In a few hours, I would be leaving Africa. After two weeks traveling through Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Central African Republic with New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nick Kristof, I stood in the Bangui, C.A.R. airport ready to leave. I had won the trip through a New York Times essay contest—"Win A Trip With Nick"—that 3,800 people had entered.
Checking in at the airport in Bangui is nothing like checking into a domestic airport. Even my money was examined three or four times by flight attendants. The stewardess squinting over my passport was taking a little while to process it, so I turned to the African man behind me.
"She can't read English," he said to me. "She really should be able to if she's going to work at an airport."
"Oh, it's no big deal," I told him, as he launched into a speech about how he knows English. After a few minutes of talking, he asked me where I live.
"In America," I said.
"You?" he asked, his face twisting a little. "But your English, it's not so good."
The Southern accent. It had been kind of a joke through the entire trip. The cameraman for the Times had put subtitles under one of my video blogs in case people couldn't understand my Georgia/Louisiana/Mississippi-spawned slur of an accent. A Senegalese man confessed to us that he could understand when other people spoke English, but when I spoke, he had to concentrate really hard to figure out what I was saying.
We spent most of the trip speaking French, but Nick told me my Southern accent is one of the reasons he had picked me. As part of winning the contest, I filed daily blogs and vlogs for the New York Times Web site. My working-class, Southern voice was something he saw missing from the Times site. Somehow, he thought, people might identify easier with me as more approachable than the usual cohorts.
The accent may have been confusing to understand at times in the countries we visited, but my Southern background provided a much-needed entryway into reporting in Africa.
In writing about Africa, reporters often reveal the worst of the continent. It's a "dark" mass still plagued by disease and governance issues that Europe and North America long ago conquered. It's the subject of dramatic, heart-breaking movies and novels.
In a lot of ways, Mississippi is the Africa of the United States. Working as a journalist in Mississippi for a few years, I found myself consistently frustrated at other media who flew in to write negative stories about the state, then immediately flew out without ever understanding the great things, too. When Eric Lipton wrote a scathing, really unfair (and at times, just factually incorrect) article in the New York Times ("Storm Hit Little, but Aid Flowed to Inland City," Nov. 20, 2005) about post-Katrina Jackson, Miss., I boiled for weeks.
Lipton wrote, "The fact that some relief money has gone to those perceived as greedy, not needy, has set off recriminations in this poor, historic capital where the payments ... set off spending sprees on jewelry, guns and electronics."
Not once did Lipton attempt to find out what about post-Katrina Mississippi caused people in Jackson to start buying guns. Was he there during that week of pandemonium right after the storm? We heard terror tales of robberies. Without lights for 10 days in my neighborhood, I was a little afraid.
But Lipton just flew in to Mississippi and reported the bad. Still, when I see his name in the paper, my body starts to rumble.
"New Yorkers just need Mississippi to be the stupid, corrupt state so that they can feel better about themselves," I've often said. I think of the William Blake quote from "The Human Abstract": "Pity would be no more if we did not make somebody poor."
What would the United States media do without Mississippi to color its pages, its film reels and "local color" radio broadcasts? And why can't they see the beautiful art, the brilliant people and the progress that blooms effervescently in the South?
When the prime minister of Equatorial Guinea, Ricardo Mangue Obama Nfubea, asked Nick and me, "Why do reporters only write about the bad parts of Africa?" I knew exactly what he meant. Prime Minister Mangue motioned out the window.
"Look at our paved roads! We're making the schools better! We have clinics and a university now!"
I committed then to find the Africa that I would want covered if I lived there. I wanted to write stories not only about Africa, but for Africans. In two weeks of reporting there, I realized how difficult that is sometimes. I wanted to report the upsetting things I saw—villages burned away by the armies, rebels ransacking huts, children dying from malnutrition and malaria, a mother dying with her child still inside of her because she didn't have $100 for a C-section—because I wanted to make them better. I don't think that the United States can save Africa outright, but I do think that Americans can contribute to making quality of life better, piece by piece, if they are allowed to really see the problems.
In my essay to enter the contest, I wrote, "I have a distinct want (it's a thirst and a flame, all at once) to create these stories myself—not for the Pulitzers, but for the reaching outside of myself, to break people's hearts so adeptly that they move into action."
As I wrote on my blog, though, I began to realize that those positive reports were important, too. Many readers had long ago given up on Africa because they saw no progress. "We've been giving money to Africa forever," readers commented, "and nothing is getting better."
When I was back in the U.S., speaking on NPR's "On Point," and an African woman called in to thank me for my mixed reporting, I knew I had done the right thing. "We need help," she told me, adding that we need positive reports to keep people bolstered and hopeful.
Casey Parks is the former assistant editor of the JFP and a 2005 graduate of Millsaps College. Read her new JFP blog at caseyparks.com. This is the first in a series of columns about her trip.
Enjoyed this, Casey. The balance of critical and supportive reporting is always important. It helps to keep us out of victim mentality.
And I loved your comments on your accent. My maternal grandmother lived in the Delta and when she traveled in the US her accent would often lead Americans to think she was speaking in a foreign language. Me, I adore the music in the Southern accent, it's closer to me than any other sound...
keep up the interesting writing, and glad you are back in town...