“When there’s coffee: drink it, and when there’s a bathroom: use it.”
This golden nugget of advice was imparted upon me while I was still at university, interning at a TV station inDallas,Texas. It came from a crusty, grumpy older cameraman, as he smoked a cigarette and waited for his reporter to finish a live shot at a crime scene.
It is excellent advice for a woman, and a journalist. You don’t ever want to miss a special “news” moment, when the car carrying the politician arrives or the convict is marched into court, because you are too tired or have to take a much-needed bathroom break. It is never worth the look on your boss’s face when you tell him or her you didn’t get “that” shot.
Consequently, my day in Johannesburg,South Africa always begins with enough coffee to make me sociable. If I am presenting or anchoring the morning news- I am shepherded into the make-up room and fussed over by a team of stylists. If I am reporting it is less glamorous, I usually put on my make-up in the car on the way to work, stuck in Joburg traffic and trying not to rear-end anyone.
Of course looking the part is not the most important part, it is, however, a necessary evil when you are in front of the camera. But life hasn’t always been like this for me. Three years ago, I was reporting undercover inZimbabwe, where I was born and raised. My face was never on TV, and I did my best NOT to be seen. Back then, the only wardrobe question in my mind was “if I go to jail today- will I be warm enough in these clothes?”
In 2007 and 2008, Zimbabwewas a no-go for journalists. The government, controlled by Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, was incredibly hostile to foreign media organizations. Basically- anyone who wasn’t willing to report on how wonderful ZANU-PF was.
Reporting there was terrifying. You never knew whom you could trust, and those who were brave enough to speak to you on-camera were always nervous of getting victimized after the program aired. I was begged many times by interview subjects to blur their faces and distort their voices in an effort to keep their identities a secret. It was a tremendous responsibility, and I learned a few things the hard way.
On June 6th 2007, for example, I was beaten by members of the Zimbabwean police force, while filming a women’s march in centralBulawayo. It was an awful, painful experience. I remember crying uncontrollably and begging for my life. It was undignified, unnecessary and illegal, and I was angry for a very long time.
A year later, in the midst of Zimbabwe’s hotly contested presidential election, I was again in trouble. Suspecting that foreign journalists were reporting from my home, I was woken up at around 4am by thirty armed police officers, demanding to search my house for equipment and BBC or SKY reporters they believed to be hiding there. There were no foreign journalists- just me, and I got away. But when police realized that I had evaded them, they arrested my 60-year old Mother, locking her in a stinking, freezing, overcrowded jail cell for four nights.
It is a gut-wrenching feeling, going out onto the streets of your own country, doing a job you know is important but one that the government views as subversive. After my Mum was locked up I didn’t want to report anymore, it wasn’t worth it. I swore if she got out of jail unharmed that I would never pick up a video camera or a microphone again. She did get out, unharmed, and being a former journalist herself she encouraged me to keep reporting. I leftZimbabwe, and started up my career inSouth Africa.
Today, after being honoured as a “brave, young journalist” by dignitaries such as First Lady Michelle Obama, I’m not sure if I know if what I did was brave. Ultimately, I lost a lot and risked even more, but I could leave afterwards, I fled the violence and intimidation inZimbabweand began my career in neighboringSouth Africa. But most of the people I reported on during that period remain inZimbabwetoday and still face ongoing harassment.
Life is much easier for me, but not a day goes by when I don’t yearn to report in the country of my birth. That pang of guilt, mixed with fear, doesn’t go away.
Today, drinking enough coffee and knowing exactly where the nearest bathroom is may seem mundane in comparison to the struggles that still exist for journalists in Zimbabwe. However, I am always thankful that I don’t have to hide my identity, and can hold my head high knowing the news I deliver is always free and fair.