Home » Reflections, Spring 2009

Giving Voice To The Voiceless

4 June 2009 No Comment

giving-voice-to-theIt was about 11 p.m. on Election Night when all the major news networks announced that long and hotly contested presidential election was over: Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, they said, would be the next president of the United States.

That moment found me standing in a rain-soaked compound in Kogelo, a small village ensconced between ranges of hills near the shores of Lake Victoria deep in western Kenya. Eight hours ahead of American Eastern Standard Time, it was about 7 a.m. Wednesday morning there, and the small African village, which much like all of Kenya claims President Obama as its native son, was about to explode with jubilation.

It started instantaneously as members of the Obama family, joined by a caravan of villagers waving tree branches and Obama posters broke out in dance and song in their native Luo language. And like all the other journalists from every major news outlet around the world, I jumped into the caravan – shooting pictures, jogging alongside the group with my flip video camera asking: “How does it feel?

What does an Obama presidency mean for you personally as a Kenyan? What do you think it means for the world?”

In the midst of it all, my editor back at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was getting nervous. It was coming to 11:30 p.m. in the United States by then, and the cutoff deadline for the next day’s newspaper was midnight. That’s why I immediately knew who it was when I felt my BlackBerry vibrating: “I need your story by 11:50,” he said. I wanted to get in a couple more interviews but I had no time. As I ran to my rental SUV to start writing my story, it occurred to me that my story was going on the front page of what would most likely be a collector’s item because of the historic nature of the election.

I should have been nervous, but I had no time for that, either.

“Kogelo, Kenya,” I started my story: “The dancing here started early this morning when CNN International announced that Sen. Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.” And within 15 minutes, I had my 700-word story about the ululating crowd in the village where President Obama’s father was born, and plans for a big village party where two bulls would be slaughtered later that day.

Looking back, I can’t help but reflect on how I came to be in that village on that day. So many experiences nurtured and prepared me for that moment, I believe, but none more than the years I spent at Wittenberg. As a journalist, one must have the confidence of meeting a total stranger and making them comfortable enough to tell you often very intimate things about themselves.

Wittenberg not only nurtured that confidence in me – from all four years of working at The Torch – but it gave me room to formulate my core intellectual and social values. That is when I realized that I wanted to write for a living; to be a journalist that can give a voice to the all too often unheard and unseen people among us; to question authority every time and to speak truth to power.

It is an idealistic outlook on life that may seem romantic, but one that has guided me since I left Wittenberg. That is why I chose to cover Hunts Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx when I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. And when I started my first journalism job as a general assignment reporter at The Toledo Blade, in Toledo, Ohio, I focused my eyes on urban affairs writing about the blighted neighborhoods of North and Central-City Toledo; issues of poverty and the working poor; and on immigration and the ever changing face of Latino-Toledo, northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

And now, as a county government reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I still believe my calling to this profession is inspired by that old newspaper adage: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Karamagi Rujumba ‘02

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