The Media Missionary, Stymied?

Members of the Kick4Life Writing Club, to whom I taught HIV Journalism last year. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – In November 2011, I was newly arrived in Africa, so full of hope, writing dreamily of Lesotho’s “veritable field of dreams” for journalism trainings.

Eighteen months later, rejection slaps me in the face so often, I’m ready to press charges. I’m a pauper on the streets, banging my tin-cup.

Hey buddy, can you spare a dime? Yes, it’s for a journalism training. But not only will it improve health of the Basotho, it just may save lives!

I came to Lesotho having taught journalism over the past ten years in New York, Central Europe, and Hong Kong—and soon realized I was the only journalism-skills teacher in the entire “Mountain Kingdom.” I studied how to help a tiny nation of 1.8 million, clustered in hamlets among the tallest peaks of southern Africa.

Not to teach any kind of journalism, but specifically, health journalism.

Young Lesotho Shepherds (via)

The list of what ails the Basotho of Lesotho is depressingly long. They suffer the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection—an unfathomable 23 percent among the most sexually active, ages 15-49. Malnutrition has hit 40 percent, as two-fifths of the children under age 5 endure stunting of the brain and body. Then there’s TB. Diabetes. Breast cancer. Cervical cancer. And so on. Everywhere you look, bad news.

Meanwhile, it’s darn near impossible to find a decent example of explanatory journalism, to inform and educate society on simply how to cope with all this. Which is unsurprising, since Lesotho lacks any real journalism education or professional training. Among reporters and editors here, “The blind are leading the blind.”

Though I’d landed in Africa with no contacts whatsoever—as a dutiful “trailing spouse” following my wife’s career in international development—so optimistic was I about my freelancing prospects that I boldly launched a new feature for my website, and immodestly named it The Media Missionary of Maseru.

This, I vowed, would chronicle “all the various teachings and trainings I’ll conduct over the next three years, here and in the region.” It’d be more than an exercise in self-aggrandizing narcissism; instead, story-telling that would illuminate the limits of international-development assistance. With little Lesotho as case-study.

(Even now, I’m writing this post to document my lessons learned, but also to share these lessons-learned with my fellow trailing-spouses around the globe.)

From this perch up on my soap-box, I’ve experienced a string of defeats that has battered my psyche. Sure, I’m teaching Health Journalism at the troubled National University of Lesotho—but that’s pro bono, with ulterior motives in play.

From moneyed clients, though, it’s a different story. “Like squeezing blood from a rock,” I lamented to one staffer … who concurred.

While I refuse to quit this obsession—after all, it’s not often that one is gripped by messianic delusions—this scoreless rut of mine certainly has me searching for answers: Why? Why is my plant not bearing fruit?

To be clear, no one has barked at me, “Your idea sucks!” Because, frankly, they don’t. Most are quite brilliant—if you ask me. How else to raise awareness about pressing “Health Issue X” without handpicking a crop of eager-to-learn Basotho journalists, take them by the hand to show, step by step, how to produce the caliber of story-telling that can sway a society toward improved health?

In a moment I’ll name names of some who’ve denied me. This isn’t to engage in the petty tactics of name-and-shame. (Why burn a bridge, ever?) Instead, as a journalist and teacher, I value a concrete example that credibly illuminates reality.

Lesotho landscape (Wikicommons)

That said, Lesotho, isn’t a complete wasteland for me and my teachings.

Last spring, for example, I guided the Writing Club at Kick4Life, a football-and-HIV organization, through four sessions on HIV reporting. But I did that pro bono, too. I also pitched a 14-week Health Journalism course to the National University of Lesotho, which would have focused on HIV, TB, and malnutrition. Yet it somehow slipped through the cracks of the school’s accreditation process.

Then in June, the U.S. Embassy in Lesotho invited me to organize a three-session workshop on gender-based violence and lead 19 Basotho journalists and student-journalists in how to produce serious, responsible articles on the issue.

Hey, I even got paid for it.

More important, it whet my appetite for more. But then came The Hiatus.

First, I took my kids to Hungary for two months—airlifting them out of Lesotho’s bone-chilling winter—to summer with their Magyar grandparents at Lake Balaton. (I busied myself by leading another foreign-correspondence training course in Prague, and finishing three fundraising proposals I was hired to write for UNICEF-Lesotho on immunizations, malnutrition, and mother-to-child transmission of HIV.)

Then, on to Hong Kong for another two months, for my fourth teaching stint at Hong Kong Baptist University. (Nowhere do I feel more gratified as a teacher than with our gung-ho students at HKBU—most of whom hail from mainland China.)

When I returned to Lesotho in late November, I got serious about saving the Basotho. I dove into the time-consuming business of pitching proposals: to universities, to teach topics like international reporting, website-creation, minority reporting and health journalism; to NGOs, to train the media various forms of health journalism; and to other groups, workshops on written-communication skills.

Plus, one book proposal. And two documentary-film proposals.

Over the past six months, I’ve emailed out literally dozens of proposals. (For the sake of my blood pressure, I’m afraid to count up exactly how many.) Not only in Lesotho, but across southern Africa. Including, seven university journalism programs in neighboring South Africa. Even one to the University of Zambia.

Not one has come through. At least, not a single paying one has. Some came close, presumably, because the client initially encouraged me to submit a proposal. Here’s a sample trio of what’s cost me rivulets of blood, sweat and, ultimately, tears.

* To the U.S. Embassy in Maseru, which had enthusiastically sponsored last year’s training on gender-based violence, a widespread issue in Lesotho. This time, I asked the Embassy to fund my shoulder-to-shoulder training on human trafficking—a State Department agenda item that also plagues the Basotho disproportionately.

For me to lead a small team of journalists—strategically plucked from across major media platforms—into the field. Bring the story to life, from mountain villages to the border with South Africa. Cross the border, follow the trail into South Africa’s mines, farms, and sex industry. Then, publish and broadcast all stories on the same day: a one-day “media blitz” that blankets the country, instantly raising awareness.

(I think it’d work, no?)

* To Population Services International, to train journalists how to write meaningfully about PSI’s new Pusha Love campaign. Many NGOs here have detected HIV-message burnout and backlash among the Basotho—and elsewhere in southern Africa. Yet in Lesotho, HIV prevalence has barely budged from the 23 percent attained a decade ago, as the Basotho have proven stubborn about changing unhealthier HIV-related behaviors. Like unprotected sex with multiple partners.

So, PSI now aims more subtly at “healthy lifestyle choices,” which they’ve personified by bringing forth a quartet of Basotho Pusha Love “Ambassadors.” This nation also has a long tradition of oral story-telling. Perhaps the best way, then, to persuade the public is through features that humanize “the Ambassadors:” four ordinary husbands, fathers, and brothers courageous enough to step forward and puncture a taboo. How they contracted HIV—and survive with it today.

* To the Millennium Challenge Corporation, to train Basotho journalists how to report seriously on the MCC’s impressive array of water, health and private-sector-development projects, erected over the past five years. Paid for by U.S. taxpayers, with a whopping $363 million allocated to these three priority-areas.

Wait, $363 million to lend a hand to a country I’ve barely heard of?

Yes, we Americans also have a generous side.

Lesotho woman (via)

Yet after the MCC pulls out this September, what will the Basotho media—and their Basotho audience—remember about MCC efforts? What has the public actually gleaned from the media’s addiction to press releases, press conferences, and regurgitating the empty platitudes of this official or that lawmaker?

Instead, shouldn’t the Basotho learn how utterly dependent they’ve become on international assistance—and see what, if any, difference it’s made in their lives?

Sadly, too little reportorial spadework is done here. By assisting my Basotho colleagues, I could help build a stellar foundation for exploratory journalism.

Nevertheless, none of these three proposals took root. From one client, “No money.” From another, “Not now.” From a third, “Not enough time.”

You couldn’t blame me if I’d begun to take this all a bit personally: They’re rejecting me, my ideas, my skill-set. But that’s not it. None has rejected me outright.

Instead, I’ve narrowed it down to several factors.

Certainly, I’m up against a familiar foe: money. In each of my four professional pursuits at the moment, none pays well. In fact, they’re all in financial straits: journalism, education, book publishing, and documentary filmmaking.

In Lesotho, too, this not-for-profit guy has almost exclusively approached not-for-profit organizations—albeit pivotal players with big budgets. International NGOs, diplomatic missions, government agencies. Rather than train journalists, they typically hold a press conference, dish out data, then cross their fingers—hoping the reporters get the story right. Good luck. What’s missing is quality assurance: for this trainer to show them how take such material and explore it seriously, responsibly.

Sure, I recognize that each organization has a desire to both promote their work (often, to donors) and raise awareness of their issues. Yet I pinpoint the concentric circles that overlap with my thirst to teach—and reasonable expectation to be paid for it. Yes, someone could sling an arrow at me, You’re taking U.S. government money?! With nothing on the ground here that resembles “independent” funding, I’m ready to walk this fine line. What other options do I have?

Still, it’s too simplistic to blame “money” alone.

Not once have I fired off a proposal—which usually include synopsis, “deliverables,” target audience, training format, proposed activities, timeline, and my proposed fee— for a specific job. Nor has anyone surprised me with: Coincidentally enough, we’d budgeted for a journalism training … and you’re just the fella to lead it!

To be fair, in each case I’ve urged the prospective client to add something extra atop established programs and activities for which they’d already budgeted. They, too, are often scrambling to maintain their own funding from headquarters.

Then along I come, besieging them to shave a slice of these precious, pre-allocated funds—and redirect them to yours truly. How long are my odds?

The MCC even floored me with one peculiar obstacle: the legal requirement that each sub-contracting opportunity be bid upon by at least three competitors. This policy is actually well-intentioned, as it aims to curb the temptation of a corruption that sees contracts doled out to family and friends. Or for kickbacks.

In my case, though, the policy was absurd. Why? Because I’d crafted a journalism training for the MCC from my imagination. That made it my intellectual property. Then, I pitched it. The staffers responded that for a training like this, they’d need at least three competitive bids. Which led to this scenario: my idea publicized to at least two other “journalism trainers” in Lesotho, for them to pitch proposals on how they could produce my training even better. Or, cheaper. Although, like I said, I’m essentially the only show in town—and it was my idea!

Another option, the MCC staffers informed me, was that they themselves could argue for why in this unique situation, this one subcontractor also happens to be most qualified for this gig. Apparently, this didn’t happen either. Not sure why.

Which, really, is a missed opportunity. Why shouldn’t U.S. taxpayers support the creation of quality journalism—preserved online for eternity—about how they spent a small fortune, over five years, to help heal these beleaguered Basotho?

Villagers in Lesotho (via)

All this pitching frustration also makes me wonder about institutional trepidation to try something new. Within these multinational organizations, many layers need convincing—in the Lesotho office, the regional office, the home office, and so on. Again, in fairness to them, some risk-aversion is understandable. My initiatives, though, require each layer to be open-minded enough and willing to take a chance on me: to deliver the “deliverables” and “sustainability” I’ve promised.

That’s fine by me. I stand by my track-record: by now, over the past decade, I’ve taught several thousand young and aspiring journalists. On four continents.

When I weigh all these factors—with others I may be unaware of—I can see why what I’m doing is such a tough sell. Unless, of course, you’re willing to work for free. In that case, you’ll find plenty of takers. Which leads back to my one source of teaching pride today: at the National University of Lesotho.

In the past, I’ve admitted where I come down on an issue that bitterly divides journalists and freelancers alike: To write for free, or not to write for free. If it offers a platform or prestige—or if the means serve the ends—I say go for it.

Such is the case at NUL, which is hobbled by meager finances and faculty strife. I’ll write in a separate post about the nine brave young Basotho whom I’ve deputized as my “student-journalists.” It’s no small feat that I even have a chance to teach them. Though my proposed course in Health Journalism smacked head-on with institutional inertia last year, I wanted to give NUL one more chance.

I brainstormed with both the new Cameroonian dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Basotho director of the campus HIV program. Together we hatched a new and innovative student activity: “The Health Journalism Club.”

In cold, unheated classrooms, I’ve been mentoring some of NUL’s best and brightest in how to produce articles from one of six topics: nutrition, nursing, pharmacy, and environmental health—the four Health Sciences faculty priorities—plus HIV and gender-based violence. I’ve arranged with a leading local weekly to publish their stories. I'll critique each one beforehand, to ensure it’s among the BEST journalism Lesotho has seen—even if “only” produced by my student-journalists.

Again, how much am I being paid for it? Zilch. Because The Media Missionary of Maseru means business. And he’s grown obsessive. Won’t give up. Can’t give up. Who else here can show the media how to improve health, even save lives? No one!

Besides, America loves nothing more than a stirring comeback story.

Yet what drives me to lead this Club for free is not just that I truly care about the fate of the Basotho, or that I’ve been inspired to see so many others in Lesotho’s international community striving to make a difference, in one way or another.

For me, it’s a means to an end. I’m now on the verge of two huge journalism trainings, with one a year-long endeavor that I’ve dubbed “The project of a lifetime.”

Will I capture the victory I deserve? Or be denied again? Stay tuned …

Follow Michael on Twitter @mjjordanink

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.