Media – journalism – volunteer – work – jobs. Enter.
Little did I know that those five words plugged into Google in early 2012 would lead to a posting in southern Africa, training journalists and monitoring the media at a free speech watchdog in Swaziland.
After the application, interviews, and detailed briefings, I was on my to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, as part of an Australian Volunteers International (AVI) program.
Swaziland is a landlocked country of 1.2 million people, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. The tiny kingdom, with a fragile economy built on sugar and textiles, is less than half the size of Tasmania. Just like Australia, Swaziland was a British colony, or ‘protectorate’. The former Swazi king, Sobhuza II, is known for peacefully winning independence from the British in 1968. Sobhuza is also known for his virility.
My assignment in Swaziland – known as eSwatini in the local tongue of siSwati – was to work with the Media Institute of Southern Africa, or MISA, a non-government organisation (NGO) that promotes free speech. MISA is a member driven organisation that trains journalists and emphasises the role of the media in promoting debate and building an open, tolerant society. MISA, a regional body with offices in several southern African countries, was established by a group of African journalists in 1992 in response to the Windhoek Declaration, a statement calling for press freedom.
My working day at MISA often involved running a range of training courses for journalists and media students. At the heart of my job was capacity building, to ensure projects were sustainable. For instance, one project I initiated was a ‘social enterprise’ that saw MISA create websites for other NGOs and then train their staff on how to maintain the sites. In return those NGOs would pay MISA a small fee that would assist in paying our overheads.
Transferring skills to colleagues in a practical manner, whether it was making and managing a website, writing reports or conducing a training session, was equally important.
A training project that stands out from my time at MISA is the ‘ethical reporting of children and youth stories’. This project, run in partnership with children’s rights NGO Save the Children, took news reporters from print and electronic media into three different schools so they could interact directly with students.
The journalists had the opportunity to ask the young people what they thought of the media. How could the media improve? What do young people want to read and watch? How do young people get their information and news? What ethical concerns do young people face when interacting with the media? If the students were running the media houses how would they do it? What are their hopes and dreams and fears for the future?
In turn, the students could ask their own questions. Why does the media often focus on sleaze and scandal? How much censorship is there? Why are there not more media houses that cater for young people? What is the life of a journalist like? How much do journalists get paid? What are the financial and practical constraints of journalism?
In short, it was a project that helped students to see that journalists are not the enemy: they are people with hopes and dreams and fears. The journalists could see young people as smart and passionate, with strong ideas about how the world can change for the better.
In line with the practical nature of the project and the skills-transfer principle of ‘learning by doing’, all ethical requirements were adhered to while planning and conducting these training sessions. Written consent was obtained from all parents and school principals, and a teacher who was known to the students was at each session to help spur debate – ensuring all were comfortable with the program. It was rewarding to see MISA colleagues, journalists and students all benefit from the initiative.
Click here to read an account from one of the Swazi reporters who took part in the training. And click here to see how the training, which was supported by a research project, directly impacted upon the reporting in the local press. Click here to read an impressive article by a young Swazi journalist who, after the training, wrote an in-depth piece discussing why the media needs to respect children’s rights.
Save the Children and MISA hosted a regional awards ceremony to honour good reporting on children’s issues after the training program. Click here to read about the awards and click here to read about a Swazi reporter who won the award for best print story.
Life in Swaziland
The first thing you notice in Swaziland – apart from the green and mountainous terrain and the sincere smiles of strangers – is the pace of life. For someone not used to the slower pace, I unintentionally found myself getting tied in all sorts of unnecessary knots: the slower the pace of Swazi life, the quicker I would go. I’m only here for two years, I have to move quick to get things done, I would think to myself.
With the help and advice of Swazi colleagues, often couched in long tales that would sound more like riddles, I realised that moving faster did not always translate into getting more done.
As my boss at the Media Institute of Southern Africa said: ‘Bill, if you move too fast in Swaziland, you end up in South Africa’.
Working at a small NGO in a foreign country is an exercise in compromise. You have an obligation (to yourself and those you are working with) to try and introduce any change in an honest and open way – by listening, then patiently and calmly persuading those around you to the practical benefits of different methods and technologies.
I found, too, that by sometimes masking my passion it helped bring people around to my way of thinking.
Now that I’m home…
With my assignment at an end, I’ve realised that several key things that were raised at AVI’s pre-assignment workshops will travel with me way beyond Swaziland. They may sound like common sense but they seem worth reinterring: to treat others the way you want to be treated; if your gut offers you a warning listen to it; don’t walk down dark alleys or dimly-lit parks at night time; don’t do stupid things; think three times before doing something you think might be stupid; if you’re not happy with something talk to someone sooner rather than later; it’s okay when things go wrong; enjoy your assignment and make the most of the opportunity.
AVI’s support and guidance didn’t stop at the Fitzroy office, it was there to help me in my assignment from inside Swaziland, from the regional office in Johannesburg and assisting when I stumbled into the odd pickle, big or small.
Now back in Australia, I would like to thank AVI for giving me the opportunity to make a difference. That is, thank you for allowing me to do such a meaningful and practical job that, I hope, has helped a few people along the way. Thank you also to my Swazi colleagues and friends who, without fail, picked me up with perspective and humour whenever things got a bit much. The well-worn cliché rings true: I learned more from you than anything I could impart.
And thank you to my fellow AVI workers for all you have taught me. Your support and guidance along the way has been invaluable. Being witness to such inspiring work offers a lifetime of encouragement for the change that comes when good ideas meet good people.
For all future and current workers with AVI, I can only wish your experience is as fulfilling as mine.
A version of this article was first published on the Australian Volunteers International website