Where do you think that you can talk openly about vaginas, condoms and unnatural sex within the first hour of a five-day training course? It could only be on this week’s Women’s Health and Opportunity course that Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) with GBCHealth just completed in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Usually, my colleagues and I on the TrustMedia team spend most of our time on the 5th floor of our London headquarters in corporate Canary Wharf organising journalism training courses that run in exotic locations around the world. When the opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance to get out of the office and away from my regular routine to actually see what we do. Goodbye 10 a.m. Starbuck’s cappuccinos!
Along with the lovely TRF trainers, Lisa Essex and Lisa Anderson, I headed off to South Africa, partly in anticipation of the great week ahead but mostly, a nervous wreck about how this week could possibly come off without any hitches. I shouldn’t have worried, as Tracy Hart, who helped organise the most important bit – getting everyone there--would tell me.
Day one: I was sitting amongst 14 journalists who had come from all over Africa, from as far north as Egypt all the way down to South Africa. I was sure that I could hold my own in the first writing exercise-- but after my 61-word lead any credibility that I could have had as a journalist evaporated right before my eyes.
Luckily, our excellent speakers took the focus off my lack of journalism skills. Dr Rachel Jewkes, head of the Gender & Health Research Unit at the Medical Research Council of South Africa, spoke to us about GBV (Oops! My teachers wouldn’t like me using acronyms - Gender Based Violence, that is). It was an eye opener. I thought that, because I live in England and read the news every day, I knew all there is to know. I didn’t. Fistula, inter-marriage rape, child marriage; all horrifying and all still in practice in more places than we would like to think.
Susan Mboya from Coca-Cola showed us good business can actually overlap with women’s empowerment. Women have an incentive to earn more to help feed and educate their children and Coca-Cola is helping women do that in the form of assisting them to set up small shops, especially in rural areas. We did let her reference to Coca-Cola being healthier than orange juice slip right by us. We should have asked her how much Coke she liked to drink.
We went back to basics with Dr Trudy Smith, a Gynecology Oncologist at the University of Witwatersrand, who drew a lot of ‘interesting’ human anatomy diagrams for us. Pap smears and contraceptives are still seen as embarrassing and taboo topics throughout Africa. It was so sad to hear that things that can save lives and give women power over their bodies are not seen that way by everyone. I’m sure we are ALL going to make sure our Pap smears are up to date once this course is finished!
Throughout the week, Lisa Essex told everyone to add flair to their stories and flair is definitely what we got on a site visit to a project run by Sonke Gender Justice. Unknown to the organisers (me), we were taking the journalists to interview Sonke programme staff by candlelight in a house made out of three shipping containers in Soweto, a poor township outside of Johannesburg. Words can’t really describe our experience, but I think we’ve really seen what people can do in hardship.
Treatment for HIV/AIDS can reduce transmission by 96% - this would be my headline after we heard from Dr Brian Brink, chief medical officer at mining giant Anglo American.
We were gobsmacked – yes, everyone in the room couldn’t get our heads around the fact that if you take one pill a day then transmission from HIV/AIDS infected people to those who are not infected is reduced by 96%. Why is there AIDS if the treatment is so effective?
And even though I know that the two Lisas will tell me that a good story is a short story, I promise you that I’ve just got a little bit more to say.
On the final day, we capped off everything that we were taught throughout the week and pitched ideas for future stories to the two ‘mean’ editors. Lucky I was just a spectator – I’m happy I don’t work for Lisa and Lisa if that’s really what they are like! I bet I’ll see lots of six-month packages of women’s health stories coming from all our journalists.
After a “graduation” ceremony and celebratory dinner, as we said our final goodbyes I really understood how valuable this course has been in so many ways – in bringing together a group of talented health journalists from around the continent, refreshing (or learning in my case) basic journalism skills as well as understanding health issues and being motivated to write about such difficult topics. But I think the biggest thing for me was meeting some amazing people who actually fight in the face of social and cultural norms to report on these issues.
It was an amazing week.