Today’s Context Africa is a special kind of post. Over at Christian Science Monitor, journalist Mary Wiltenburg and editor Clara Germani have worked together to follow “Little Bill Clinton,” a refugee displaced by the conflicts in Congo and Rwanda, currently living in Atlanta, Georgia. The effort took place in real time with a lot of multimedia pieces to help explain a complicated story. Both Mary and Clara agreed to answer questions for this post about context, sustaining interest in a long term projects, and the complications of cross-cultural exchange.
Read the blog (my favorite entry is African Kids Decode Michael Jackson), and check out this week’s CSM magazine cover story What it’s like to be a refugee in America, complete with great sidebars about refugee resettlement and a refugee gatekeeper’s lament.
Question for Mary: Can you tell me a bit about how this project got started and what’s next?
Mary: This project started with a question: What can we as journalists learn from the way people communicate online – through Facebook, Twitter, all of it – to inform our thinking about new models of storytelling they’re likely to respond to? The idea of a story unfolding over time, in intimate detail and a variety of media, appealed to me. It seemed like a natural pace at which to get to know a family and a community – both for me and for readers. Conversations with Clara about the idea led to a second question – What and who would be worth devoting a year to in this way? – which led us to the International Community School and Bill Clinton Hadam.
What’s next could be much more old-school: after the Monitor series wraps up next month, I’m hoping to write a book that will continue and expand the story.
Question for Clara: As an editor, how is working on a series like Little Bill Clinton different from the daily grind? How does the “real time” element change things?
Clara: Usually you edit only a slice of a story like this. Maybe 1,500 words on the sadness of a refugee child struggling to make it in a US school or 1,500 words on a UN refugee camp where safety from conflict is a cruel cheat because life doesn’t get better for most. But in this project, I – and our readers – lived week in and week out with Mary’s daily experiences in Bill Clinton Hadam’s home and classroom. It was the day-to-day blogging that was astonishing, delightful, and heartbreaking in it’s detail and insight: The roaches swarming Bill’s homework as he diligently tried to finish it alone at night; Bill’s verdict that the refugee camp had been kinda “stinky,” the slow piecing together of Bill’s mom’s traumas during 33 years as a refugee (losing a husband and son to genocide in Rwanda, losing a daughter who fled the refugee camp after being raped), the wonder of Bill and his brother overcoming language and cultural issues to actually get to grade-level status in an American school. So much richness went into the blogs that normally would have been sliced out by editing.
Another aspect of the project was that the reporter was going to become a part of the story by virtue of being so close to it. We anticipated this and never tried to deny that it would happen to some degree. At the beginning, it was my daily nightmare that a huge burden was being placed on Mary as a person as well as a journalist who had the newspaper’s ethics to uphold. These innocents were telling her everything, beginning to rely on her because she was one of few Americans paying attention to them. Early on we faced the dilemma of Mary’s frequent visits to Bill’s apartment and the fact that the kids were hungry: What do you do when you know that for the next year your reporter is going to be asking these people for access and information? The subtle quid pro quo of modern journalism (you give us information, we write about it and presumably civic forces will come to bear on your behalf in time) isn’t the kind of quid pro quo you’re going to be able to live with in a situation like this. These were the kind of struggles that weren’t going to end with a deadline in a few weeks – we had to cope with them throughout the year and apply our sense of integrity as we went, moment by moment.
Question for Mary: How was reporting with refugees in America different than reporting with refugees in Africa?
Mary: Really different – and counterintuitively so. You’d think the farther from home, the more “foreign” the reporting experience would be, but for me the opposite has been true.
Getting to know Bill’s parents in Atlanta has meant taking them out of context. It’s a peculiar way to meet people, torn out of their social fabric, stripped of the major relationships and clues – extended family, religious community, neighbors, jobs, educational backgrounds – that I would normally use to make inferences about people’s pasts and consider their presents. In writing about the family, I’ve tried to be sensitive to this – and I do think there are many things I’ve understood about them, and vice versa, that transcend cultural markers. But I couldn’t really place them, and I assumed this might be beyond me.
In the refugee camp I visited in Tanzania, though, I met a group of friends who had become Dawami and Hassan’s extended family over the decade they spent there together. It was a revelation. These friends – high school teachers, human rights activists, journalists, printers – were middle-class people uprooted from their lives. They had a nuanced analysis of the Tanzanian government’s refugee policy; education was their priority, and they were furious about the closing of their kids’ camp schools. For me, this made them feel very familiar. Despite our obvious differences of circumstance and culture, it was like talking with my parents’ friends in a mud-brick house on the other side of the world.
Question for Mary: How did traveling to Tanzania change or reinforce some of your opinions?
Mary: After spending time in those camps, I feel really impatient with the immigration debate back home in the US. It seems obvious to me that countries around the world need to establish paths by which those who cross their borders – whether fleeing violence or economic hardship – can work to earn their citizenship. While I was in Tanzania, the country was granting citizenship to 170,000 Burundian refugees who’d been living the country in productive, peaceful settlements since 1972 – an unusual move, and an excellent idea. It was also in the process of expelling several hundred thousand others who’d been warehoused in camps for decades, people with talents and skills who wanted to work and become contributing members of some society somewhere.
It’s not a perfect analogy to our situation in the US, of course, but I think for both countries, it does greater harm than good to keep families growing up within their borders in educational, professional, and legal holding patterns. The International Organization for Migration estimates 3 percent of the world’s population, 192 million people, now live outside the country where they were born. As an international community, we have to find better and more dignified ways of addressing this.
Question for Clara: How do you make sure your audience will connect to things happening in Tanzania? Or for that matter, even in their backyard?
Clara: One great thing about the Monitor is that there’s a presumption of reader interest in world events, that there is a presumption of importance of stories like this. Yes, we have to try to make them relevant to people who have never heard the word “mzungu” and don’t know if Dar es Salaam is a person or a place. And, yes, we have to figure out ways to “market” them via the web so that we get sufficient hits to justify the effort.
That’s what this project was designed to do: to use rich, compelling storytelling through words, audio, and video to seduce readers to what might ordinarily be unfamiliar and difficult to access. For those who found us, I think we accomplished that (look at the comments sections). The hardest problem was getting the project the exposure it needed to bring in readers for a first look.
Question for Clara: Is it hard to sustain a readers’ interest on a long term project like this one?
Clara: Well it’s not “The Bachelor” or “American Idol” – it’s REAL “reality” and it can be heavy. For readers with an interest in African issues, or refugee issues, or American poverty or education, the predisposition is to follow a project like this, and I believe there was a base of readers who did. But I’ll admit that it would take more than the average reader’s commitment to return daily to this boy’s story. I will say that once a reader’s heart was broken or warmed by one of these blogs, it would be hard for them not to occasionally pop back in for a look on the latest developments.