Q&A with Randy Smith, author of “A Kenyan Journey”

Note: Randy Smith is an editor at The Kansas City Star and a member of Visitation Parish in Kansas City, Mo., where he’s been involved in a sister community relationship with the Madre de los Pobres parish in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Last year, Smith went to Nairobi, Kenya to work at The Nation, the country’s largest newspaper, and conduct journalism training. When he returned, he decided to write a book about the experience, about the courageous Kenyans building a democracy and the concept of ubuntu, which he discusses in this article.

To read the introduction of the book, go here. To purchase “A Kenyan Journey” go here.

KCOB: How did you put the book together?

Randy Smith: The story actually begins almost a year ago in the spring when Peter Makori came to The Kansas City Star. He had been wrongly imprisoned in 2003 and had gone through a lot of stress and trauma in Kenya. The Committee to Protect Journalists had worked with a lot of different groups to get him out of Africa because his life was in danger. I held up my hand to have him come to work at The Kansas City Star because I thought it would be a good thing for us to do. He had many issues and still does but has had a lot of success. He was a regular columnist for us, writing articles at least once a week. In helping him through these issues, the fellowship opportunity became possible in Kenya. Over the years, many African journalists had come to work for The Kansas City Star on fellowships. We thought it would be great to start a sister relationship with a media company in Africa, particularly Kenya. We had a lot of success with Franklin Awori, a Kenyan journalist who visited in 2002. Currently we have a Kenyan journalism fellow at The Star and his name is Mugumo Munene. All have done particularly well here. So part of the reason I went to Kenya was to try to set up this relationship. When I went to Africa, I taught in the newsroom. They also asked me to teach in the various bureaus. I went in September but I didn’t really have a book in mind at that time.

KCOB: The book is telling the story as you experienced it?

Randy Smith: I was trying to demystify Africa. Growing up, we had visions of Africa. Of course, we had heard about Tarzan. Later, we saw movies of great landscapes and wildebeests and lions and so forth. Most recently, we have heard about Darfur and genocide in Rwanda. So what I wanted to do was to show Africa is a little more complicated than that. Many folks tend to think of Africa as one big country and in reality it is over 50 very diverse countries.

You have to realize the continent has only had democracies 40 or 50 years, which is not long when compared with the rest of the world. So they are very young democracies. Another thing is that people care about what is going on there. Newspapers are very, very important there. They are sold out by 10 a.m.

KCOB: One notion we have here is that Africa struggles with corruption. Did you run into a lot of that? I would imagine it made for a lot of work for the newspapers.

Randy Smith: There is a fair amount of corruption, which makes for a lot of good stories. In Kenya they have only had three leaders since the overthrow of the British. Jomo Kenyatta, who was the George Washington of Kenya, was the first. Daniel Moi was the second, and he was very corrupt. Now with Kibaki, there is less corruption, but there is still a problem…some of it under his control and some out of his control. In the newspaper business, they will shut you down if they don’t like you. A year ago in March, the Standard, which is the second largest newspaper, was raided by government forces and shut down. They literally sent in troopers and the Standard is not some small building. It is a gleaming, bluish tower in the middle of Nairobi and is quite a landmark there. Next to the Nation, which is two giant towers, it is probably the number two landmark.

It shows you how careful the newspapers, especially the journalists, have to be. And they also have to be willing to stand behind their convictions. I really came away with the feeling, if not for the journalism being done there, that Kenya’s democracy would not be a democracy for very long.

KCOB: Do you think there is less skepticism about the media in Kenya than there is here in the United States?

Randy Smith: In Kenya (media are) pretty well defined, whereas here it is so diverse. Some might think of Bill O’Reilly as a member the of the media, when actually he may be an opinion maker but he is not out there on the streets gathering information.

A poll that was done independently found the media (in Kenya) was trusted about as much as doctors. Journalists are way up there on their most-trusted list. So when you are in the media, you are held in highest esteem.

KCOB: There was a time, when newspapers were the primary source of the news in this country, that esteem for the journalist was fairly high here. What’s the difference having watched both system works. Is there any difference?

Randy Smith: Well in Kenya I could get six or seven channels on my TV station. You come back to this country and you have 400 or 500 different channels. Attention is subdivided in America into tiny niches. Everyone votes in Kenya. Here, we can’t get many people to the polls.

KCOB: Did your time in Kenya help you to understand yourself as a journalist better or understand what journalism here in America is about?

Randy Smith: I came out of this with a tremendous appreciation, not just for the Kenyan journalists and what they are doing, but also the American journalists who are trying to tell you what is going on in the sometimes forgotten places.

KCOB: Many risking their lives to do it.

Randy Smith: I wrote a piece about Kate Peyton who was from the BBC and had stopped briefly in Nairobi before going to Somalia. She was killed her first day in Mogadishu. She was one of the beacons there. One of the things I would urge people to do is read deeply into their reports. A lot of their stories can be found on the internet. I know on McClatchy’s site, you can read the longer versions. These journalists are flying in little planes into places where they could be shot..to let us know what is happening.

KCOB: Were you ever in danger?

Randy Smith: Once or twice, when flying in one of those small planes, I was close to the higher being. (Smiles.) Another time, I was getting in my car after being out for the evening. There was a group of people who did not mean us well. But we got out of there quickly. I was lucky to be with people who helped me stay out of harm’s way. There was a Canadian journalist working on the paper that went into an area in Nairobi which he was told was off limits. He was choked unconscious, stripped of all his clothes and had everything taken. When he came to, he was in the middle of the street being passed by cars on every side of him. He got back on his feet and was lucky he wasn’t hurt any worse than he was. They do have lots carjackings and such, but I really didn’t feel any more challenged than I did in any other developing country.

KCOB: Where does Africa fit in the world stage and where does Kenya fit in the African stage? We hear so much about the Middle East and then the impending rise of China and India. It seems par for the course that you hardly every hear about Africa. Where in your opinion does Africa fit for the present and future?

Randy Smith: I think it is the future. Just because we are not hearing about Africa doesn’t mean it isn’t on the rise. The only people who are serious about Africa at the moment are the Chinese. They are building the main airport in Kenya in exchange for getting oil. They are building dams in Uganda and Sudan. China is all over Africa and they are taking things out of Africa to make their economy run better in China. (In terms of) Europe and the US, while we are there, we really are not there in several respects. The US is there because of terrorism in Somalia . But I will tell you this: There needs to be some focus on some other things. When we start paying attention to those things, then I think we’ll start to see how important Africa really is.

KCOB: Do you mean economic issues?

Randy Smith: Economic issues, building credible leadership, helping battle some very tough diseases that they have. You hear a lot about AIDS, but you don’t hear much about malaria. Malaria is about as big a killer as AIDS and it is everywhere.

KCOB: Did you have some conversations with Kenyan journalists or non-journalists on the issue of how the United States and Europe and even China can get involved, without that classic western paternalism which seems to come with our presence, either through colonialization or what seems to be now “philosophical colonialization?” As if we’re saying, “We are not going to rule your country, but imply our values on you.”

Randy Smith: I think they are interested in becoming partners with us on projects but I don’t think they are interested in us coming in and running the show or the British or anyone else. Because they need help, they have been accepting aid from just about wherever they can get it.

For example, we could work on economic development. The Rift Valley is one of the most fertile regions in the world. It is where many believe that man was born. It also just happens to have a perfect year round temperature for growing crops. I think Kenya could really be the bread basket for Africa and for some of the rest of the world too. There is great potential there.

We also can help prevent human disasters. Global warming is everywhere there. Lake Victoria has dropped 9 or 10 feet. It’s the second largest fresh water lake in the world and provides food and power to several countries. The Nile flows out of it, and reduced water means power shortages in many countries in northern Africa.

KCOB: While you were there did you come across that struck you as uniquely African solutions to African problems?

Randy Smith: One of the biggest ones was the term ubuntu, and that just means, “I am because you are.” It means setting aside the concept of winning and losing. The idea is to cross the finish line in life at the same time.

Another thing that I saw there is lots and lots of American religious groups that come over and want to do good. They visit for two weeks or whatever and they dig a well or build a church and then they go home. When they talk about this back in America, they talk about how much better they feel and how much they improved lives in Kenya. But one of the things you see, if you are there very long, is abandoned churches and a lot of empty wells. If you are going to do anything, you have to be there for the long haul, number one, and number two, you have to make people feel they are a part of it. In essence, they have to have some ownership to the well, to the church, to the water supply. When they have ownership, they know how to fix the water supply, they know how to fix the broken pipe. We need to make sure we are not digging too many empty wells and building too many abandoned churches.

KCOB: That is really a profound image. Do you think there has to be a more honest dialogue between Africans and Westerners about what they need and they really want to invest themselves in?

Randy Smith: There is a cultural difference. You know as an American you want to have everything planned. You want to know what you are going to do day 1, day 2, day 3. One of the things I found there was things kind of get done when they have to get done. So if you are big on controlling destiny, you have a lot to learn.

Another thing is conversations there. Their conversations are often times circular and they are asking you lots of questions in a business meeting to find out more about you and your family. That’s really a part of them getting to know you and to find out whether or not they trust you as an individual. I think we go over there with an agenda and want to be done. In Africa, it won’t happen without a conversation.

I remember one morning at breakfast before I was about to do a seminar. I was sitting there and watching a group of about 25 people sitting around a table about ten feet away. I could hear this young pastor from the U.S. lecturing the group for almost an hour. I don’t think anyone else said a word. And he was telling everyone what they were going to do here and how proud they were to be doing this and that and the other. There wasn’t any kind of input. There wasn’t any kind of participation. In Africa everybody participates because everybody wants to know everybody else’s opinions. You make better decisions that way. It’s hard to know if we are crossing the finish line at the same time when nobody else gets the opportunity to speak.

KCOB: I think it is natural for Americans to think what happens in Africa doesn’t really affect us. Global warming is a really good example. How does the Africa impact the United States when it comes to global warming or economic issues?

Randy Smith: I think what global warming will do is actually cause tremendous instability. You know, political and economical instability. As a result, great wars over shrinking resources will create many conflicts and those things will eventually come to affect us.

KCOB: One of the things I’ve wondered about is if people are coming out of the southern hemisphere, if they have to leave, they have to go somewhere.

Randy Smith: Kenya is a catching mitt for refugees. They have people coming in from the wars in Somalia, Sudan and northern Uganda. There is a camp called Dadaab, about an hour and half from Nairobi, where people have been born, lived full lives and died. They have had a couple of generations of people living there, and most are Somalis.

KCOB: Compare Latin America, especially El Salvador, with your experience in Kenya? Are there common issues that come up or are they radically different from each other?

Randy Smith: It’s not so radically different in terms of poverty, but the poverty is on a grander scale in Africa. When you go to San Salvador or you stay in La Chacra, for example, it is a community of around a hundred thousand people on the edge of San Salvador. For the people who are living there, life gets a little bit better every year. You can see roads being built and so forth and so on. In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, there are 1 million people. You don’t really see any real progress. It is getting bigger and worse. Because Latin America is where it is, a lot of people come down there from the U.S. and provide aid. In Africa, you see people helping out, but there frankly aren’t enough. In Kibera, there’s a lot of children with AIDS who live at the Nyumbani center, which in Swahili means home. The staff at Nyumbani goes door to door in one section of Kibera to help keep the children alive. But they are just a drop in the bucket.

KCOB: What is it going to take for Americans to take African countries seriously and start to help?

Randy Smith: I think one of the things we have got to do is pay attention to what is going on there.

Then you need to organize.

One way is to bring it up in your faith community, where people talk about world issues and what they can do to make a difference.

Another way is to see if your company might be supportive. When I was at the AIDS center in Nyumbani, I met flight attendants and pilots from KLM who work there during the flight layovers. I know that there are a number of companies in Kansas City that support the good work of their employees.

In the end, though, it must be a personal decision. You have to make up your mind that Africa is worth your time. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can become a beacon for others.

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