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Story Publication logo March 1, 2012

Uganda: To Pay or Not to Pay, a Reporter's Dilemma


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More people in poor countries die from cancer than from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined...

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Swabura Namiiro, 4, was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2011 and is receiving treatment at the Uganda Cancer Institute. Image by Jaqueline Koch for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research. Uganda, 2012.

I've finished up my reporting in Uganda, and have moved on to India. But I've got some lingering concerns about what it means to cover poverty-related health issues.

I talked to a lot of people in Uganda for whom a very small amount of money could save a life. Many cancer treatments require repeat visits to the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala to receive chemotherapy every few weeks. But doctors there say that patients–more than half–don't come back after the first treatment or two.

The reason? Coming to Kampala costs money. Maybe 10,000 shillings, maybe 25,000 shillings–more if you live farther away. Sound like a lot? 25,000 shillings works out to a little over $10. Not much until you consider that the average income in Uganda is less than $1 a day.

I've got more than $10 in my pocket right now. Hell, I could take care of all 20 families I saw when I visited the pediatrics ward. If journalism is all about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, why not open my wallet?

I want to, I desperately want to, but I don't. For one, you can create all sorts of chaos by giving a handful of people within a very poor community something that others don't have. It would also make life harder for the next journalist who comes along. And once word gets around, people may make up stories in order to get interviewed.

But still, these are people in misery–in this case, struggling to come up with bus fare so they can save their own lives, or their children's lives.

My brilliant fixer, Jennifer Bakyawa, came up with the only adequate explanation I know.

She lined up the interviews for me–many patients at the Uganda Cancer Institute speak Luganda or another local language, not English. Nearly all asked to be paid. She told them that journalists can't pay directly for their stories, but that attention could only help them. She said that if people in rich countries understand that cancer is killing people in poor countries, maybe the rich countries would realize that with a little bit of attention a lot of lives could be saved. And maybe help would come in some form or another.

That's certainly all I could ask for.






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