what should he do when a government official tries to bribe him, in exchange for writing a favorable story. I didnâ€™t answer his question. I simply said that the many voiceless Africans in his midst would never try to bribe him â€“ so thereâ€™s another reason to push ordinary people into the Africaâ€™s mainstream media.
Iâ€™ve since moved on from the capital to the provincial city of Zomba, Malawiâ€™s capital at independence and a favorite city of the British colonialists. Zombaâ€™s broadbands options are limited, and the city and its surroundings essentially go completely dark at nightfall. The only place a visitor can find a Web connection is in the center of the town, and the place closes by 6 pm.
Fortunately Zomba has ample charms, which include the legendary Africanist Stephen Carr with whom I spent a few rewarding hours on my arrival in Zomba. Carr is so wise and judicious on the subject of African agriculture that I felt the glow of his intelligence for days, taking the edge off my inability to send or receive emails.
Tommorrow Iâ€™m meeting with the leading person on climate change in Malawi. The weather is weirdly cool here, prompting many Malawian farmers to ask, â€œWhereâ€™s the heat?â€