By Joyce Mukucha
As it joined the global community in celebrating International Women’s Day on Monday, African Women in Media (AWiM) honoured and applauded female journalists who have held the fort throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as they continue to show love and dedication for journalism.
The Chief Executive Officer for AWiM Yemisi Akinbobola said despite the devastating impacts the pandemic brought, women journalists could not afford to step back highlighting that their commitment helped people in different societies to endure the hard times.
“Our special mention and honour go to female journalists who were front liners as the world grappled with the effects of COVID-19. Your commitment and dedication in the COVID-19 response contributed immensely to enabling communities to cope with the pandemic. You are indeed our heroines,” said Akinbobola.
She urged female journalists to challenge the inequalities, injustices, exclusionary policies and practices, obstacles to women leadership development, and all viewpoints and spaces that regard women as less than equal.
Powerful media women from different nations have chronicled their COVID-19 journeys explaining how they sailed through and overcame a plethora of challenges posed by the epidemic.
Sarah K Biryomumaisho of Uganda explained that in February 2020, when she signed a contract as a full-time employee of a media organisation she had been freelancing for since 2018, she was elated indicating that it was not only an opportunity to grow her career in media as a managing editor, it was also an opportunity to get back into full-time employment after losing her job in December 2019.
“For the two years I had worked as a freelance journalist for them, I had longed to be part of the full-time team. It was my dream organisation because it identified as a free space for women with at least 90 percent of employees being women.
“I had barely settled into the job when things took an unexpected turn. One month into my contract, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Uganda and a total lockdown was announced from midnight March 20, 2020.
“Before this, my plan was to travel across Uganda, telling the story of its beautiful cultures. Now with the lockdown, it occurred to me that I couldn’t go out to report when the whole county was on lockdown,” she said.
As an essential worker (journalist), Sarah said, could have still travelled, but did not have a car to put the essential worker sticker on, and even if she got the sticker, people (her sources) were afraid of catching Covid-19 and might not speak to her but this could not stop her from doing her work.
“Nevertheless, these challenges didn’t stop me. I asked my boss for a few extra shillings to buy data and airtime for calling sources and started working from home. I was lucky I could still work and my salary was coming in. Some colleagues were not so lucky. I read stories about journalists losing jobs and cried. I didn’t think job loss was something I needed to worry about myself because I was contributing stories as usual.
“But in November 2020, the unexpected happened: I got the dreaded call that would send me back to zero and back to the streets. We had planned to partner with local organisations and applied for some grants, but the pandemic put many organisations into financial distress and they shelved partnerships and grants. As a result, the Uganda bureau was put on hold as it had not made money for the company. We had only one month of full-time employment and then we would be back to the streets.
“I didn’t know where to begin. No one was hiring and everyone seemed to be laying off workers. It’s been three months since I became unemployed and things are getting harder by the day. As things begin to return to normal, there is hope that companies will consider calling us back to work or other organisations that may not have been greatly affected by the pandemic will start recruiting,” said Sarah.
She added that being confined in the house when one is used to going to the field and interacting with people has been one of the hardest things.
“With unemployment in the mix especially being a breadwinner, sometimes you feel like giving up and running away from all your problems, but where do you run to? I have found that confiding in friends who understand my situation now has helped a lot. I was also lucky to receive counseling from Women in News who offered to help keep our mental health in check. On the bright side, I have taken a number of short courses and boosted my skills.”
Besides Sarah, there is also another female journalist who remained committed to her work despite the devastating effects the pandemic brought.
Motivating other women media practitioners Annie Gitau, a journalist with Newspapers in Education, Standard Group, Kenya shared her experiences during Covid-19.
She explained that when schools in Kenya closed in March 2020 as part of the Covid-19 prevention measures, the programme she runs, Newspapers in Education, came to an abrupt halt.
“Now that children were at home indefinitely, we could no longer supply newspapers to schools to improve reading and retention skills and to help them relate what they were learning to what was going on in the world.
“I felt discouraged, but the quote, ‘hope springs eternal’ by Alexander Pope, was my driving force. I sought a way to make a difference and transitioned from programme manager of Newspapers in Education to editorial journalist, covering the challenges that learners and teachers were facing in light of the pandemic.
Gitau said she has learned to be embrace change and to be grateful for the opportunity the pandemic provided to tell the stories of children affected by the pandemic and to find solutions for their challenges through her networks.
“While online learning was touted as the next best thing to keep children engaged, many, especially those in rural areas, had little to no access to electricity or the internet or to internet-enabled gadgets. Moreover, girls who previously received free sanitary towels in school had to deal with the monthly agony of inadequate menstrual management.
“I used my network and journalism skills to highlight the plight of these students. I covered the ‘period poverty’ story in Nakuru about girls who were turning to sexual favours to get sanitary towels. Highlighting this issue led well-wishers (various companies and organisations) to donate sanitary towels for a whole year and books too.
“I also covered the ‘Flash-disk learning’ story in Meru County, where the children who did not have access to the internet or money for data, turned to flash disks that could be plugged into a TV or laptop. This was replicated in Othaya and Thika.
“In addition to stretching myself on the education beat and flourishing in it, I acquired new competencies. I am enrolled in a social media strategy course,” she said.
Fardowsa Sheik Abdirahman, producer in Somalia said at the beginning of 2020, she was working on a programme on democracy and good governance, then March came along and the first case of coronavirus in Somalia was confirmed in March 2020.
It was difficult, she said, to focus on a programme on democracy when people needed to know about how to stop the spread of this new disease, especially in light of the speculation and misinformation that was spreading on social media and decided to focus on giving health advice.
For nine months, she said, have been producing COVID-19 stories in all regional administrations in Somalia. In Hargeisa, where she lives, and in many other cities, there were a lot of unverified rumours about COVID-19.
“People said that the disease was a government project, and others said that the reports I was producing were untrue.
“Together with other women in the media, we sought to provide accurate and factual information. However, this was not without challenge. Many sources were afraid of speaking publicly about their experience with COVID-19 because of the fear of stigmatisation. Also, many people claimed to have suffered from COVID-19 but we could not verify their claims because they had not been tested.”
Abdirahman said the pandemic also came with longer working hours and the psychological toll of the stories of suffering and deaths brought about by COVID-19 made her sad.
“I also felt discouraged when people said the reports I was producing were untrue. The worst news was when a close friend who was a frontline health worker died of COVID-19. I was heartbroken and it took me days to recover.”
She explained that while the pandemic brought many sorrows, it was not all gloom and doom highlighting that technology and the internet helped her making her job easier.
“Thanks to everything being online, I took advantage of technology to enroll for courses that boosted my media skills.
“In July 2020, I improved my skills in reporting health stories through the courses on AWiM Learning and through my membership in the Media Women Network. I learned to work with the constantly-changing data and to fact-check health data on credible websites, such as that of the World Health Organisation.
“The pandemic has had both negative and positive sides for me as a journalist. I had never worked on health stories, but because of the pandemic, I gained experience in reporting and producing health stories. I also learned how to deal with the doubt and criticisms of media consumers.”
For Chipo Brenda Mariam a news editor and health journalist in Uganda, the journey was rocky as she pointed out that she still does not believe that she has survived the intensity of COVID-19 in Uganda including being harassed in the course of getting to work which made her slightly resentful but managed to endure.
“On March 21, 2020, our boss called for a meeting to brief us on the risks of commuting to work. Already, one of our colleagues had just come back from Saudi Arabia, and someone had called the Ministry of Health to tip them on a suspected COVID-19 case. Ministry officials picked him up and there was a sense of safety, but our boss tasked us with getting COVID-19 tests and told us:
“Do us a favour and do not return to work, instead simply proceed to the hospital and get the treatment we shall pray for you to heal quickly.”
“We were asked to have mandatory COVID-19 tests at our cost. At this time, our salaries had already been slashed in half and for many colleagues, the half salary was equivalent to the cost of a COVID-19 test at the time: Ush200,000 ($54.6). It appeared as though the only thing left to do was to either use up one’s entire wages on the test or to quit. I immediately called someone from the Ministry of Health and asked how I could get a COVID-19 certificate. They asked me to go for the test and after three days, I got my results: I had tested negative.”
That hurdle was out of the way, she said, but as a radio editor, she could not work from home.
“I had to be at the station as early as 6 am. Going to work saw me face many challenges. Even though I was an essential worker, since I was walking 26 kilometres to and from work, I got into run-ins with the law about being out during curfew hours. One evening, a Local Defence Unit officer flogged me and grabbed and smashed my phone as I tried to flee. Driving journalists had essential worker stickers. As a walking journalist, I had thought that my journalist ID would save me, but it wasn’t enough.
After two weeks of walking to work, we were offered a hostel, but I had a nine-month-old baby. I couldn’t leave home and I couldn’t carry my child to work. My husband, who was in South Africa, and I also worried that I would infect the children with COVID-19 because going to work exposed me to risk. However, those who would not make it to work were told to consider themselves jobless. I gave myself the nickname “Corona” to keep the children from approaching me before I sanitised, cleaned up, and changed clothes when I got home.
“That has been for the love of journalism. My faith has also kept me going: I have learned that God will always be with his people and that he makes a way where you least expect it and feeds you when your pockets are empty.”
AWiM was established to foster the needs of female African media content producers.