“Africa ain’t for sissies.”
It’s a phrase I’ve often heard when traveling around the continent. I suppose it’s true. This place is filled with people who refuse to give in. And it’s the reason why I love working here. The soil may be bone dry or flooded, someone will find a way to harvest a crop. Where a senseless civil war is raging, there’s a teacher trying to cobble a classroom together. For these reasons and countless others, Africa and its people humble me every day.
My first real connection to the continent arrived in the form of a backpacker when I was a student at Trinity. I was a sophomore, spending a year in Oxford, England. While traveling in Europe over Christmas break, I met Gregg, a white South African. The budding journalist within me grilled him with questions about his experience growing up under apartheid. I was captivated by the stories he shared. We soon began dating and got married right after I graduated from Trinity.
A year later, we made a seven-month trip through Africa. We traveled on every mode of transport available, from boat to bicycle, making our way from Cairo to Cape Town. During the trip, I wrote a couple of stories about our adventures and was surprised to find that I got them published. It was then I decided I would find a way to get paid to travel.
I took a professional detour for the next three years, working at law firm to help put Gregg through college. As his senior year approached, I enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From my first day in the classroom, I knew I’d found my home among the news junkies.
My first job was working as a production assistant at National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. I was responsible for mixing reporter’s pieces and getting them ready for broadcast. The job was entry-level and unglamorous, and I spent much of my time working the overnight shift. However, it was on those nights, at two o’clock in the morning, when I learned how the best correspondents put their stories together. That period turned out to be a wonderful training ground for me. After three years, Gregg and I decided to return to his native South Africa. I quit the security of my full-time job to see if I could make it as a foreign correspondent.
My first story from South Africa was broadcast on an American public radio program called Marketplace. After it aired, my editor called and said she wanted me to go to Zimbabwe, a country that was in the grip of a rapid economic decline. Armed groups were violently seizing commercial farms. It was my first real assignment and I was surprised how quickly it came my way. The trip sounded a little risky but I knew Zimbabwe promised fascinating, important stories and countless human dramas. In years to come, I’d learn to thrive on that cocktail of personal risk combined with professional reward.
As I’ve moved forward in my reporting, my Trinity education has inspired me to incorporate the voices of women in my stories whenever I can. Many societies I visit are incredibly conservative. That means the men tend to treat me, a woman traveling alone, with a great deal of respect. The downside is that the local women are often hidden in the background and rarely step forward to speak with me. That’s why I enjoy seeking women out, giving them voice, and getting their perspective on issues.
The stories I’ve covered in Africa have taken a personal toll on me. I’ve met many magical people along the way, but I’ve also seen my fair share of horror. I’ve spent time with child soldiers in Sierra Leone who were abducted from their families and forced to take part in a gruesome civil war. I got chills as they told me about the atrocities they’d committed and how they were abused by commanders. As I listened to their stories, I tried to figure out what made these diminutive teenagers look so old and hardened. I realized it was their eyes, which were completely cold and lifeless; two black discs staring right through me.
I remember the faces of women and young girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were raped by military forces and held as sexual slaves for months and years on end. This tragedy occurs in conflicts all over the world but it’s a story that’s gone grossly under reported. That’s beginning to change. Survivors are rejecting the stigma of rape and speaking out about their experiences. And I think we’re reading more reports about rape as a weapon of war because more women are reporting from conflict zones. My story on the Congolese women was one of the saddest I’ve ever put together, but it also remains the one of which I’m most proud.
Aside from the emotional toll, there have been times when I’ve feared for my life while on assignment. During a trip to eastern Congo, I put on a bullet-proof vest and flew in a helicopter to visit a massacre site where 65 civilians, mostly women and girls, had been murdered by militias. Days later, I went on night patrol with United Nations peacekeepers, unsure of whether there were armed rebels lurking just beyond our limited field of vision. I have boarded countless cargo planes and dodgy-looking helicopters and simply hoped for the best before take-off.
At these times, my concerns for my personal safety are overridden by a desire to document the frightening conditions under which people live. If journalists only reported stories that fell within their comfort zone, countless stories would never be told. I am proud to know colleagues who have put their lives at risk in places much more dangerous than the ones I’ve been to. I believe our collective understanding of the world is richer because of their courage.
Despite the occasional dangers, I thrive on the rush of opening an e-mail from an editor to discover the next place I’m headed. For me, nothing beats boarding a plane bound for an obscure destination with fresh batteries and blank mini discs, wondering what stories I’ll return home with.
I think anyone interested in being a correspondent should go to a region of the world in which they’re interested and simply begin writing. Don’t wait to climb the newsroom ladder before beginning an overseas adventure. Across the United States news organizations can no longer afford to adequately staff their foreign desks. Instead they’re increasingly relying on freelancers. This presents a wonderful opportunity for anyone with a desire to travel and an eye for news.
Amy Costello is a 1992 graduate of Trinity College. She is Africa Correspondent for The World, an international news program co-produced by the BBC World Service, Public Radio International and WGBH Boston. She lives in Cape Town, South Africa with her husband Gregg.