January 28, 2009

Zambia, One Year On

It's been almost 12 months since I left life in Lusaka for the considerably cooler and more developed climes of Southern Ontario. Save a brief sojourn to Quebec in August, I haven't left the confines of the region in nearly a year. But whether it's the god-awful weather here or my continued engagement in Zambian media projects over there, I often think of my adoptive African country. Allow me to explain.

Pictured above (at right) is Derrick Sinjela, one of Lusaka's most determined journalists, holding a certificate of incorporation from the Zambian Government. As of November 2008, Derrick's vision for media development - what he calls the Rainbow Media Group - is a legal entity and can even be traded publicly on the Lusaka Stock Exchange.

This is remarkable in a number of ways. When I left town, Derrick was still reeling from the debacle that was The Advocate (which I wrote about here and here), the nascent human rights newspaper that eventually 'fired' both of us. His exit was particularly acrimonious, as the editor made Derrick's firing a top story in one issue of the newspaper. The last time I saw him, he was something of a broken man, though he promised me in an interview to "rise like a Phoenix through the Rainbow," his new idea for a socially responsible publication. I was understandably skeptical.

But in the months after I departed, Derrick kept in constant contact as he developed his business plan. Combining lessons learned from my brief experience with start-up newspapers in Lusaka and his 20-plus years in the media, I played a small role in helping him craft the Rainbow's founding documents, even earning the ridiculous title 'Lead Business Consultant' in the process. Instead of rushing straight to print and trying to distribute nation-wide - two common mistakes of fly-by-night publications - Rainbow Media would, at first, act as a journalism foundation, ensuring it could recruit and fairly compensate its reporters. This idea was hugely important to Derrick, who rightly saw the lack of professionalism, direction and dignity in the Zambian media as a function of low wages. Secondly, the eventual newspaper would only be distributed in targeted neighbourhoods of Lusaka (namely the ones with highest literacy rates) to start.

Professionally-speaking, the most rewarding piece of the project was that Derrick had internalized the notion of public service reporting to the point of enshrining it as a founding principle of the company:

The mission of the Rainbow is...
To contribute to the building of news reading culture to the Zambian citizens.
To conscientise the Zambian people on the critical issues impeding national development.
To highlight pertinent issues and matters affecting Zambians on human rights, gender tolerance, economic development and share equity among citizens, and opportunities to be extracted from tourism and the role of culture in national development.

There was a degree of satisfaction in this for me as I'd spent the better part of a year telling Derrick and his acolytes that human interest and advocacy journalism would work if they gave it a decent shot (like actually interviewing ordinary Zambians for stories that affect ordinary Zambians). With this, I figured they were on solid ground to start their venture.

The reality, of course, has turned out to be much more muddied. In May, when advertising and grant money first started to come in, they rushed ahead and published their first issue before the ink was even dry on their business plan. It was a disaster (I have the PDF to prove it if anyone's feeling masochistic). The lead story was about a tribal squabble between the President and leader of the Opposition: exactly the kind of empty political rhetoric we'd talked about avoiding. Even worse, a ludicrous 'Minister in Dog Sex Scam!' headline ran on the cover. If at all true, it would have been a gripping story of a Lusaka-based pornography ring that drugged woman, engaged them in bestiality and sold the products to Scandinavian countries - allegedly covered up by a high-ranking Zambian official. Unfortunately the end product was completely unbelievable, not quoting a single named source and reinforcing negative stereotypes of commercial sex workers and homosexuals (the alleged participants in said heinous acts).

The Rainbow Newspaper, to my knowledge, hasn't been published since - but that's entirely a good thing. Derrick didn't need to me to tell him that he had fallen short of his own lofty goals, and promised to try and stick to his plan of building a professional media infrastructure before producing a professional product. He disappeared for several months after the inaugural issue fiasco, but resurfaced to send me the above picture, saying that he's sticking to the original plan again. I've been asked to buy shares in the now-public company, to which I responded that I would have to see a new issue that spoke to the guiding principles. Derrick's promised me another PDF by the end of February, and to send me stories to vet before they go to print. We'll see.

(Note: there's another significant Zambian media project I'm involved in as well, but due to the length of this post, I'll save it for later when I have more of your attention span)


Mike said...

Pfft. Way to sell out to conventional blog wisdom and show consideration for your readers by limiting posts to a reasonable length. You sicken me.

Seriously, though, sounds like there's at least a good deal of promise in The Rainbow. Hope to hear more about it in the future. I had no idea you still had your hands in the Zambian media.

B. Scott Currie said...

The Zambian media stuff fell off for a while, as I mentioned, but has picked up again recently. Since the annual milestone was coming up, figured this would be a good time to explain where it all stood.

All of which means you may have Sierra Leoneans (?) pestering you long after your gone.

Mike said...

Yeah, I'm sure I will, but I'm fine with that.

And you spelled 'Sierra Leoneans' right. Unfortunately, all credibility gained was quickly lost when you screwed up 'your'. Tough break.

Dan Hocking said...

The your/you're mistake? Brandon, you should be embarrassed.

I'm with Mike - just admit that you were too lazy to keep writing the post. :) Looking forward to it; also enjoyed the slideshow below.