science journalism

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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I must have an affair with a scientist. This is how it will work

I have always wanted a pretty intense affair with scientists. I will not be the first. Science journalists have affairs with scientists that have linked the newsroom, labs and people into this intimate space of disease pathology, nutrition, and food security among others. It is a beautiful relationship. They have given us their knowledge on Aids and other killers and with our descriptive flair, we have educated the public about these diseases there is hardly any stigma around them and the medical seeking behaviour is positive.

Now, take a look around. Kenya, as is the rest of the world, is being brought to its knees by many things: malnutrition, devastating effects of climate change, ill health… Let the earth stop rotating I want to alight. The solution to some of these challenges is going to be scientific. That will need the participation of the public and the scientist. I will be right there in the middle to make sure that both the scientist and the public are on the same page through journalism. The relationship I have with the public is solid: they are my primary interest. However, I need a little bit more intimacy on the one I have with the scientist. The thought of this seduction reminds me of that man who tried to take a selfie with an elephant. He died.

Science as a beat, unlike, say politics or entertainment, requires some tact and finesse that defies usual journalism standard operating procedure. The subject…never gets anybody’s writing juices flowing. Pick any published paper from a journal and read the headline. It is usually some jaw-breaking title that need a ceremony to pronounce …hey y’all, gather around, we are about to read the title of this paper. You see that face you have when I read the paper is the same I get from the editor when I pitch that story to the editor for publishing. This is the editor who has edited these kinds of stories since I was in my diapers. So what will the public, for whom I am supposed to make the information less complicated, say?

Then comes the issue of the person I am trying to seduce here: the scientist is a skeptical, uptight and sometimes condescending human being he kills my sentimental vibe. In fact, he does not crave my attention like the politician. I will meet him for an interview on a topic that I may have read about intensely for a week and before I say a word, he will be like “you journalists like sensationalizing stuff, you write silly stuff that do not matter”. I will smile, genuinely like a doll. At the back of my head I will be like “Professor, if you only knew that I was that girl who finished her math an hour before time and got As anyway”

But you know what, I get it. Before his paper(s) was published, there was peer review. I know that is just a polite name for the ego bruising process where overly critical scientists comb through a paper he submitted for publishing with a toothpick. These mean reviewers will try to find flaws in, among many other parts of the paper, the methodology. Then they will give the scientist their unkind comments and he will have either have to back to the field to carry out more tests or respond. These mean people may even reject the paper. Godamned it. So I know. Science is annoyingly slow, time consuming and resource intensive that when you cross to the other end the only fuck you give about is whether the bacteria you were studying has mutated.

Now that his paper survived and got published—wait wait, let us toast to that—he has little to gain from media coverage. In fact, he could lose should I overly simplify his findings in an effort to make the information palatable to the public. So when I—a journalist with no back ground in science at all, well I know the position of Barium in the periodic table—approach him to write about his study, I understand why there is a wall he has erected between us.

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 Prof Andre’ Swart,Executive Dean : Faculty of Health Sciences of the University of Johannesburg when I visited the university last year

I have a few needs that I intend to make very clear at the beginning of the affair. One, the scientist has to try very hard to be available when his woman needs attention. There are deadlines in the newsroom that if missed could cost the company millions of dollars in revenue. When that happens who is going to pay my salary? This is what I mean to say when I say an article meant to be published on Sunday but has to be submitted to the editor on Wednesday by noon: The graphic designer has to read the story and come up with appealing and appropriate designs for the layout; the chief subeditor has to cut what I wrote into what will fit the page and careful enough not to lose meaning; the revise editor has to make sure the language fits the paper’s style; if there is data, the coding guy has to make those interactive stuff for the website; the photo editor has to find appropriate pictures; I have to call some of his colleagues just to make sure that I understand what he was saying.

Two, I would like a little simplicity. In his circles the cabbage is brassica oleracea. To me, it had better be a vegetable.

Three, this intimacy has to maintain some level of boundaries to allow me to keep him in check. There is commentary on that prestige journal Nature by Boyce Rensberger. Boyce was director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1998 to 2008, and a science reporter for 32 years, chiefly at The Washington Post and The New York Times, very premium papers if you ask me. So Boyce says that there is a danger in journalists persuading the public to believe that science and the player in that industry will be the solution to all their problems. But of course, the scientist is a saviour. Are they? There are some papers with falsified data, which pass through peer review and then get published anyway.  So if I put the scientist on a pedestal where whatever he says is a “decreed truth”, I will not treat him with that healthy dose of skepticism when I should because science is not, after all, perfect. If it was, the number of papers being retracted have would not have increased tenfold since 1975 and you can follow those retractions here

So many demands Verah! What will you do?

I am very easy to love because I teach you how I would like to be loved. Like how to make sure you get and keep my attention from all these suitors. I am a very attractive intelligent woman and everybody wants a piece of me. Just come see my email: there is a schools pitching a new programme they have launched that will teach students about entrepreneurship… that needs coverage. A public hospital with a new cancer machine… I should write about that too. With all these suitors, he would throw Yego’s Javelin to get me to see there is something of public interest from the ridiculously unappealing titles his kind gives his work. When he calls or emails about this study he and his colleagues have conducted on some drug that may alleviate the pain in cancer patients, I will answer. Fast.

Honestly, I have never understood why he is perpetually running from the social media. Imagine the dude comes from culturing the ebola Virus in the lab but finds the social media dangerous. There is something that that much reading does to their brains. So I will teach him how to hide in plain sight in the media. I have done that for five years. I will encourage him to blog. I will show him how a science blog looks like and how that easily grabs my attention in the mainstream media and not lose out on other lovers in the vast space in the internet from other media houses. This relationship is polygamous. I would genuinely love to know what goes on in his mind when he is out there in the field and a blog is an awesome avenue to let me in. I would write well about his work when I understand his world. So lover, let me in, and you will be surprised what my kind find fascinating about your work. In 2013, one of my lovers took me to Netherlands in a multinational that manufactures medical equipment. Imagine my shock when I learnt the cost (money, human resource, water and electricity) of having a linear accelerator. I thought “oh well, even if Kenya bought this machine, these demands would make it useless in many hospitals in Kenya”.

Me at a Philips Museum in Netherlands in 2013
Me at a Philips Museum in Netherlands in 2013. After this, I went to see the medical equipment like the one below

 

I saw this and said: "What a cool thing...but I wouldn't want to need this because it will mean I will be sick
I saw this and said: “What a cool thing…but I wouldn’t want to need this because it will mean I will be sick

Take a look at this poorly recorded video of me with another lover of mine in Guateng in South Africa last year.

Then I would encourage him to tweet his opinions, like Dr Ahmed Kalebi here

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