Okay; you’ve decided to launch your freelance career abroad and you’re wheels-down in your new city. Even before deplaning, your antenna is up, I hope, for stories you might write for your client papers — a profile of the guys who keep wildlife off the runway, the sprawling shantytown just beyond the runway where the airport employees live, or you might blunder into a lucrative and patently disgraceful first-day gig like I did.
Trigger alert: an uncommonly long story follows, but it’s packed chockablock with lessons for a newbie freelance foreign correspondent.
Once Margaret and I touched down in Nairobi and we’d gone through the trauma of my pocket being picked — passport, vaccination card, American Express Card, a little bit of cash — we made our way to the local office of the Associated Press. AP offices are everywhere, and each acts — in addition to gathering news and putting it on the wire –as a kind of mission for wandering scribblers. Local AP reporters tend to know what’s what, who’s worth seeing and who isn’t, which Ministry of Information officials to avoid, where to eat, and so on. Anyplace we touch down, we often look first for the local AP office.
On this, our first warm evening in Africa in 1987, we found AP occupying one whole floor of an office tower downtown. I was jet-lagged, disoriented, and a little freaked out by having all my documents stolen. The American Express card I could cancel; the passport I could replace at the embassy. It was the vaccination card that worried me. I’d been duly vaccinated against yellow fever, but how could I convince border guards of that without the card? Word was that many wouldn’t let a traveler pass without proof of immunity. I could get re-vaccinated, but might a second dose of yellow-fever vaccine kill me? And I shuddered at the the thought of getting re-vaccinated in Kenya during the full flowering of the AIDS epidemic. I could picture a nurse – or even a border guard — reaching into an enamel basin of murky water and pulling up a syringe. No, thank you.
AP’s Nairobi bureau chief that spring was a big African-American who wore nerdy black-framed glasses and talked to us like a coach pumping up spirit before a big game. I listed the papers to which we planned to file and he started giving us a loud newsman’s rundown of stories we might pursue – ranked by potential interest to US readers. A latte-colored young woman with short wavy hair walked up, put out her hand, and introduced herself as Micky Faul, the BBC’s local stringer. I detected deference on the part of the AP guy. East Africa, which used to be an important piece of the British Empire, was still a lynchpin of the Commonwealth, and the local BBC reporter, I immediately grasped, is a kind of East-African journalistic royalty.
“You could do me a favor, actually,” Micky said. “Moi gave a speech today and Africa Report wants a live-taped Q&A about it. But I really need to be at a Soviet embassy reception in an hour. Could you do the Q&A?”
I looked up at her in a fog. “Moi?”
“Daniel Arap Moi. President of Kenya.”
“I, uh, only arrived today. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Of course; I know that. But I’ll coach you through it and then you can work out the questions and answers with London before you tape.”
“Is there any money in it?”
“I can give you a hundred US,” she said, which struck my ear as a fortune.
I glanced at Margaret, who, with a slight forward-thrusting of her head and lofted eyebrows, indicated that I should do it – about as strong a gesture of confidence in my ability to bullshit through this as it was possible for her to give, and it struck me, really for the first time, how lucky I was to have her with me on this African adventure.
Micky and I started walking; she talking non-stop about Kenya’s disappointing leadership of the Organization for African Unity, Moi’s increasingly autocratic rule, popular discontent with corruption, and the heat-shrunken maize harvest. “OAU autocratic discontent corruption maize,” I recited silently to myself, then went through it again and once more. Micky talked about the colonial period, the Mau Mau uprising that brought about independence in 1963 and breezed through Kenya’s history since then. Finally, we reached a tiny soundproof booth behind a door plastered with stickers for Deutsche Welle, Danish Radio, Radio Moscow, NPR, and a dozen others as well as the BBC; apparently, this booth was a resource shared by every radio reporter in Kenya. A microphone on a stand sat beside a black dial telephone whose receiver Micky scooped up. She laboriously dialed a great many digits.
“Get me Nigel, please,” she snapped without preamble. Covering the mouthpiece with her palm, she said to me, “Nigel’s the voice of Africa Report, which airs on the World Service every evening at five in London, eight here. “Nigel,” she said loudly. “Got a treat for you tonight. I can’t do the Moi-speech Q&A but I’ve got a real pro to do it in my stead. (In my stead, I thought. Brits! The BBC!”) “He’s Washington Post, NPR, all that, Micky said loudly, even though Margaret and I had yet to file anything to any of them. “Nice voice, too. He’s a yank but the good kind. Bags of time in Africa. (Oh, I thought. At least 90 minutes.) I’ll put him on and you two can work out the Q’s and A’s. You’ll want to talk about the OAU, corruption, and the maize harvest. Got that?” She handed me the receiver and leaned in to listen. A chirpy young Brit said, “Okay, we’ll start with you setting the scene – where the speech was, now many people were there, the weather, all that. I looked in panic at Micky, who patted the air and closed her eyes as though to say, “don’t worry.”
“What you’re going to do,” Nigel said, “is listen to me on the phone but speak into the mike there. Got that?” Micky was writing on a scrap of paper, national stadium, light rain, smallish crowd unenth. “I’m going to ask you about corruption, the maize harvest, what this does to Kenya’s position in the OAU. That seem to cover it?”
“That will be fine,” I said, hunching over the mike, sounding to myself for all the world like a distressed Canada goose, and we were off to the races.
Three hours later, Margaret and sat at a table on the outdoor terrace of casual restaurant, hunched over my little radio, listening to the martial notes of “Lillibulero” which the BBC World Service (formerly the Empire Service) used as its curtain-raiser theme (much to the irritation of the Irish, I’m sure, on whose folk song it was based.)
“On the phone from Nairobi ,” came Nigel’s bray, “is American reporter Dan Baum, who attended the speech today “(half a day in Africa and I’m already participating in journalistic fraud, I thought…) “Set the scene for me, Dan, where did President Moi speak?”
“He chose the national stadium,” I heard myself say confidently, which makes me think he was expecting a much larger crowd. Even by the standards of his other speeches this year, the crowd today was small, perhaps because a light rain fell throughout.”
” And remind me if you would, Dan. why this speech in particular was so important.”
“Well, Nigel,” I heard my voice saying through the radio’s tiny speaker, “you must keep in mind Moi’s ambiguous position within the OAU….” on and on I went, sounding for all the world like I’d been covering Kenya for a decade — the recent devaluation of the Kenyan shilling, the jailing of a dissident journalist, the arrest of the interior minister on corruption charges, summing up masterfully with, “and of course, Nigel, Kenya’s maize harvest has come up frighteningly short…”
Finally, it was over. My career as an Africa correspondent had begun.
So, what are the lessons here for an aspiring freelance correspondent?
- hang onto your documents carefully; wear clothes with zippered pockets
- find the local office of the AP wherever you happen to pitch up.
- make friends with other reporters and do them favors.
- take work where you can get it. nothing I said on the radio was untrue. sure, I gave the impression that I was at the speech, but didn’t lie explicitly, the content I delivered was as informative as if I had been at the speech. and now I had train fare for Margaret and me to Uganda and I could include the BBC in the list of news organizations for which I’d worked.
- if you’re a print journalist, work on your radio voice. if you’re a radio journalist, work on your writing. the more media you can master, the more work you’ll have.