Op-Ed: Science Journalism and Africa’s sustainable development

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More than ever, as a development journalist, I now don’t harbor the slightest of doubts as to the ability of science journalism to meaningfully contribute to the advancement of the Science, Technology, and Innovation, STI, in Africa towards the realization of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, in our dear continent

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A cross-section
A cross-section of journalists participants from Anglophone Sub Saharan Africa

 

At 3:47PM (Nigerian time) on Monday, September 26, 2016, I received an email from Aghan Daniel, the secretary of the Nairobi-based Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture, MESHA. He was requesting that I furnish him with information regarding the nearest airport to my work station.

Exactly a week earlier, I had forwarded my application to participate in the World Federation of Science Journalists’ training on infectious diseases for African journalists to MESHA and so Aghan’s email was but a confirmation that my application had been accepted and I would be travelling to Nairobi for the weeklong training workshop scheduled for between October 23 and 29.

The Montréal-based World Federation of Science Journalists, WFSJ, is the umbrella body of 52 national science journalists’ associations from across Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe as well as the Middle East. WFSJ was hosting the training on infectious diseases for non-science African journalists in collaboration with the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture, MESHA – with the support of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, IDRC.

Accordingly, on October 22, at few minutes past 1400hrs, the Ethiopian Airlines flight I was on board took off from the Kano International Airport en route Addis Ababa, from where I boarded a connecting flight bound for Nairobi and which ended at around 0130hrs, in the wee hours of Sunday on October 23.

In the next 5-days, I would experience one of the most intensive and enriching capacity building workshops in my over 5-year long carrier as a journalist; the WFSJ/MESHA’s training workshop on infectious diseases was as far-reaching as it was fulfilling. One unique aspect of the infectious diseases training workshop was that, as would-be trainees, we were asked to provide our expectations – what we wanted to gain out of the workshop – and these information was used in formulating the workshop’s modules.

Consequently, I and other fellow young journalists from Anglophone Sub Saharan Africa would be immersed in plenaries which featured presentations by experienced health experts and award-winning science journalists across a diverse range of issues around infectious diseases and health science reporting. The fact that the modules were formed based on our requests kept all of us interested about the training workshop despite its quite intensive nature.

In the course of the training, we were made to understand issues as basic as the difference between communicable and infectious diseases; the difference between epidemics and pandemics; how infectious diseases could be transmitted and be cured, ranging from the most common of such diseases like Malaria, Tuberculosis and HIV as well as the not so common ones like Chikungunya and the Ebola Virus Diseases, which ravaged the West African sub region between 2013 and 2016.

Some of the highly instructive sessions were the ones on what constitutes science reporting and how science reporters could interpret scientific jargon to policymakers and the general public; a session on what constitute good and bad sources of news; another one on dealing with rumors and misconceptions as well as a session on techniques for pitching science stories.

Adele
Adele Baleta facilitating one of the sessions, during the 5-day training workshop

Worthy of mention in making the WFSJ/MESHA’s weeklong training workshop on infectious diseases for non-specialized African journalists a success, was the incredibly undeniable efforts of the quartet of Aghan Daniel, Adele Baleta, Ann Mikia as well as Anne-Marie Legault.

Aghan Daniel a.k.a ‘The Captain’ who as the secretary of MESHA was responsible for coordinating the entire logistics of the workshop still amazes me about his organizational ingenuity – having almost singlehandedly oversee the entire logistical aspect of the weeklong activity, with near perfection. Yet, The Captain also managed to make a presentation on techniques of pitching science stories, on the fifth and last day of the training.

The South African health science journalist Adele Baleta, our led trainer, and her co-trainer, the Kenyan radio journalist Ann Mikia, were both up to their tasks. Doubtlessly, Adele and Ann’s combined decades of experience in reporting health issues and facilitating capacity building trainings for African journalists clearly manifested in their presentations. Remarkably, one often repeated cautionary sermon to us by the trainers throughout the workshop was that, as science journalists, we must never think of ourselves as being science experts.

With a combination of effective engagement and humor, the duo painstakingly took us through the workshop’s various modules; ensuring most of our expectations were met. And whenever they needed any support, Anne-Marie Legault, WFSJ’s project manager in charge of the Ebola and infectious diseases project in Africa, who was keenly following proceedings of the training, was always on hand to assist.

More than ever in my journalism carrier, I am now convinced that science reporting could be integrated into development reporting towards the successful realization of the Science, Technology, and Innovation, STI, component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, in Africa. By translating complex scientific jargons to simpler, understandable language for the consumption of both policymakers and the general public, science journalism will be able to foster public interest on STI issues.

Being an avenue through which both policymakers and the general public could be easily reached, the media is the perfect bridge between scientific research and policymakers on one hand, and between scientific research and general public on the other hand. Hence, there is need for capacity building for science journalists towards achieving effective dissemination of accurate and reliable science information and data to both policymakers and the general public.

By the end of the 5-day training, it was obvious that the expectations of the 20 budding reporters drawn from across Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Senegal, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and the Republic of Kenya were more than met by the all-inclusive training workshop which covered the fundamentals of health science reporting, facts and data relating to infectious diseases as well as ensured knowledge sharing and networking among the trainees; between the trainers and the trainees.

Sam Oti
Samuel Oti of the International Development Research Centre, IDRC, addressing the trainees

Also worthy of acknowledging is MESHA’s pioneering effort in mainstreaming science journalism in Africa. In over the last 10 years, the organization has helped built the capacities of hundreds of African journalists to effectively produce quality science stories around the key areas of health, agriculture and environment by facilitating networking, training, and collaborative projects between science reporters on the continent. Moreover, MESHA is also providing opportunities for science journalists, science communicators, and researchers to come together and discuss how they can work for enhanced science reporting in Africa.

As the Addis-bound Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 plane taxied in preparation for take up from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, JKIA, at the early hours of Saturday, October 29, I was filled with both a sense of satisfaction for all that transpired the previous week as well as nostalgia for the fact that I was parting with a group of incredibly talented fellow young African reporters with whom I called Nairobi’s hospitable Ngong Hills Hotel home in the previous 7 days.

At the beginning of those enriching and fulfilling days, most of us have arrived at Ngong Hills as complete strangers and were now leaving with a sense of longing, having developed a close bond with one another, in the spirit of science reporting – courtesy of WFSJ/MESHA.

More than ever, as a development journalist, I now don’t harbor the slightest of doubts as to the ability of science journalism to meaningfully contribute to the advancement of the Science, Technology, and Innovation, STI, in Africa towards the realization of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, in our dear continent.

 

 

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