From a rooftop in Mali, this is Terry Clark reporting….
I visited this West African country in March three years ago with professors and other journalists from Oklahoma State who received a U.S. State Department grant, titled “Nurturing the Fourth Estate.” It was designed to help develop the media in this stable, Muslim democracy. They needed an old newspaperman to go along, and I’m doubly qualified.
I think we did that, but I learned far more about journalism than I ever tried to teach.
Yes, I did sit on a rooftop and receive the gift of a lifetime from our guide and interpreter Mr. Assoumane Maiga (now a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University)—a communal meal on a pallet with live African music as the sun went down in the dusty sub-Saharan sky.
I made my first venture into broadcast journalism, using a video camera to record sights and sounds and people. I used a digital SLR and a point-and-shoot to capture some unbelievable images and memories. I kept a daily journal, by hand, that numbers almost 100 pages for 10 days.
I came back with renewed inspiration, actually proud to be a journalist in the real sense of the word--keeping a daily journal and discovering much about journalism and freedom and a special people, and telling the stories to others, with purpose.
And I learned that Mali’s media can teach American media many things that we’ve pretty much lost or forgotten.
For the record, Mali is immensely poor and dirty. Literacy is only about 30 percent. Lifespan averages 48 years. Eleven million people eke out a living in a country twice the size of Texas. Half the population is under 14, and intestinal diseases and malaria kill half the children.
But I saw happy people, I saw people wearing bright-colored clothes, I saw people who had nothing and yet had everything. I didn’t see malnutrition—many eat fresh vegetables and fruit every day, though many have only a porridge called Toh. I saw no lazy people—people who work harder than we imagine, and who still smile and laugh and play and love family—people who have hope. I saw imaginative people who create paintings, and sculpture and jewelry and carvings and fantastically colored dyed cloth. I saw people who like Americans, and people who remember living under a dictatorship 16 years ago, and who treasure freedom.
I saw people where the term “no sweat” has probably never been heard—When we were there, the daytime temperature hovered around 100 degrees, and dust hung in the air. But the hot season hadn’t arrived. April and May will set in and the temp will rise to over 120. Rain won’t come until June when the cotton and other crops can be planted.
The people are suspicious of concentrated power, just like Americans were when we gained freedom from the British. They’ve decentralized and have set up a true federal system—like we used to have. Asked if they got together on national holidays to sing songs, march and so forth, they responded that they wouldn’t tolerate mandatory group activities. I wondered what they’d think of our “Pledge of Allegiance” in schools. The main native language, Bambara, means “I refuse submission.” The people are literally “jealous” of their freedom.
That’s only a portion of what I saw and experienced and tasted.
Now some notes from my journal on the media.
The main media in Mali is FM radio, because of the illiteracy. In their federal system they’ve split the country into more than 200 communes (don’t think Communist. It’s a French word—the official language in this former colony—for community). Each commune is allotted three radio stations, and most of them, with only about 40 or 50-kilometer ranges, devote most of the programming to educational material on health, disease, agriculture, women’s issues, etc. In all media, including newspapers, there’s almost no advertising. I though advertising was essential to a free press. Not so. Our adverting for the most part seeks brand recognition and tries to create “ need.” In Mali, there is need everywhere. Accordingly, most media are run on shoestrings, and pay is low. Newspapers use the official French language, and circulations—because of the low literacy rate, are low. Largest is about 17,000 in the capital city of Bamako, population over one million.
But everywhere we visited, we found passion for journalism and its role, including the national TV station.
For instance, one newspaper is named for the date –March 26, 1991--of the overthrow of the dictatorship: 26MARS. It put out a special edition the week we were there, dedicated to keeping the freedom and the memory of dictatorship alive, commemorating those who died in the revolution 16 years ago. The country lowers the flag to half staff to remember the martyrs, and the people treasure their freedom. Journalists, especially with the radio stations and the newspapers, repeatedly referred to the revolution, and it fills them with a purpose to serve the people and maintain freedom.
Mali media have clear purpose. At one radio station, the passionate female owner said, “The Antenna is our weapon. We are the voice of the voiceless.” Asked if they play music—and many do—one journalist told us, “When all Malians have enough to eat, then we’ll play music.”
In fact, the radios and newspapers remind me of what community newspapers were 100 years ago in this state and country—multiple voices, lower circulations, depending on subscribers and local support for existence. They’re also partisan in many cases, just like American and Oklahoman newspapers were when they chose names like The Waurika Democrat or the Cherokee Republican.
Their constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, “with respect to law.” But there is a very strict libel law. We asked several journalists if they’d been harassed or put in jail, and the response was often, “Of course.” While uncommon, it happens and they view that as part of their job.
Ask them their purpose and they’ll say it is to help the people of the country and maintain their freedom. They speak of “mobilization” of the electorate. Note in my journal after one such visit:
“The media have a passion and purpose for what journalism is supposed to be. In America, the purpose of most media seems to be to make money and satisfy stockholders. It’s not an accident that we refer to our media as “markets.” Theirs are “voices.”
Over and over again, we heard that the biggest need of journalism was more training. Interesting note: They linked more training for journalists to increasing journalism ethics. They also attributed declining newspaper circulation to a lack of ethics and people losing respect for journalism. One said that if we expected people to respect our ethics, we had to make sure they understood what we cover and why.
“America, are you listening?” I wrote.
I have guarded against trying to glamorize or romanticize this country and people. There are so many problems there. But getting past those, these people, their rich cultures and their media inspire with passion and example and hard work. This short report doesn’t even begin to address the issues and lessons, from a rooftop in Mali to a computer in Oklahoma.