Monday, August 4, 2008

Letter from Baltimore, 7

Eventually, my mentor and three dozen or so of his colleagues left on Friday. The glum looks of those leaving and those left behind told of a bond broken by the economic forces that has caused a downturn in America’s media industry.
Once booming, the blows from Internet craze and mobile phone technology, have strangled life out of the US media.
When I walked into The Baltimore Sun over four months ago, I did not have the faintest idea of what was coming neither did Harry. There was talk about “things not being well in most American newsrooms.”
I did not know that it would be this close to me. There was the nice, kind lady at the Business desk Ms Laura Mclandish, who went out of her way to make me settle down to life in Baltimore. She is leaving. I think of the writer who took me to City Hall for my story on Summer Food Program. He too is leaving. Lynn Anderson one of the officials at the Newspaper Guild who took me to one of my assignments to West Baltimore, is also leaving. No words could express my grief looking at colleagues forcibly torn away from this noble of professions.
Harry and I had prepared for any eventuality and as the news that he was leaving sunk in, we took it all in out strides. Yet despite that, Harry’s departure like for the rest of the staff, was sad. In the months that I worked with him, I enjoyed every bit of it despite the tumult. I will miss him working tirelessly, always on time, despite knowing that he was leaving. I admire the commitment, the zeal to push down copy. I admire the energy and the focus.
Meanwhile, Robert Little took me to his house on July 27 where we steamed a bushel of crabs. It was fun. I tell you what, Robert and his wife are planning to visit Kenya next year. Just as he got me live crabs to steam, I will get a live goat to slaughter for him. We also plan to go on a safari to the Masai Mara and take a ride on the fabled matatu. Sounds exciting for all of us.
It is Monday, August 4th the week after the month before. I have a new mentor- Patricia Fanning.
At the back of my mind, I cannot hide the excitement because finally, finally August is here and it will all be over in 23 days. Watch out for my next blog

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Letter from Baltimore 6

JULY 4th offers the feel of American patriotism at its best. Like all former colonies, the United States of America, goes into a frenzy to mark the day of its independence. Apart from the ubiquitous stars and stripes and the partying, fireworks display puts life to the festivities to mark the end of British rule in 1776.
I went to witness the fireworks display at an open near my cousin’s home in Fredrick County. Along the road on both sides were endless queues of cars that stretched out for miles. The evening quiet is interrupted by the ear-splitting blasts of fireworks rockets that lighten up the dark skies. It was a night to behold.
I tell you what, besides the reporting and writing experience, the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships, offers a true taste of America. From chilly and wet Springs to a hot, humid and wet summer, I have been through it all already. All of them.
Summer excites and wears you down at the same time. The air feels warm and relaxing like in a sauna should you take a walk right after a downpour.
I gave my talk at the Johns Hopkins; the role of the media in disease control. I seek your indulgence.
Thank you for allowing me to talk to you today. It is humbling and a privilege to talk to a distinguished audience in one of the world’s acclaimed universities.
As a primary school pupil, I wished to be a doctor ... a surgeon may be. That was never to be. I chickened out when I thought about the blood, tears and death. My mother was a community nurse giving injections to patients in a rural health centre in Kenya. She retired a week ago today. She did basic nursing; vaccinating, giving injections, and tablets for such common diseases like malaria, cholera, common cold ...
If given the opportunity, I would go back and do medicine again. Just probably.
Back to our topic today; the role of the media in disease control.
Obviously, the role of the media in society is to bring to light the hidden facts. We inform, educate and entertain society. The main plagues that man faced at the turn of the 20th century were illiteracy, disease and ignorance. No doubt, ignorant people often fall sick. But ignorance can be banished. And the media plays a great role in that. People need to be told that drinking dirty water is bad for their health. People need to be told about washing hands after visiting the toilet.
They need to hear about good sexual habits; that using the condom limits the chances of getting STDs. And that absconding never killed anyone.
We are a mirror to society and telling the citizens about the consequences of their habits is our role. We tell them about good eating habits and warn them about the dangers of excessive food, drug and alcohol consumption. With us, silence is never golden.
We tell them about getting treatment when unfortunate to fall sick.
Most importantly we rally up communities to fight disease. Sometimes with regret, we create stigma. Like the stigma associated with Aids ...
I save you the trouble of the half-an-hour-long talk, but what do you think? It went well and I got questions and I fired back the answers as best as I could.
In the audience was my friend Mr Robert Little. He just got back from Iraq the previous day. He has lots of recollections from his trip there though he says Baghdad was fairly safe than the last time he was there. He told me about the day he came back to his room in the barracks in the Green Zone and found an Iraqi journalist wearing his bathroom sandals.
“I asked him why he was wearing my sandals and he said he (the journalist) thought it was for community to use during prayers.” I laughed at that.
The journalists were friendly and spent the night watching American movies.
Otherwise, I have no planned appearances lined up soon, but I had another meeting across the street the next day. Bob and I met Mr Robert Keith for a drink at Fell’s Point one of Baltimore’s fantastic spots.
A former journalist, Keith visited Kenya in the 1950s as the independence wave spread across Africa. Working for the African-Institute, his trip took him from North Africa to Central Africa to South Africa to East Africa then back to North Africa before returning to the US. His girlfriend worked in Morroco.
He met some of Africa’s greatest men like Julius Nyerere, who later became President of Tanzania, Tom Mboya a former trade unionist and one of Kenya’s charismatic politicians who was assassinated in 1968. He met a fellow journalist Mobutu Sese Seko, who later became Zaire’s president and a brutal dictator. Nyerere and Mobutu have since passed on. He looked back with a tinge of nostalgia.
Keith also met Keneth Kaunda, the former President of Zambia. At probably 78, Kieth has a photographic memory. As we walked out of Duda’s Pub after an hour of talk, we felt we should have spent more time with Keith. We did not rule out a future meeting.
It is exhilarating that in my next blog, I will writing with the thought at the back of my mind that; this time next month, I will be in Nairobi. Till then, please enjoy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Letter from Baltimore 5

IF you saw your friend got shaved, goes a Swahili saying, put water on your head and ready for your turn. On the afternoon of Wednesday June 25, plans to purge The Baltimore Sun newsroom of about a quarter of the staff was announced.

I was a witness to one of the saddest episodes in the US print media brought to its knees by falling circulation numbers and falling revenue from advertisements. Cut-throat competition from the Internet is blamed for the bad state of things.
I thought forward of things in Kenya. Would I be there long enough in the newsroom to see a replay of this? Should I ready myself for the onslaught from the Internet?

Steady growth over the last three years has transformed a once mediocre, average and low-paying sector into one of the best professions in the country. The Press in Kenya is more free, robust and assertive than before. This has translated to growth in readership numbers and advertising revenue.

Things have taken a turn for worse in the US; dwindling revenue sources spells doom for the Fourth Estate.
In Kenya like the rest of the Third World, with the Internet and mobile telephony taking a grip on the population, the writing is on the wall.
That won’t be soon, but certainly not long enough, probably 10-15 years.
On Wednesday, talk by the publisher, Mr Tim Ryan about halting a nosedive in the company’s revenue earnings could not cool down the journalists who are fiercely loyal to their trade.

The Community Room crackled with tension as we took our seats and Mr Tim Franklin, the editor set out to announce the bad news. Thereafter, he invited questions.
“Who will speak for the voiceless? Asked one employee poignantly.

I saw a tear drop from one of them. I was sorry. I had a lump in my throat. I couldn’t help but share the grief, the anger, and the bitterness.
“I have worked my … off all these years for the company and now I am given two weeks to make a decision about a place that I have spent my whole life?” said another.
The management has given the employees two weeks to take the buy-outs, which if the numbers are low, will be followed by layoffs.

And it was with a heavy heart that I accepted the inevitable. My diligent, patient and caring, Mr Harry Merritt told me that he was taking the buyouts. That he may not see me through to the end of my fellowship troubled me. Nothing quite prepared me for that despite his constant assurances that all will be well even if he is gone.

My friend Robert Little finally left for Iraq last week. He will be back in a week’s time.
Quite truly as predicted, Poynter rocked, literally. I got the experience, the skills and the techniques I needed. It was so much fun and at the end I wished we were there longer than a week.
If you never came out to play soccer in the blowing breeze from the sea that last night, you missed real fun. It was good to be together again.

Frolicking in the sandy beaches at Tampa was refreshing after three months trying to find our way around the world’s most complicated, social, economic and political society. It couldn't be better than that for me.

In the office, just like before, I have done stories and they have been published. Therefore so far, so good. I am a better writer. My writing is crisp, balanced, sharp and objective.

I see things in different light. My worldview has changed, expanded. I have a different judgment about certain prejudices that I held before.
I wrote a story on the killer malaria and believe you I have been invited to give a talk at the Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday next week on the role of media in disease control in Africa and America.

That aside, I cannot deny the feeling of looking forward to the end of the program next month. That soothing, comforting feeling of home, sweet home excites.

Yet despite that, I know that my sojourn here still has a lot more to offer and I look forward to all that it can offer. I plan to visit New York, Washington DC and just get into a bus and tour Baltimore for the fun of it.
The first impressions of the city as old, rusty and falling apart city have changed with the numerous visits inside the town as I went around to do my assignments.

Fewer activities are planned for the remainder of the program. I am starting to change gears. I hate to see my graph take a dip once I arrive in Nairobi as predicted by Prof Gary Weaver. It is inevitable, but I want to limit the shock as much as possible.

A month and three weeks to go and the summer heat is unrelenting. The other day I went for a walk-about in Baltimore. As I lumbered up Lombard Street I rued taking the walk. It being near the sea, Baltimore experiences hot, humid summer. But that is better than the cold Spring that we found in March.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Letter from Baltimore 4

JOURNALISM, those called to the profession believe, is a fine undertaking. Many of us want to change the world. Often, with our sharp pens and great intellect, we believe that we can drive away evil and bring happiness to humanity. We educate, we inform and we entertain.
We subscribe to nobler ideals of justice and fairness for all. There is a reporter lurking somewhere in us and anywhere, no matter where we are, our eyes are looking for the peculiar, the strange, the-out-of-the-ordinary to make a story.
When we come face to face with the unfamiliar, the skills, the experience that we have honed over time become the bulwark against the culture shock. Sometimes it fails, often we triumph.
Almost three months since I left Nairobi, so many things interest me and perhaps have made my stay in the United States more worthwhile. I have sometimes felt like I can have no more of it. I want to go home, but the urge to stay on and achieve something; anything is worth more than not achieving anything.
A story is told of a man who went out sailing expedition in the 19th Century. When he went back home, he took with him a piece of gold for his wife.
At home, his wife ran to him with her hands outstretched.
"So lovely to be home," he said, "and guess what I brought you … a piece of gold, the most precious metal in the world," he said handing it to her.
She picked it from his palm and threw it out of the window.
"What have you done?" he screamed.
"You saw what I did … I just threw the piece of gold out of the window," she said through clenched teeth.
"I asked you to get me an Italian handkerchief," she roared back and walked away sobbing.
Can we be changed by the world? Certainly, yes. While having lunch today with Ms Susan Albrecht from the AFPF, my mentor Mr Harry Merritt, Mr Steve Sullivan and of course, Mr Bob Little, Susan asked what I have found about America and Americans so far.
"I couldn't pick on anything specific," I said.
The sum of all the experience has been exhilarating. I have learnt a lot than I can point out. The high and the low moments.
Of course, there have been the low moments like when I took the bus that took me the wrong way and walked in at the office an hour late, or when I took the wrong turn at the end of a press conference and called Harry to guide me back to the office.
Actually, when I had learnt my way around the place, I realized that the spot I was as at trembling as I struggled to get the direction from Harry, is a few blocks from The Baltimore Sun's offices.
The weather has changed and a sweaty, sticky summer is forecast. The hum of the air conditioners in the apartment tells it all.
For those of us from the tropics, it couldn't get any better than this though we hardly use the coolers. I looked at all of them hanging out of windows, thousands of them and thought someone must have made a kill out them. By the way the weatherman gets it nine out 10 times here.
I have written copy and all of it has run. Many thanks to Harry for, guiding me through the editing and getting the sources and the needed quotes to "put legs on the stories".
I have written about the Star-Spangled Banner, malaria-that kills 3,000 children everyday in the Third World, a summer feeding program.
No word could probably express my gratitude to Bob. He has been a wonderful friend and a true gentleman. I owe him a lot.
Lastly, but not least, my perspective about so many other things and America in general, has changed. What is good for the gander is not good for the goose, always.
Have I achieved anything yet? A lot. As a matter of fact, immeasurable. I look forward to new experiences after Tampa. No doubt, after groping trying to figure out many things at once, the last lap of the fellowship promises to be hilarious and fulfilling.
America has the tendency of throwing up the unexpected, the unfamiliar, and the out-of-the ordinary. It changes and even obstinate, stubborn journalists follow the tide.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Letter from Baltimore, 3

This is a video during my one week at the Multi Media desk at The Baltimore Sun.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Letter from Baltimore, 2

My people would say I woke up with the birds. When I got into the I-95 South on Tuesday April 29, 2008 at 4am, as I headed to Baltimore Washington International Airport, I realised I had woken up with people. Thousands were driving the opposite way just like the thousands driving ahead of me. One of Americans’ idiosyncrasies is that they are always in motion. The stream of cars on their meticulous highways never stops, anytime.
At the check-in desk on my way to St Loius, Missouri, I handed out my passport and ticket to a lady who after scrutinising them handed them back and motioned me to proceed to the security desk.
“You are Andrew,” she asked as I picked my bags.
“Yes, madam,” I said.
“I will not attempt to pronounce the other name just in case I get it wrong,” she said.
She was not the first one, hundreds of other Americans who I have met since I came here seven weeks ago, find my surname either too long or unpronounceable.
"Which sylable is the stress on?" they often ask me.

At the security desk, a burly man was having a spat with an equally burly policeman.
“That is a deal, two expensive lotions for nothing,” the man said through clenched teeth.
“I am paid enough. I can buy that at the stores,” he said. The man looked angered more than amused. It was a battle of wit between two titans.
Tight travel restrictions bar the amount of liquids one can carry in-flight and the passenger was trying to push his luck. Whether he was aware of the rules, I do not know. The policeman would take none of it. In the end, the gentleman had to leave, crest fallen.
After five eventful weeks at The Baltimore Sun, I was setting off to meet Prof William Freivogel (I talked about him in my last blog). I had a presentation the following day at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
In the two weeks after I wrote my first blog, so much has happened. One, my first, second and third story have been published. The last particularly excited my mentor, Mr Harry Smith and his boss, the likeable Ms Marcia Myers. The story is my recount of the violence after the disputed election in Kenya in January as I prepared to come to the United States.
Harry helped me write better stories tightening them, rejigging them at some time. The outcome was wonderful. My writing is crisp, my thoughts more flowing and the story ideas excellent. So three stories in two weeks, what more can I ask for?
I cannot help, but mention something about my helpful friend Mr Robert Little, The Sun’s National Correspondent. He has been of most help and his humour has been entrancing. Like when Marcia offered to buy us coffee at a café across the streets. It is still Spring here and the gush of cold wind can be a challenge to me. As we left, he pulled out his coat. I said I am not putting on my jacket.
“I am not putting on my jacket if Andrew is not,” Not what he said made me laugh, but how he said and how he put it back on his chair.
At the café as we made our orders, he told us of the day he was in Moscow the beginning of this year and had gone out to order for take-away tea and because he spoke no Russian nor did the people at the café speak any English, he used gestures to make his order.
“In the end I was given tea in a bowl,” he said. We laughed.
I also attended a seminar for Society of Business Editors and Writers in Baltimore so the trip to Carbondale was the icing on the cake of an eventful month.
Lambart International Airport in St Loius is as confusing as Heathrow Airport in London. I filed out into the arrivals lounge and tried to figure my way out. I went right, then turned back to where I started then went left. Men never ask for directions.
Finally, after several trials, I swallowed my pride and approached a lady at the security desk who showed me the way out.
I went down one floor, careful to look at the directions on the piece of paper I was given.
I almost exclaimed when someone roared from behind me.
“Mr Andrew Kipkemboi!”
“Yes, sir,” I shouted back excited. I was out on the wrong way again.
“This way please,” he said and I followed him into an elevator.
He asked me where I came from and I said Kenya. I was about to ask him where he came from just to start off a conversation when the doors swung open and into the cold wind we walked. The bristling wind was quite uncomfortable.
We set off for Carbondale driving over the River Mississipi near the famous St Loius Arch. In the two-hour drive, he spoke no word, I spoke no word.
The roads passed through huge tracts of land with stalks of harvested corn and soya beans. The fields spread out and met with the sky in the horizon. There were road repairs going on at a certain section of the road and that slowed our journey. It was unfortunate that that afternoon a student of the college I was visiting, got killed when a trailer crashed into his saloon car.
“What do you call a butterfly in your language?” the man asked as we drove into Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
“Kipepeu,” I said. I waited for another word as we tried to locate the School of Journalism. No word was forthcoming. The man dropped me off and left. I don’t know his name.
At the school, I met a very helpful Prof William Recktenwald who took me round to the school’s impressive media offices. The school has a real TV station, a radio station and a daily newspaper The Daily Eqyptian. Centuries ago, this part of Southern Illinois was called Egypt. There is a fable, Recktenwald told me, about a famine and just like in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers who had to go to Egypt for food, so did people descend on Carbondale to get food rations.
“It is claimed that people would say we are going to Egypt and the name stuck,” he said.
Saluki (Egyptian for a pure breed of dog) is the school’s mascot. Saluki Express is the name given to the colleges’ shuttles.
I gave the talk the next day and drove off with Prof Bill Freivogel in his car to a St Loius suburb where my cousin lives.
I visited the site where the Mississipi River and the Missouri River join. The swirling currents is breathtaking. I visited the famous St Loius Arch. I was offered a trip up which I turned down. Heights frighten me.
I arrived back in the office today with a spring in my step. The weather is much better and I am off to the Multi-Media Desk for a week then switch back to my desk. My mentor is on a deserved break and I am literally having a ball.
Life in America is one I would call complex yet interesting. I am yet to figure out the way to my apartment. Everything looks the same here.
But what I dread most is shopping in the gigantic convenient stores. One, they are huge, two I have never found the ‘correct’ bread. They are so many brands and none of them tastes like the previous. Once I bought a Jewish bread. I offered it to a colleague in the office.
Shopping for milk too leaves a sour taste in my mouth. There is whole milk, 2 per cent fat, 3 per cent fat, 0 per cent fat and last night I bought one with HVD written on the lid. Whatever that means I don’t know, but my other cousin said it was okay. I don’t know, but it tastes good anyway. Let me finish so you can read it …

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


My mentor and I just finished re-looking at my first story- The war that the world forgot in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I am folding my fingers. I cannot wait to see my byline in The Baltimore Sun, otherwise as Mr Samuel Siringi (Kansas City Star) and I say tongue-in-cheek, Ms Susan Albrecht, the executive director of the Aflred Friendly Press Fellowships, will put me on the next plane to Nairobi.
Mr Harry Merrit, my mentor and I walked into the offices of The Sun two Tuesdays ago today. Him in front, I following. It reminded me of my first day at high school, 16 years ago. There was nothing in my mind. It was empty. I was just anxious waiting on what the experience could offer to me. Yet despite that, I missed home just I did then on January 28, 1992.
Those we met on the hallway smiled at me and I smiled back vaguely. Harry then ushered me into my desk. It had a telephone and a computer. I was desperate to get into my mail and see who has written to me. The last time I checked mail was before I left the Club Quarters in Washington DC.
I was trained on the Harris Newsmaker computer system by a helpful man I will refer to him by his first name, Steve. I cannot figure the other name. It was the start of my five-month training experience at an American newsroom. I got to know about using the telephone, took pictures for my security badge, was shown around the large newsroom. (I think it is the size of five Olympic size swimming pools). I was introduced to the writers and the editors. I met my mentor's boss, the lovely and kind Ms Marcia Myers. She is wonderful, to say the least.

Some names I can remember, most of them, I cannot. I sit next to Mr Robert Little, The Sun's National Correspondent. A very kind man with a profound sense of humour (all Americans have humour). There are lots of things to do and to learn from him. He has been to Iraq on assignment and awaits another tour soon. He has told me how the First Ammendment do his job that I find too risky.
On the first week, he let me have a glimpse of a life-jacket that he usually takes with him on assignment to Iraq. It weighed almost my weight. As he drove me home that evening, I kept asking myself why on earth would someone want to carry around half his weight in the sweltering heat in Iraq. To keep fit may be. But I think it is the calling of the profession. It is for the society that we do some of these things. I guess in the same vein, he asks himself what a man is doing in an American newsroom half-way round the earth. For the same thing. Bob, as he likes to be called, took me for lunch at the Inner Harbour on Tuesday last week. We went to a lovely restaurant called Phillips. We took the local speciality, crab filled into a giant mushroom, as a starter. It was sweet to taste. I chickened out and instead took grilled chicken and French fries for the main meal. Bob meanwhile was chomping away at a meal of crab cake. He persuaded me to taste it and I did. I liked it though, but ...
It reminded me of the gala dinner at the Newseaum on our first week in America. Could you believe it? I realised that what I had taken then was crab cake when I asked the waitress what the other piece on my plate was.
"That is chicken," she said. "So what was the other one?" I asked sheepishly.
Her answer sent me reeling in laughter.
"That was crab cake," she said.
"Let it be," I said silently as I swigged in my last sip of white wine and waited for the worst. Nothing happened to me since.

A day before that, youngsters (my agemates) at The Sun led by Sports copy editor, Mr Steve Aime took me out for lunch at Little Italy. With him were Faith (from Kenya), Maryanne and another Steve. I was thrilled by the stories that we shared with them. They are a beautiful bunch of people. We plan to do that again, soon.
When I arrived on Sunday, March 30, Harry and his lovely wife together with Marcia Myers (his boss) and her husband Mr Larry Williams took me out for dinner at the nearby Museaum of Art. Yet despite some "teething problems" at my apartment, I got down to a delicious meal and drowned it with a glass of white wine. It was chilly and a cup of tea came in handy thereafter.

My appartment is near the world famous Johns Hopkins University. By the way during my second year in high school, I wished I could be a doctor. Well, that changed and I know most certainly that I would have loved to be at Johns Hopkins.

On Monday March 31, Harry and I went out shopping. I love shopping. We bought extra mats, pots and pans, blankets and bedsheets and some grocery. It was a wet, chilly morning.
In the office, everyone seems busy. Just like at The Standard offices in the heart of Nairobi. I have been busy too and as the cold, boring spring gives way a summer of sunshine and warmth I look forward to what the fellowship can give me.

Last Saturday April 12, The Sun's White House Correspondent, Mr David Nitkin and I went to Pennsylvania for an assignment. The Democratic primary is scheduled for April 22 and it is all systems go for the candidates. A group of volunteers were going from door to door canvassing for the man who could become America's first black President, Illinois Senator, Mr Barack Obama. I was a fly on the wall - I saw it all and heard it all.

It was an exciting experience. It was the hottest day in the US since my arrival a month ago.
To cut a long story short, I have been assigned three wrecks (code word for the 2008 Fellows meaning stories).
Harry made sure that my hands are full all the time, literally.

The Democratic Republic of Congo the former Zaire. was my first story. Harry thinks it is a good piece and after he made corrections, which we went through together and I was in agreement, the story was "good to go" as the Americans would like to say.
A former Belgian colony, the people of Congo have been through a long-drawn-out war to control the rich resources. For fear of letting the cat out of the bag, I will not dwell so much on the story, but I will quickly post it when it is run.
I have two other stories to follow up. Otherwise so far, so good. I am learning the ropes. I have known my way round the place and I look forward to the future with focus.

I leave for Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, on April 29 for a Faculty Talk the following day at 12pm at the School of Journalism. I met Mr William Freivogel, a professor at the school in July last year in Kenya. He was a trainer at a seminar for journalists, Government officials, educators and NGOs. He wrote a blog about a lunch date that I took him. He asked me to give the talk to his students on the goings on in Kenya and perharps the rest of Africa. In my next blog, I will find the links to that. I look forward to an experience of the Mid-West. I hope to meet Ivan and Samuel before my return on May 4 ready with my next blog. I have never blogged in my lifetime, I hope I did my best here today. Good luck everyone.