It’s a moment I never saw coming when I studied journalism in college. Here I was in Rwanda watching scientists sort chimp poop—and thinking about how I was going to share this moment with readers back in Des Moines, Iowa.
For a long time I’ve reported on the environment for The Des Moines Register. In that job, I usually travel to sunny state parks and dank sewage treatment plants, to industrial hog farms and State House meetings, and to winding rivers dotted with dead fish and state swimming areas where I pull water samples to test for contaminants. But I end up spending too much time in my newsroom cubicle with a view of little else but desks and colleagues.
Sometimes I travel far away, like when I trained journalists in Panama, Belize and Mexico and accompanied scientists along the Amazon River studying what happens to the environment when Brazilians clear the rainforest to raise cattle. During my time as president of the U.S.-based Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), I led panel discussions and tours in a number of states.
A key lesson: The world is small. When rainforest is cut in Rwanda or Brazil, it could upset the earth’s carbon balance in ways that can affect the climate from Iowa to Iceland to Italy. Americans’ infatuation with huge cruise boats can lead to damage to reefs in Belize. The world’s thirst for corn-sweetened sodas can plow under habitats that pheasants and waterfowl need.
Those international connections are what led me to Rwanda, known mainly for its mountain gorillas, 1994 genocide, and poverty. What drew me to east-central Africa, however, was the breadth of environmental initiatives in a country that is far poorer than even its sub-Saharan neighbors. It was a story I wanted to report.
For me, the question was how could I make this happen?
Local Meets International
“Foreign Reporting: It’s Not Like It Used to Be”
– John Schidlovsky
Director, IRPMy Rwandan experience provides an excellent example of the crucial role organizations—partners, really—such as the International Reporting Project (IRP) play in an era in which news organizations are struggling to hold on to their worldview as travel budgets blow away like so much glacial till. With IRP’s support, my story reminded Iowans that it’s not just the large coastal papers that bring them news from abroad.
The Register is a midsized paper with 16 Pulitzer Prizes and a long history of reporting, at least occasionally, on international events important to Iowans and other Americans.
In the past four decades or so, the Register reported from the Soviet Union about grain issues, from Nicaragua about ongoing unrest, from Africa about hunger, and from Finland about innovative education initiatives. Among the Pulitzer winners was editorial writer Lauren Soth, whose bold invitation to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to visit farms in Iowa made history.
With history in mind, a couple of years ago I proposed to my editors that I visit Rwanda to cover a project cofounded by Great Ape Trust, a Des Moines-based research center focused on the language, social and cognitive skills of great apes and the conservation of the endangered primates. That work involves saving a small, isolated group of chimpanzees in the Gishwati Forest in northwestern Rwanda, a forest that at one point was 99 percent gone; it had a direct tie to Des Moines.
Twice, I was turned down. The interest was there, but the Register’s budget simply was too tight.
That’s when I turned to the IRP for help. I had read about the program on SEJ’s Web site. The privately funded, independent IRP is located at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. It exists to promote international reporting and likes to send its fellows to places they’ve never been. This would be my first trip to Africa so I knew I was on the right track.
When I decided to pursue the IRP fellowship, my vision broadened as I spent time learning more about Rwanda’s environmental efforts. What I found was a rebel leader turned president, Paul Kagame, who had quietly become perhaps Africa’s most vocal supporter of environmental initiatives. This struck me as surprising, refreshing—and a good story to tell.
From the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” if nothing else, what Americans know about Rwanda is that the Hutu government killed 800,000 to one million Tutsis, the minority, and moderate Hutus in 100 days. This bloodbath—the latest and worst in a series of genocides going back to 1959—happened after the Hutu president was shot down near the Kigali airport. A study later blamed President Juvénal Habyarimana’s own soldiers for his death. He had angered many by signing a peace accord with the Tutsis.
Kagame’s rebel army returned Tutsis to power on July 4, 1994. Now he leads a country where citizens struggle with that history and a per capita income of $500, barely more than half the sub-Saharan average. Yet President Kagame insists that Rwanda’s first broad-based, international economy be built with environmental sustainability in mind. He banned plastic grocery bags that end up in trees. Women sweep litter from streets and the hydropower that lights many bulbs is now assisted by solar panels. There is talk of wind turbines.
I proposed a series of stories about these aspects of Rwanda’s environmental activism, and my project was one of 10 selected from nearly 200 applicants. This meant they paid for me to travel to and report from Rwanda for five weeks. During this time I wrote blog posts for the Register and IRP, and then in December, my stories were published as “Renewal in Rwanda,” a four-part series in the Register and on our Web site as well as the IRP’s.
Life as an IRP Fellow
I described the unmistakable and moving joy in the faces of 1,000 worshippers in a Pentecostal church in Gisenyi, raising their voices in praise without a trace of the pain that must come with praying alongside people who killed your kin. I wrote about an invigorating 10.5-mile hike through the Gishwati Forest to track chimps and of the scientists’ laborious efforts to sort through their poop to see what the primates eat in varying weather conditions and seasons. I also described the country’s work to spread clean water, alternative energy, and toilets across the countryside.
Before I left for Rwanda, IRP offered me and the other fellows semi-private offices not far from Dupont Circle. They connected us with former British Royal Marines who were flown in to teach us how to avoid booby traps, kidnapping and petty theft. We were taught how to recognize the sound of various weapons so we would know whether to drop to the ground in a strategic position or run as fast as we knew how. It was all very realistic.
Then we spread across the globe to do our reporting before returning to Washington to spend two weeks writing and filling in the reporting blanks. I gave presentations at Johns Hopkins, George Washington University, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where I accepted an invitation to serve as a short-term public policy scholar. When I got home, the speaking engagements piled up at churches, breakfast clubs, and schools.
For “Renewal in Rwanda,” I, along with the IRP, received a citation from the Overseas Press Club of America. Showing up in online search results, this story that originated in Des Moines traveled the world with the series drawing the attention of readers on several continents. Parts of what I wrote were reprinted in Rwanda and in other countries.
International reporting is as vital as ever, perhaps more so as the Internet, environmental concerns, travel and trade connect us as we’ve not been before. Tapping these new partnerships is part of what it will take to keep our eyes and ears on world developments as The Associated Press struggles, news organizations close bureaus, and people throughout the world clamor for even more news, updated by the minute.
My project was important work that started with a regional focus and grew to the type of international view that reporters need to find ways to keep alive. With fellowships such as IRP, journalists who work for news organizations, large and small, and freelancers, too, can still bring home that worldview.
Perry Beeman writes about environmental issues for The Des Moines Register.