When I attended the African Investigative Journalists Conference (AIJC) in Johannesburg In October 2019, little did I know that a chance meeting over breakfast would culminate in me investigating the lack of water and tragedies in an isolated village.The conference is an annual event organized by the Journalism Department at the University of the Witwatersrand.
It is by far the largest gathering of investigative journalists in Africa and was a real eye-opener for me. I met many interesting people and made lots of new contacts, including Professor Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, executive director of CCIJ.
One morning, Jeff joined me and two colleagues from Nigeria and Mali at our table during breakfast. He introduced himself and told us about a new project involving water that CCIJ was about to embark on.
Namibia has a semi-arid climate and faces perpetual drought and its accompanying specters of water shortages, food insecurity, and starvation. I immediately told him that I was keen to be a part of the project.
As soon as I got home I sent him a proposal about an isolated village in Namibia where several people have died in collapsed wells they had dug to access water.
The proposal was accepted and Raymond Joseph, who heads up CCIJ’s southern African hub, became my mentor and editor for the project.
Ray is a model of journalism excellence and a mentor of the highest caliber. Throughout the project, he guided me on how I should approach my assignment and what was required to deliver quality work.
This was all happening during the full Covid-19 lockdown in my country when travel between regions was restricted. I immediately notified Jeff and Ray and they told me not to take any risks, so I waited until I was able to travel to Amarika, which is over 500 miles from Windhoek, where I live.
Feature writing was a challenge for me, but Ray was there every step of the way. Over the past seven years of my journalism career, I have mostly focused on corruption and politics.
With mainstream media being bogged down and battered by revenue challenges long before the Covid-19 outbreak, money to travel to far-flung places in order to get to grips with investigative features has been in short supply. The inaccessibility of Amarika was also a serious challenge, as it is only accessible via 50 miles of inhospitable sand roads that become muddy quagmires during the rainy season.
Visiting Amarika was an emotional experience for me. I have carried out dangerous assignments during which I was harassed and threatened. But nothing had prepared me for the extent of the misery and suffering I encountered in Amarika.
Besides the water woes and deaths this community has experienced in the simple act of accessing water, the poverty and hopelessness were as thick as the very air I was inhaling as I went about my assignment and interviewed villagers.
In a world that is often dismissive of the comforts and materialism we take for granted, this was a humbling and intense experience. When confronted by a community with little access to basic necessities, I endeavored to become their voice and tell their story in a way that tapped into their plight. I hoped, too, that those in political power would be informed by my reporting of exactly what was happening.
The stories of the deaths, over the years, of people losing their lives when the walls of water wells collapsed on them, were heartbreaking. I tried to harness this emotion I felt to tell their story. I was determined to raise awareness, to tell the story of the full impact of ‘Dying for a drop’.
I am grateful to CCIJ for the opportunity to move my creative landscape beyond my normal reporting, to a terrain that speaks of neglect and the lives of the most vulnerable. My experience was thought-provoking.
I am proud to be part of the CCIJ community because as the media evolves into the future, journalists will need help if we are to tell the stories of ordinary people living on the margins of society. This assistance will be an important buttress against a background of further declines in the resources of mainstream publications, broadcasters and freelancers like me.
It is when ordinary people can see themselves in stories, through whatever medium we publish, that our survival is ensured.
Speaking truth to power means that we need to give a platform to those who all too often are forgotten and left to suffer in silence.
I am also indebted to The Namibian, Namibia’s biggest daily newspaper, for publishing my story.
There is nothing more fulfilling than the amazing feedback I have received, including from members of the public, colleagues, and my editor, Charles Tjatindi, who simply texted: “Your story rocks!”
This gives me the strength and fortitude to do better. I had never participated in a global project before. The funding and collaboration with the CCIJ came at the perfect time. I am grateful that international media houses and their audiences will get to see this story.
It offers a searing glimpse into the daily battles of ordinary Namibians. I hope to be part of more projects in the future. I am humbled and most appreciative of my CCIJ journey.