MASERU, Lesotho – A recent article appeared in the Lesotho media with little fanfare, like thousands of health-related articles before it. Yet it fueled my strategy to cultivate journalism education and professional training in Africa’s tiny “Mountain Kingdom.”
As the Lesotho Times article reported, the Ministry of Health unveiled shiny new dormitories for 120 local nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians. The Basotho reporter, presumably with head down, scribbling furiously, noted that speakers thanked the contractor, engineer and U.S. donors. Solar panels made the dorms energy-efficient, while the national water supplier “played a pivotal role … by building a sewer line.”
Nowhere, though, did the reporter illuminate the essential Why: “Why were these dorms built? Why are they so important? Why should readers even care?”
This example illuminates an ongoing pattern in one of Africa’s sickliest countries: the unserious state of media in a society that desperately needs serious and responsible health journalism.
That’s why I, The Media Missionary of Maseru, work so maniacally to plant the seed of journalism education and training – and nurture its growth.
Lesotho endures the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection – a mind-boggling 23 percent among all those aged 15-49. Forty percent of all children under age 5 suffer malnutrition-caused stunting. According to the UN’s Human Development Index, the country ranks just 158th – out of 186 states world-wide.
Meanwhile, Lesotho is often described as a “country without doctors.” Yet the brain-drain extends to nurses and other health professionals: Why stay home when you can earn four or five times as much in neighboring South Africa?
The Lesotho Times article, then, did a disservice to readers: it failed to highlight why the free housing was an incentive to keep skilled health workers at home, where they’re most needed. Moreover, if the goal is to retain professionals, where was their voice? Why not “humanize” the story, to hear how free housing might improve their lives? In a country with so many negative trends, why not spotlight these positive steps?
To be fair, we shouldn’t blame the reporter. Nor even blame the editor, who should’ve steered the reporter toward better journalism. After all, Lesotho has virtually no journalism education or training. Not even a daily paper. So how would editors know how to lead serious, responsible reporting? In short, it’s “the blind leading the blind.”
As the only journalism-skills teacher in Lesotho, I see what their needs are – and how I can make a difference. I myself am a foreign correspondent for nearly 20 years – reporting from 28 countries – and a journalism trainer over the past decade, mentoring journalists and students in the U.S., Europe, Asia and now Africa.
In Lesotho, I’m convinced that journalism training will lead to better journalism, which will then lead to better health – just as USAID itself learned in Kenya. There, the investment in sustained training of Kenyan journalists is largely credited for the dramatic drop HIV rates. I aim to do the same in Lesotho.
In fact, this tiny, mono-ethnic, mono-lingual society of Sesotho-speaking Basotho – free of the divisions that undermine most other countries in Africa – holds the potential to produce lasting, tangible, even transformational changes in the two areas that matter most: health and development. (As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, “The greatest enemy of health in the developing world is poverty.”)
Surely, the path of progress requires a media that can meaningfully raise awareness of pressing issues, then inform and educate society about its options.
Earlier this month, two of my “student-journalists” at the National University of Lesotho began to explore rising rates of diabetes and cervical cancer among Basotho. It soon dawned on our entire group: our articles, done well, just may save some lives.