media in Africa

Malkia#1: Elizabeth Merab,on being an award-winning science reporter in Africa

One time, enjoying the cool breeze of Toledo, Spain, Irene Tato who is the Director of Mundo Sano—an organisation championing science around neglected tropical diseases— was telling me how she loves mentoring young women to live to their potential. As I listened to her, I realised that it takes a special kind of strength and calculation for women to excel in whatever parts of the world they are in. Women have come far— thanks to the Harriet Tubmans and Wangari Maathais of this world— but we MUST appreciate that sisters still have to claw their way up, with blood, sweat and tears. So I decided to use my own little space to create a platform for us to have these conversations about “phenomenal womanism”, chats with women who have made a name for themselves in any field in the world, no matter how grand or little. I named it Malkia, Swahili for Queen.

These thoughts were running through my head as I was eating cake bought for my colleague Elizabeth Merab Mcleans, for her international science reporting award (read the winning story here). I was pouting a little as I ate the cake because she had been travelling a lot – to Germany, South Africa etcetera— and I was there, bored in Nairobi. A few days after that, she was nominated for Thomson Foundation young journalist award (read the nominated story here). Then there was that prestigious Falling Walls Fellowship in Berlin. At Just mid-20s, Merab has moved up the ladder in a niche reporting, and been in the newsroom myself, I could not help but pay homage to her success.

Merab chatting with Nobel laureate Klaus von Klitzing, a German physicist, known for the discovery of the integer quantum Hall effect, for which he was awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physics. This was in a meeting in Landau, Germany for the annual Nobel meetings. PHOTO/Source

 

With no training in media—that kind of tells you ‘the media is a man-eat-man society, be ready’— Elizabeth learnt in the job to act in that space. A Kenyatta University graduate in Education, specializing in English and literature— you know now I get why Merab is not critical of teachers’ strikes— she did not become a health reporter from the first day in the newsroom. So how did a trained teacher, end up in the newsroom?

“I started out by writing about agribusiness for the Seeds of Gold, then moved to writing feature stories about the real estate industry,” she told me, adding that she kept eyeing health and science since this is what she enjoyed. Having suffered a series of health issues herself, Merab drew from her own experiences to excel in her job of amplifying the public’s voice in health care that is always trampled on in Africa by the ruling class. “Health and science reporting goes way deep. It is personal. I always say that I am first a patient before I am a journalist. This is because I have spent a lot of my years (and still do) in the corridors of hospitals in search of personal health services”

Now more than ever, Africa needs journalists like Merab more than ever. The continent is experiencing a shift in the diseases’ profile but its sons and daughters are also excelling in research. Who will link those two? Journalists with a keen eye on health. To rise to the task, Elizabeth built her knowledge on the area she is reporting on, her strategy to achieve that was by enrolling for a Masters’ degree in Medical Sociology at the University of Nairobi.

“The health industry is the backbone of any economy. When you talk of life expectancy, total fertility rate, Years of life lost (YLLs) due to premature mortality etcetera, then you begin to notice the huge role health plays in any country. Health, and by large science journalism, bridges the gap between what scientists know and discover and what the general populace knows and believes”

These subjects get her to the office at 9 a.m. and then screen the “docket assignments”— that is newsroom lingo for a big book on which the editors allocate stories to reporters— or go through social media, other news sites and papers to see what’s in the current affairs pages for a daily story. Merab, along with me and my colleague Eunice Kilonzo who joined corporate communication, was the first reporter in the newly converged science desk at Nation Media Group. That weekly pull out needs perusing through scientific journals such as Nature, the Lancet, as well get ideas on a chat on “what is cooking now in science?”

Merab receiving her certificate from Rhodes University South Africa for science journalism

So networks, with people whose name means something in that area really matter. Excellence, therefore, required a certain degree of sacrifice. “While a typical day should end at 6:30 p.m, I often find myself going home past 8p.m. after classes and sometimes, depending on how the day looks, I may end up missing class to finish up office work”, she said. Any journalist is just as good as her contacts. Creating and maintaining those is no joke especially with people who have not been open to the media before.

But Merab, a lover of fashion, also creates time to look after herself and her wellbeing. She told Verah Okeyo: “I love listening to music, so I must also note that I extremely love dancing—I am almost always the show stopper whenever I go out with friends—I also love fashion, I am yet to push the boundaries of fashion but I love being trendy”. She also loves to watch movies and …. wait for it… going to the shooting range learning how to fire and handle guns!

Is there a woman out there who you want to clap for? Drop me an email at verah@verahokeyo.com 

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