Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cold front

These pics are from dusk on Tuesday as the cold front hit Grahamstown and ripped through the city. I've been chasing it the whole day, for 1000km now. Just behind it, sometimes driving through hail, I finally drove into its eye outside Warden in Free State. For the next hour my car was lashed by rain and a howling wind; I loved it.

1000km is a lot of thinking time: if Highway Africa was the journalistic 'mountain top' experience, then my journey today has been the slide back down into the valley of reality, implementation and the grind of challenges. A community newspaper in SA in a recession, also while they're becoming extinct in the rest of the world, is frontier territory.

I've just stopped at Steers in Ermelo for coffee, fast food and to stretch my legs. I've got another 2hours minimum to go before I'm home and can sleep...albeit in the very battleground itself.


When the door opens make sure you walk through it. I should have left Grahamstown early yesterday morning. I felt compelled to make a few calls before leaving to follow up on conversations in the hurried, passionate stream of the conference. Thank God that I did: I spent the entire day meeting with passionate and dedicated journalism professionals who are backing me fully with the newspaper endeavours. The ideas are endless and, despite an average of five hours sleep a night, my energy seems boundless as I return, always, to my Source.

I spent last night at Historical Cottages, in 1 Scotts Avenue just off Main Street, two minutes walk from the university. I highly recommend this B&B that is the collection of buildings that formed part of a military HQ commissioned for the British government and built by Piet Retief between 1820 and 1823.

The group of buildings consisting of accommodation for six officers, 180 rank and file, 12 horses, a powder magazine, and commissariat stores extended from High Street to New Street and was originally surrounded by a high stone wall, parts of which still stand today.

Contact Roswitha Hobson on +27 46 622 8936 for more info and to book.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Grocott's Citizen Journalism Centre launched

In the same year Nelson Mandela was released, as a first year journ student at Rhodes, I walked into the editor's office at the Grocott's Mail - SA's oldest surviving independent newspaper - and asked Jill Joubert (who had a lit fag perpetually hanging from her mouth) if I could work for the newspaper. For free. I needed experience, especially as only 80 of over 200 journ students would make it into second year.

Tonight, many years later, the mayor of Grahamstown cut the ribbon at the opening of the new Grocott's Citizen Journalism centre that will see the paper and its website open to the citizens of of the area... they will be able to directly impact the content of the paper, whether by submitting a story and pics at the 10 PC stations in their main street office, or via sending sms's and mms's directly to their uniquely 'home-developed' Nika Content Management System (that I had the privilege of test driving this afternoon) that will see the content delivered straight into the news editor's in-box.

This conference has been an incredible meeting of dynamic, creative minds from right across the world. And every one of the delegates seem to have their hearts in the right place.

The virus is in my blood. What's the big deal?

"I am Beauty Mbewe from the Malawi Institute of Journalism. I'm a 49-year old woman, almost 50 now, and I've been living with the virus for 18 years now.

"Journalists always focus on people in the last stages of of their life. Why don't they document the lives of people like me. People don't believe me when I tell them I'm positive. Document lives like mine.

"I've been taking antiretrovirals since December 2005, they are working well. Ask me about how I live: I don't live with pain, like someone with arthritis would, for example. The virus is in my blood. I don't even feel it. What is the big deal?

"My husband died 8 years ago, that's how I got infected. I have three kids, all of them I've seen through university. Who would've looked after them? That inspires me to keep going.

"I'm a normal human being and I'm going to live for the next 50 years... ."

HeartsMinds website details

HeartsMinds' website is not yet up and running. But they do have a FaceBook group by the same name. The site should be up soon.

Highway Africa 2009 - Re-thinking how we report HIV and AIDS in Africa

HeartsMinds is an initiative to see reporting on HIV and AIDS that humanises stories on the epidemic.

I'm sitting in the HeartsMinds Highway Africa seminar, which is highlighting the media fatigue with HIV and AIDS, that is manifested in various ways:
- An over reliance on 'gray' statistics
- Rewriting of official speeches
- Reporting only on staged events
- A lack of individual initiative by journalists

They say that essentially the result of media fatigue is reporting that is lacking Heart, that it's just another story to be covered. This sees reporters not developing engaging stories, it also results in a situation where editors don't any longer see any reason to run HIV/AIDS stories.

This results in audiences that don't recieve the neccessary information, or at least not in a way that engages them well. The -audiences, too, are fatigued.

Whose fault is it, this fatigue? Let's keep asking those questions.

The content, for one, is lacking in heart, also lacking in useful, engaging info. It's also lacking in creative ways of telling the story. Let's ask these questions!

Solutions to this challenge include finding different angles on human stories, also putting a human face to the story (e.g. journalists should strive to convey feelings, but still remaining objective. Most of all we should always remember that there are human beings behind the statistics).

And what about stories about the challenges faced by sex workers...particulary in the light of the debate around sex workers being legalised in SA in 2010. Approach this journalistically, also remembering that these stories would be about human beings.

Let us, as journalists, also remember that there are no victims of HIV/AIDS...who made them a victim? Let's, as journalists, change our Hearts and Minds in our reporting...let's remember that we're reporting about real humans that, just like ourselves, have real Hearts and Minds.

Journalists get your hands on the HeartsMinds Toolkit, which will help you with your reporting on the epidemic in a way that will help overcome the media and audience fatigue on a subject that MUST be reported on in innovative new ways.

The Toolkit - on a flashdisk - contains, among many others, the SAEF Guiding Principles Ethical Reporting of HIV and AIDS and Gender; also the Kaiser Family Foundation Reporting Manual on HIV/Aids (July 2009 edition).


(Sitting in the seminar I've been unable to successfully Google the HeartsMinds website address. I'll post it on the blog straight afterwards, as soon as I can track it down.)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Path of ghosts

At dusk I walked up the path from campus to the 1820 Settlers Monument. It crests the prominent hill behind the town and university. Along the path the uniquely aromatic scent of the Eastern Cape vegetation, especially prominent at dusk, stirred memories and gave life and sustenance to ghosts on the stoney path that last had life 19 years ago.

My challenge is that I've not had the time to intellectually process emotions locked up so long in Mr Jones' landlocked locker... I believe it's time now.

It's the new media awards tonight, including dinner, which is probably the social highlight of Highway Africa.

Later, in terms of a circle I hope to see closed forever, I'll be meeting someone beneath the Drostyd Arch, historical - and romantic -entrance to the university. And then a beer at Rat.

Phelps House

It's a magnificent spring day (that has the potential to turn into a scorcher) in Grahamstown as Highway Africa 13.0 gathers momentum. Right now there's no where else I'd rather be.
I'm also looking forward to wandering through the City of Saints' streets and allleys, also to enjoying some coffee time with me.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium

In March 2007 this was just a piece of earth, just over two years later it's a 45 940 person capacity stadium that's damn impressive and got my blood pressure pumping. It's a fine piece of architecture and, according to external contractor, a specialist in stadium security and safety, Craig Miller (pictured), "this is the best he's come across in 25 years of eventing".
The stadium has 30 so-called vomatoriums, which should facilitate an evacuation in 6.5 minutes, which is expected to be world record. The current world record is 8 minutes.
The overall cost of the stadium is estimated at R1,7-billion.
Without have had a chance to research the position of the stadium, my guess is that it is ideally placed in an area that desperately needs the impetus and stimulation.
I'm impressed, but then again perhaps I'm just being emotional tonight: Viva 2010! (And I'm doing my best to imagine a crowd of 46 000 with vuvazela's...)

Port Elizabeth

It's an exceptionally busy road this late afternoon as people return from wherever they were for the weekend. Tomorrow's work again. We're close to Port Elizabeth and I'm greeted by the wonderfully cloying scent of Port Jackson Willow. The scent, from my childhood, always heralded the summer holidays and a long and carefree Southern Hemisphere Christmas on the beach with no worries. Because my mother is from Port Elizabeth we spent almost every summer holiday of my first 18 years here. It's an unpretentious and luckily unappreciated coastal city with some of the finest beaches. It remains a very important and special place for me.

Understandably my spirit is slightly less melancholic now. I'm again grateful for my marvelous and often unconventional life and the roads it takes me on. Now I regret my self pity of earlier and move into a grateful, humble space - one that I strive to live in - and give thanks to my Creator for all that I have and am able to experience.

To my left is my beloved Indian Ocean. It's not even 20m away.

Is it me Lord?

Right now I'm on a bus half way between Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth. It's an ugly afternoon with the colour bleached out of it, which pretty much matches my emotional state. We're on our way to visit the new 2010 soccer stadium in Port Elizabeth, where we will meet the 2010 managing committee's CEO, Danny Jordaan, also (as guests of MTN), celebrate the opening of the Highway Africa segment of the 4-day conference.

This morning I attended the 09h30 mass at the magnificent Grahamstown Cathedral, something I had never done whem I was here as a student. The mass, an Anglican one I believe, lasted close on two hours. The mass was mostly sung (3 choirs!) and what added incredible emphasis was that the cathedral was filled to overflowing with all the pupils of St. Andrews private boys school. They only attend mass once a term, and their singing was enough to prickle my flesh.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Rhodes African Media Matrix

The Rhodes Journalism's Prof. Guy Berger took a few of us on a tour of the department's multi-million rand African Media Matrix. That was after lunch in the Nelson Mandela Hall.

I loved the wall tiles in the toilets. All in all its an incredibly stimulating and creative building.

Now, in the university's Eden Grove, we're sitting through the opening address of Digital Citizen Indaba 4.0 by co-ordinator Jane Duncan. It's to be followed by the keynote address, by Cameroon blogger Dibussi Tande on the state of social justice and digital media in Africa.


Rhodes University: I'm sitting in one of the women's residences, Phelp's House, waiting for my room (no. 27) to be cleaned. It's the mid-term break and the residences are used to accommodate conference delegates. I'm in the commons room and all the emotions from my incredibly intense university days are flooding my system, not unlike electric voltage being pumped through a newly erected maximum security electric fence.

My time in Grahamstown, at Rhodes, was the most intense time of my life, definitely my happiest thus far, and also my first tatse of freedom: from the apartheid schooling system, from interdependent family life, and it came alsmost straight after my two years compulsory 'national service' in the army's Parachute Battalion (spelling?).

There's only two more things I need from here... .

(Aah, my room. And it's the exact one, mirror image, of my room in Graham House way back in 1990. I recognise the light, so does my gut, it also feels the slight chill left from winter on the air.)
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The scenery changes drastically, it becomes increasingly parched, but also dramatic. And with the greater harshness there's a greater simplicity, which I appreciate. And an incredible beauty that, fortunately, so few appreciate. This is Karoo. This is where my soul finds true peace and utter contentment.
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The Eastern Cape.. a stake driven through my heart

It's an hour and a half drive from Hogsback to Grahamstown - via Alice and Fort Beaufort - and the geography and scenery changes drastically. This has always been frontier country from even before the indigenous tribes and Brtish clashed in the early 1800s. It was also a frontier in the war insurgency war against the apartheid state...this region was a hotbed of activisim and uprisings, it's also here that Chris Hani was assasinated in the early 1990s, just before South Africa achieved democracy. Even today it remains frontier territory...

This is country that triggers me, that twists and churns my insides, that draws me in. And because my life somehow doesn't, right now, bring to me where I should in all honesty be - here - I experience great resisitance and disatisfaction. But also anticipation...
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Artists grappling with climate change...even in Hogsback

Hogsback: Even artists in this little hamlet are grappling with the global climate change phenomenon as they feel its impacts here, particularly in the form of drought. I wish I had had the time to meet this artist and to run with the story.
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The King's Lodge

The sudden almost-full moon rising up above the Amatolas gasped my breath away as I arrived in Hogsback's through its backdoor, the scenic and less travelled 49km gravel road from Cathcart. "Oh my God," I said out loud and swerved my car to a halt. In the light that Yeats describes as 'half light', I feasted my eyes on the sight, celebrated my life and inhaled the pungent pine scent of the forest.

I booked into the King's Lodge, had a glass of red wine in the bath and then collapsed into bed. The last month and four days have tested me, taken me beyond my percieved limits. At the end of July I bought (as unexpectedly as the rise of last night's moon) a majority shareholding in the local community newspaper. It's the least sleep I've had, it's the most challenged I've been, and now's the time to apologise to everyone who communicates with me as a result of this blog. Not only have I not blogged, but I've also not replied to your emails. My sincere apologies...and thank you for taking the time to 'talk' to me, also for being patient.

Of course you are wondering why someone would buy into a paper during a recession, also why on earth something as extinct as a newspaper? I'll answer those questions over the next few days as I let myself relax into the most dynamic journalism conference on the continent. All I know is that I've done the right thing...

And now to leave this incredible village behind unsavoured because of hurry. I am filled with regret and nostalgia. But I am riding one of the waves of my destiny and it requires focus and dedication. And I don't mean destiny in any glamorous sense of the world and its ways at all.

I'm again gleefully reminded: I am in the world but not of it.
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Friday, September 04, 2009

Digital civil society, journalism in Africa at DCI 2009

This year's fourth Digital Citizen Indaba (DCI), themed 'Digital civil society and journalism in Africa', takes place on 5 - 6 September 2009 at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, just before the University's annual Highway Africa conference. The event aims to attract bloggers, online and mobile journalists, citizen reporters, new media practitioners, online industry experts and civil society representatives.
The purpose of DCI is to encourage citizen participation in debate about the state of digital media, information sharing and skills transfer using experts in the field. It encourages the use of new media take-up by non-journalists.

Speaker line-up:
  • Keynote speaker Dubissi Tande, a prolific blogger on African affairs, will speak on the state of social justice digital media in Africa
  • Elia Varela Serra ( and Bolivian Voices editor Eduardo Ávila Maneno will discuss promoting indigenous languages in digital media
  • Nthateng Mhlambiso (Behind the Mask) and Maureen Agena (Women of Uganda Network) focus on gender, civil society and digital media
  • Bobby Soriano (Tactical Tech), Brett Davidson (Stop Stockouts) and Ndesjano Macha (Global Voices) will look at civil society's use of mapping tools
  • Stephan Hofstatter (freelance journalist), Peter Benjamin (Cell-Life), Ednah Karamagi (BROSDI) and Bobby Marie (Monitoring Action will discuss ways in which technology can be used to promote activism around land, environment and health

DCI 4.0 offers six workshops offering delegates practical skills aiding digital activism and social justice on a local level as well as knowledge.
  • Multimedia Tools for Journalism - Peter Verweij, Hogeschool Utrecht
  • Digital Voices to Reconstruct Communities - Marlon Parker, CPUT
  • Successful Podcasting - Jayne Morgan,
  • Mapping Tools for Civil Society Use - Ndesanjo Macha, Global Voices
  • Using Mobile Media for Social Change - Peter Benjamin, Cell-Life
  • Bringing Down the Barriers with Interactive Audio Programming and Mobile Phones - Brenda Burrell,
For more info, go to or, on Twitter, add dcindaba or use #DCI09 to search for DCI Tweets.

Aliwal North

Aliwal North is just in the Eastern Cape province, other side the wide flowing Orange River. There's already an incredible bleakness, also parchedness and exceptional quality of sunlight about it that is so Great Karoo. And wide open spaces too, not unlike the smiles of the people on the side of the roads in towns with names like Zastron, Rouxville (both in the Free State) and then Jamestown. My only regret today is that I was in a hurry.

Yesterday I squeezed in 200km before sunset. Today, although I was up at 3am tearfully loving a dog retching blood because of severe bronchitis (knowing, too, it would be another six hours before the vet was available), I was on the road from Volksrust by 7am. By sunset I had covered just over 1000km. But a rush it was, which is not how I like it. Not one of the jewels on my path was I able to savour.


These are just two of the people that have accompanied me on parts of my road trip. This is Anna, from Bethlehem, and her two-year old grandson. She was stranded by an unscrupulous taxi driver, without any more money, and needed a lift from Ladybrand to Wepener in Free State province.

Now, in her autumn years, she's finally looking after her own...her grandchildren. For most of her life she raised other people's children...she has spent the best years of her life bringing up white children on behalf of her 'madams' throughout the Free State. Make no mistake she is grateful for the employment, and mostly was treated exceptionally well. That was not always the case though. In our relatively short drive, she recounted storiesof love, loyaltly, car accidents, death, alcoholism, generosity and abuse. Throughout all of this she was a live-in spectator in other families and another culture altogether. Her life and family was but the wallpaper on the walls of a small room, often outside and a bit away from the grand main house. I left her at the Total petrol station in Wepener happy and smiling, very much still in intact.
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Road trip: Highway Africa 2009

Aliwal North: Although right now I'm sitting on the Eastern Cape side of the Orange River - in heat reminiscent of summer's end, spring's very beginning - hurriedly downing a Windhoek Lager and a chicken schitzel, this road trip actually started 800km ago late yesterday afternoon.

I'm on my way to Grahamstown for the Digital Citizen Indaba that starts tomorrow morning and runs until Sunday afternoon. It's followed by the 13th Highway Africa Digital Journalism conference that opens with a dinner on Sunday evening. Funny enough, and I wonder why (has it got anything at all to do with the 2010 world cup soccer?), the dinner is being held at the 'splinter nuut' soccer stadium in Port Elizabeth, 120km away from Grahamstown.

Tonight - I admit it might be ambitious - I'm aiming to sleep in the artist's forest village of Hogsback. It's in the cool and misty Amatola Mountains of the old Ciskei apartheid-homeland (maybe they were also just trying to be creative in their very own special way). Hogsback is 49km along a gravel road from Cathcart.

I first scoured these backways of the Stormberg region (and have been passionately in love with them ever since) as a long-haired, over-principled and vegetarian journalism and English Literature student at Rhodes University. These particular wanderings began in the very same year that Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. I remember well the celebrations at my so-called 'English liberal' university.