When I was twelve I read ‘The Africa House’. It’s an account, by Christina Lamb, of an Englishman who created a colonialist-style estate in Northern Rhodesia.
I didn’t understand a lot of the emotions portrayed. There’s a desire for Empire. There’s crippling regret. There’s a naivety so great battling a love so lasting that the protagonist marries his original paramour’s daughter.
From a young age I had been reading Dickens, Tolkien, Wilde; writers who interpreted the human condition, who instilled a need to understand more of it. But ‘The Africa House’ was my first foray into non-fiction; my first understanding that real stories can be just as interesting as those that are made up.
Last year I won the Simon Cumbers Student Award for Print Media, which enabled me to travel to Malawi to write about gender equality. I arrived there two weeks after handing in my master’s thesis and completely on my own. Within a few days a presidential candidate had taken me to lunch, I had been offered free tickets to a local music festival, and had arranged a night out with Malawi’s best-selling hip hop artist. The country was a year into the leadership of its first female president, Dr. Joyce Banda, and while I was there a massive corruption scandal broke.
Though I had done bits of student media, writing and work experience before, Malawi was my first chance to follow through on a big story that I’d conceptualised. It was my first feature in a national newspaper, and it was the first time I’d had access to feedback from a supportive and experienced source.
It was also the first time I realised the responsibility that comes with being a journalist. In Malawi “information poverty” is a concrete concept, and I quickly became aware of how important facts are in a difficult situation, and the chaos that ensues when no one is getting them right.
Unlike fiction, there is a huge ethical aspect to journalism. Whose stories do you tell? How do you tell them? What will the repercussions of your work be on real lives?
The trip to Malawi offered me both a springboard into getting more work, and a stark understanding of all that I didn’t know. Luckily, since then I’ve been able to get experience with some of the best organisations in the industry.
When I left Malawi I went to London for a three month internship in CNN International. Two days after finishing there, I travelled to Rwanda to report on the twentieth anniversary of the genocide with funding from the professional arm of the Simon Cumbers Fund. My master’s thesis was on sustainable peace-building after civil wars with a focus on Rwanda. But attending the commemorations in April I felt something that reading could never teach me: how involuntary trauma is; how uncontrollable its scars.
After Rwanda I went to Burkina Faso with the European Journalists’ Centre to report on the Sahel food crisis and visit Malian refugee camps, and then back to London to do three months with the Financial Times Magazine. Over the past few months I’ve been to Scotland to cover the independence referendum for VICE News, had photos in the Sunday Times and Slovakian broadsheet SME, and been selected for a Magnum Photos Professional Practice weekend.
It’s strange that as travel has become easier, the internet has made it less necessary, and shrinking press budgets have made it less viable. As the media landscape is changing, it is tempting to conduct reports from afar. For journalists, particularly at the beginning of their careers, an experience like that the Simon Cumbers Media Fund offers is invaluable. It taught me about sourcing a story, planning a trip, and seeing a project through to publication. It allowed me to speak to people who otherwise would never have had their voices heard. It also challenged my preconceptions, forced me to question the nature of objectivity, and helped me discover contacts and gain knowledge that will inform any projects I embark on.
As we sat on a street corner in central Kigali, a Rwandan man told me that he believes journalists are the “historians of the present.” The stories being told through the Simon Cumbers Fund provide snapshots in time, helping people to understand countries they can’t visit themselves or situations they can’t imagine, and creating documentations that will resonate long into the future.
Follow Sally on Twitter: @sallyhayd