Charles Thomas' Reporter's Notebook
ABC7's Charles Thomas is following U.S. Senator Barack Obama's trip to Africa. This is where you'll find Charles' behind the scenes look at the journey and the things you DON'T see on TV.
September 1, 2006
It didn't occur to me until this morning, Nairobi time, but I think I've been stuck in Africa the last couple of days.
As I explained in yesterday's blog, our ABC-7 News team decided not to accompany Senator Obama to Chad via Ethiopia. So the last time we saw Obama was Wednesday night here in Kenya. We've been here since then because the availability of flights for producer Janet Hundley and me, out of here and on to Chicago, have been rare. We thought we had two seats tonight on a Belgian airline but the flight was cancelled.
While trying to arrange last minute air travel, we've spent the past two days in Nairobi, working while we wait. We did what I believe is a pretty good piece on Malaria, the mosquito-transmitted disease, that kills over a million people on this continent annually and has a mortality second only to AIDS. I hope it airs soon as one our 10pm "Special Segments".
I want to mention in this space what a great job Hundley, the assistant news director at ABC-7, has done before and during this trip. The logistics of an effort like this, including the visas, international and in-country airplane tickets, lodging for four people and decisions on when to "grease a Kenyan palm" are mind-boggling to say the least. There's no way a disorganized soul like me could have done all that while trying to tell the story.
Janet did it with seamless class, steely ethical resolve and a street-savvy that surprised me. (I kept wondering how and where a "country girl" from Virginia learned to be such a wheeler-dealer and "hustler"). Not only did she allow me to do my thing, she was a steady editorial presence that made our reports better.
So here I wait, numbed in Nairobi, not caring anymore about the sights framed by this now familiar hotel room window. My mind drifts to visions of the wife and dog I left two weeks ago in the West Loop.
Dreaming of Sweet Home Chicago.
August 31, 2006
We made the difficult decision shortly after our four-member ABC-7 news team arrived back at our hotel in Nairobi after two days in bush country: We would not be able to follow Senator Barack Obama to Ethiopia where he would visit flood victims or to eastern Chad where refugees from the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region have fled.
We made the decision after the Senator's Aide told us in no uncertain terms, that there is not enough room on a United Nations aircraft that is standing by to carry the Obama entourage to the camps in Chad. We were asked to understand that because of resurgent violence in Darfur, security had to be added on the airplane and that the press corps would be limited to just one person per media outlet.
We absolutely need to deploy a minimum of two; one to write the story, the other to make the video. You'd think the Senator's media advisers would be savvy enough to understand that. Further, we were the ONLY Chicago television station credentialed with the appropriate visas to enter Ethiopia and Chad (expensive stuff, I should add) so the result of denying us two places on the plane means there will be no Chicago station covering the last legs of the journey to Africa. There will be a couple of documentary camerapersons on board the Senator's plane but keep in mind they have their own agendas that are not necessarily about news coverage for viewers in Chicago.
What makes this situation most distressing is that so many human rights activists, diplomats and others have been quoted saying that the world media needs to pay more attention to what's happening in Darfur so that people will press their respective governments to do something about it. I am proud to write that ABC-7 responded and spent a lot of money to position our staff to cover the story even though we won't get there.
I truly believe the Senator and his staff could have done more to get at least two of our people on the U.N. plane.
August 30, 2006
After our plane landed this week in the Masai Mara, Kenya's largest National Park and "straight up" African bush country...I stood on the airstrip and noticed another member of the press corps dressed in full-blown "Bwana Jim" gear. This colleague, with whom I've had other contentious moments in recent days, apparently had packed the "bush hat" and "safari jacket" specifically for this leg of our trip.
I walked over to him immediately and asked "You gonna wear that?" He looked at me and responded "Charles, I'm tired of your b.s.!"
The correspondent, who shall remain anonymous here, was dressed in a style that mimicked mid-20th century Hollywood's image of "the great white hunter". You know, the guy with the elephant gun in his lap sipping tea...sometimes on a sedan chair carried by several oppressed Africans trailed by a line of other black men with boxes on their heads. The get-up, worn by many tourists here, is a subtle reminder to black Africans of the harsh colonial era. For black Americans, it's a leftover from a time when mainstream media distorted reality in this part of the world in the interest of white supremacy.
That same evening at dinner, I noticed my colleague had changed into a denim shirt and baseball cap, much like he'd wear if "roughing it" covering an outdoor story in Chicago. I walked over to him again and told him how pleased I was that his wardrobe selection had changed and my thoughts about his earlier outfit. He did not respond but I thought he understood my point.
The next morning I saw him at breakfast and he had reprised his "Jungle Jim" role...back in costume and in character.
August 26, 2006
I have a confession to make. I envy Barack Obama.
It's not because he's an Ivy League-educated, up-and-coming United States Senator. I envy the fact that he knows the people and the land from which his family comes.
The overwhelming majority of black Americans are like me inasmuch as we cannot trace our ancestries back to their African roots. It is a cruelty of chattel slavery that has tortured generations of black people before and since emancipation. During the past week, I have seen countless African faces on the streets of Nairobi, Kisumu and rural districts in-between, and wondered how and where my own forebears lived on this continent before the unfortunate one was captured and sold into bondage. And I cannot tell you anything about my lineage in North America until the late 19th century generation that bore my great grandfather.
Many of the sights and sounds I have experienced during this assignment have awakened my own deep-seeded frustrations, and even anger over the loss of my family history. More than once during the past week, during quiet moments alone in my hotel room, I have actually cried about it. My cameraman, a white South African, told me he has met other African-Americans who shed similar tears as they experienced the same emotions.
But there also have been a few smiles when I see Barack Obama's children. The girls probably are too young to realize what a priceless inheritance they already have received from their father...who knows the land and the people from which he has come.
August 25, 2006
I'll take the unresearched plunge here and say that there probably has never been a United States Senator to be celebrated on foreign soil the way Barack Obama was celebrated in Nairobi on Friday. Well over a thousand chanting and cheering Kenyans lined Obama's short route from a downtown restaurant to a nearby memorial where he led a service to remember victims of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy here. Obama-mania was in full effect with signs, tee shirts, cheering and chanting.
Back at the Hotel, the Senator chided this reporter for one of my earlier blogs (August 23rd) in which I reported the lack of newspaper coverage and "buzz" surrounding his then-upcoming arrival here. Obama, who is one of the most down-to-earth politicians I've ever met, chuckled and said "What city were you talking about?"
Lesson re-learned: You can't believe what you read or don't read in the newspapers.
Speaking of newspapers...check out this headline in yesterday's Nairobi Standard: "Three more suspects lynched in Nyamira".
The story is about three robbery/murder suspects, who were listed among Kenya's "most wanted". Its reported that "members of a local vigilante group pounced on the suspects" and slashed them to death. And get this...the paper reported that the three were among nine people "lynched" by the same mob since last Sunday.
Okay, so you can't believe everything you read in the newspapers. But believe me...it's hard on a black man to come all these miles to Africa to hear about nine people being lynched in less than a week.
August 24, 2006
Despite the problems of this continent and region, there is a certain comfort most African Americans feel when they visit black Africa. We never realize how much stress there is being a racial minority in the United States until it is suddenly removed...and that happens as soon as an American-born black person arrives here.
But the comfort comes with a renewed responsibility. Because you are never judged here by the color of your skin, it causes the African-American visitor to seriously deal with his or her own character and talents to determine how you fit into the overall scheme. A black American can never use racism as a crutch or an excuse in Africa.
But the Kenyan government quickly reminded me today how blessed I am to be an American. While videotaping in a Nairobi neighborhood this morning, the crew and I were detained for about an hour by agents of the Kenyan Department of Film Services. We were working without a "license" that all journalists are required to have in order to take pictures in this country. Fortunately, our producer Janet Hundley had begun the process to get the license and we were released after our "fixer" showed up with the document. Hundley and I, who are accustomed to working under our constitution's glorious First Amendment, just swallowed hard and kept comments to ourselves concerning Kenya's idea of a "free press".
I'll also mention here that this morning's Nairobi Standard published an article about a rival newspaper's editor, Chris Oyuga, who was arrested Wednesday because of a story he'd written. Quoting the article, police "lured Oyuga to a hotel near the newspaper offices before he was hurriedly whisked to a waiting car and driven away". We still haven't heard what happened to him.
Interesting place, Kenya...but I'm happy to live in Chicago, USA and to work without the kind of stress Mr. Oyuga must be feeling right now.
August 23, 2006
The front page story and many other articles in Wednesday's Daily Nation, Nairobi's and Kenya's largest newspaper are about politics--government corruption and proposals for reform--but there is scant mention in the issue about the upcoming visit of Illinois U.S. Senator Barack Obama. On page seven, there is only a brief article about Obama's plan to be tested for HIV after he and his family arrive in the East African nation on Thursday. Obama, who will be joined here by his wife Michelle and their two daughters, will travel Saturday to the village where his father was born and raised in the Siaya District in the country's western region.
Producer Janet Hundley and I spent all of Wednesday in Nairobi and were somewhat surprised by the lack of "buzz" surrounding the only African-American U.S. Senator's visit to his ancestral homeland. As the newspapers make little mention of it the television news programs make even less. There are no banners near his intended base of operations at the Nairobi Serena Hotel and as far as we know no government-sanctioned welcome ceremonies at the airport or along his route to the hotel. Hundley did meet a young woman in a supermarket here wearing a tee shirt emblazoned with Obama's image, the U.S. Flag and the words "Welcome Home". "She said a guy hired her and that she and others were going out tonight to restaurants and bars to sell the shirts" according to Hundley.
But that's about it. As written earlier in this dispatch, the big story in Nairobi these days is Kenya's costly and crippling government corruption and how to end it. Rampant graft is reportedly draining away monies needed for economic development and for fighting the AIDS epidemic here and bribe-takers in the local and national governments are said to be stifling outside investment. During his stay here, Obama hopes to meet with President Mwai Kibaki and is scheduled to deliver a major speech on government corruption in Nairobi next week. It is likely that government officials are not looking forward to a possible "tongue-lashing" from the U.S. Senator and it's possible they could be orchestrating the low-key coverage of his visit that we have seen so far in the Kenya's de facto state-controlled media.
Otherwise, Nairobi is a fascinating city that requires many more than the few days we will have to explore it. It is my first trip to Kenya and my third journey to Africa. I hope to write more in the coming days about what it means for African Americans to return to the continent of their ancestors.
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