Foreign Intrigue journalism interns return with memories to last a lifetime

Andrew Doughman rides on the back of a motorcycle through a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

Andrew Doughman rides on the back of a motorcycle through a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

During summer 2010, four journalism students worked as intern reporters around the world. Thanks to the Foreign Intrigue Scholarship established by a UW Journalism alum, they were given the chance to be exposed to another culture while gaining a more thorough understanding of journalism in a foreign country.

The scholarship recipients interned at four news organizations: Andrew Doughman at the Nation Media Group (Nairobi, Kenya), Lillian Tucker at AWOKO (Freetown, Sierra Leone), Molly Rosbach at Reuters (Santiago, Chile) and  Joanna Nolasco at The Cambodian Daily (Phnom Penh, Cambodia).

Below are their reflection pieces from their experiences reporting in a foreign land.

Tales from Africa: Reporting in Nairobi, Kenya

I’ve read that it’s good to write about safaris, sunsets and darkness when writing about Africa. So I’ll include none of that. I came here with a vision of Kenya hazily sketched from state department warnings and well-wishes from friends and family who were sure I’d be seeing lots of lions and elephants. Three months later I’ve painted in the gaps with adventure after adventure.

Snapshots of Kenya

Here I am, July, August and September 2010, getting called “Chinese, Hey Chinese, Ching-Choong!” about 6 million times; walking home late at night and listening to the prostitutes hiss at me from dimly-lit alleys; watching my reporter-turned-butcher friend slaughter a chicken in my honor; smiling a big Neanderthal smile as I cruise down a dirt road through a coffee plantation on the back of a motorcycle; stretching out on the white sand underneath a coconut tree beside the Indian Ocean; tossing buckets of water on my burning YMCA hostel; rubbing my ragged eyes as I pull a 22-hour workday while Kenya votes for a new constitution.

Here is the young sapling named “Andrew” at a Rift Valley farm. Here are my friends and guides who hosted me for a four-day immersion in Nairobi’s fabled Kibera “slum.”

If I could, I would also show you a still-unknown man enjoying a very nice phone that doesn’t rightly belong to him.

Life at The Nation Media Group

Oh, right. And I was working. I had complete editorial freedom to pursue my own projects, pitch stories to the editors I liked and partner with the reporters whose writing I respected. My stories appeared in the daily publication, the Sunday magazine, the weekly regional paper, the op-ed page and a variety of special sections. My photographs also occasionally ran with my stories.
I worked for a good company. The Kenyan press is the shining star of the East African press and the Nation Media Group might as well write that it has all the news that’s fit to print. As for the staff, a cadre of reporters and editors at the Nation were my colleagues, my drinking buddies, my confidants and, most of all, my friends. There’s a word in Swahili, karibu, that means “welcome.” Kenyans really mean it. I was welcome here, and I don’t regret at all putting my American life on hold for an adventure I’ll remember forever.

A few challenges, a lot of memories

But enough PR. I shouldn’t romanticize Kenya too much. At worst, Nairobi is one of those big, stinky, “half the population live on a dollar a day or less” African cities full of fast food, slums, corruption, colonial estates and more slums. This is also a country whose people roasted, maimed and murdered each other three years ago following a rigged election.

But brooding Heart of Darkness, colonial Green Hills of Africa, and all other classic “African” clichés of sunsets, safaris and stoic natives don’t show the whole picture. The Nairobi I’ve known is a rich, deep city to get lost in and a worthwhile place to study. Three months is just enough time to see what Hunter S. Thompson calls “that third dimension, that depth that makes a city real.”

Here’s that depth:

I am on a matatu van careening madly through traffic, Swahili hip-hop blaring from loose-fitted speakers, the wind whipping my hair, the late afternoon sun thrusting skyscrapers into caricatures of sharp corners and severe angles as we whiz by. In the driver’s-side mirror, I see me in Kenya and Kenya painted all over my smiling face.

Students who have questions about Andrew’s Foreign Intrigue Scholarship experience are welcome to e-mail him at andrewdoughman@yahoo.com.

Overcoming language barriers in Cambodia

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.

During my 12-week stay in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, this summer, there were three things I could count on everyday: the heat, a motorcycle ride, and at least two people asking me, “Are you Cambodian?”

Though I looked the part, there was nothing familiar about my experience in Cambodia — it was exhilarating.

At my reporting internship with The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper, everyday was a new adventure, another opportunity to learn. One day I would be calling government officials, persistently pushing for a quote, and the next day I would be scouring the streets of Phnom Penh for tuk-tuk (rickshaw) drivers to interview.

Amid all the excitement, there were certainly challenges that I had to overcome. The language barrier was particularly difficult for me to adjust to. As a reporter, clear communication with your sources is crucial. I was accustomed to doing interviews at my previous reporting job, but learning how to interview with sources whom English is their second language is like learning how to walk all over again. My first few interviews in Cambodia were labored, but I learned ways to communicate my questions more clearly, as well as to understand their responses more accurately. With that experience, my overall communication skills have improved. I am now more keen on language and the ways in which people express their ideas, and this has proven to be tremendously helpful with my new job.

My experience in Cambodia was invaluable not only for my career, but also for my personal growth. At 20 years old, I spent an entire summer living and working on my own in a beautiful foreign country. That is a memory I will always cherish.

One day, I will go back.

A hard rain’s a gonna fall: Learning to live and work in Sierra Leone

Boys of Freetown selling buckets on the street.

Boys of Freetown selling buckets on the street.

Before I left for Sierra Leone I did all the research. I read about diamonds, the civil war and nightlife in Freetown. I scanned over the State Department’s cautions with my parents and stocked up on the most fearsome, nasty repellent known to bugs.

Armed with confidence and anticipation I descended from a sky ablaze with lightning and arrived into the darkness that is West African night. My escort was not at the airport. In the 10 minutes it took for him to appear I mentally kicked myself for being so naive.

Bumping around in a fourth-hand bus in the pitch dark my hubris melted away. Every now and then the headlights picked out a young person, walking along the road, wearing no shoes. When I unlocked the door to my room there was no electricity but there was a bed, mosquito net, a huge dingy window that overlooked the national stadium and a lizard.

I couldn’t blame the little guy for invading my space though; that night the loudest rain storm I have ever heard pounded at the world outside my room. Prior to the trip people had asked me why I was going to Sierra Leone. I want to be challenged I told them. My wish had come true.

What ensued was a love-hate relationship with the country and its culture. I hated the heat, the never-ending thumping of Akon, the garbage and the whippings I watched the neighbor children endure. I hated walking down the street and being stared at, commented on and touched. I hated the never-ending flow of daily headlines, attacking the opposite political party and the fact that women and children were second-class citizens.

But I loved the people and their bottomless hospitality. I loved watching them cheer for Ghana in the World Cup and shopping for fabric. I loved the spice that burned my tongue every time I ate. I loved the green countryside, watching monkeys play in the trees, riding on the back of dirt-bike taxis, eating mangos and the smile everyone seemed to wear.

The people at Awoko Newspaper became my family. Each had their turn, taking me under their wing. It seemed they would have done anything to make me feel at home. Talking with the local reporters reminded me of why I loved being a journalist. My editor had been a reporter during his county’s brutal civil war in which his house was burned. His commitment to the news has rightfully so earned him the respect of the community.

Taking bucket baths and carrying my own water really helped to drive the idea of conservation home. Before school, children would gather water for their parents from one of the water spigots that were spread around the city. Watching them I knew how heavy the load could get and decided to write about it for my daily column. But like many of my story pitches the ideas were there, everyone knew the problem existed and was linked to lack of resources and corruption but tracking down an official source was next to impossible.

Still, I had plenty to write about and even more to think about at night. For my column I explored food, the way we celebrate death and the value of education. I wrote about AIDS policy and the nonsense of violence, made observations of the courts and a religious ceremony. I profiled a group of Sierra Leoneans who were taking the work of NGOs into their own hands. For every story I wrote I had five more lined up. There was an illegal immigrant from Ghana that was running a mining operation and three women sitting on death row for petty crimes like armed robbery. I had just made contacts on a story about the courts “losing” the files for rape cases when I unexpectedly had to leave Africa for medical treatment.

Without saying my goodbyes I found myself on a plane bound for London; the city I had finally started to find my way in was quickly falling behind me. I didn’t have time to buy souvenirs but what I did carry home with me is a range of emotions that is as chaotic as baggage claim on that first night. Fondness is among them. Sierra Leone’s dirt was still under my fingernails as I sat talking to the man that shared my arm rest. “You’ll be back,” he said and ordered himself two whiskies. I reckon he is right.

Economics fuels reporting during Reuters internship in Chile

Santiago was a surprise. Spending every day in the middle of its gleaming skyscrapers and workaholic attitude, there were times that it felt like any capital city in the U.S., with a Starbucks on every corner and tides of suit-clad businessmen hurrying head-down along the busy streets.

But then Latin America would emerge in some charmingly characteristic way—a crowd of thousands pouring into the main plaza for a World Cup match; bottles of wine brought out at lunch in the office to celebrate a special occasion, before getting back to work — and Seattle would feel far away once again.

Chile is one of South America’s fastest-growing economies, outperforming everyone else on the continent so far in 2010 in both its currency appreciation and the strength of its stock market. Working for Reuters as one of their LatAm interns this summer, I got to see firsthand the astounding economic progress the country is making, which made the stories I wrote exciting and relevant to what was going on around me.

I went into my Foreign Intrigue internship with one microeconomics class and a semester in Spain under my belt, vastly underprepared for the job ahead. Chile was a three-month trial by fire as I jumped right in and had to learn complicated economic concepts for the first time in a foreign language. Intimidating, to say the least.

And mastering Chilean Spanish is no easy feat. Chileans themselves admit that their dialect is almost impossible to understand—they speak quickly, leave off the ends of their words and use more “chilenismos” than standard Spanish. My everyday conversations were full of “po,” “weon,” “cachai” and a hundred other phrases unique to the Andean nation.

As stressful and terrifying as the first few weeks were, my initial lack of knowledge provided a perfect baseline from which to gauge my progress over the three months I was there. By the end of my internship, calling stock analysts didn’t scare me, and taking down quotes from a government minister at a press conference didn’t seem quite so impossible.

By looking over my boss’s shoulder, reading the local papers’ business sections as well as Reuters’ broader LatAm coverage, and asking “stupid” questions all summer, I began to pick up the knowledge that Reuters journalists just have floating about in their heads—the catch-phrases that quickly explain the relationship between different countries and economies; the international connections that make the global economy so complex and multilayered.

While financial journalism had never really crossed my mind as a potential career, my stint with Reuters helped me see that no matter which area of journalism I’m going into, knowledge of the economy is a crucial part of understanding general news around the world.

Working in Latin America as a foreign correspondent has always been my dream. Thanks to the generosity of the UW COM department and the expert tutelage I received at Reuters, I now have a better idea of how to achieve it.