New Vision’s Gerald Tenywa won the Environment category at the CNN Multichoice African Journalist Awards 2012 in Lusaka last weekend. According to the judges, Mr. Tenywa’s story Concrete Graves Threaten Environment published in the Sunday Vision last year was exceptional.
The judges said, “Environment stories are not usually exciting. This story is an exception. It is a simple story told brilliantly. Gerald has amazing journalistic skills and has brought to the fore something that most Africans have not thought about before now.”
ACME’s Grace Natabaalo caught up with the journalist who brought home his 15th award for writing captivating environment stories since 2001.
How does it feel winning the CNN award?
It is exciting to win because I was competing with other people. There were so many good entries. My colleague from Nigeria had a comprehensive entry in the same category. One of the fastest growing areas in the awards is the environment category and it is quite competitive. The judges said my story was simple and well told yet it raised critical issues at the same time. They say environment stories are boring but I try to make them more interesting; this is what I have always wanted.
What was your inspiration for writing the story on the concrete graves?
This is part of the imported cultures in Uganda that are unsustainable especially if not put in check in a few years to come. I used this story to explain to the readers how they are connected to the ecological systems and the fact that the nutrients we are holding in our bodies are borrowed from nature and they have to be returned to nature in a good way. They have to be made available so that other organisms can use them. But today we are behaving as if we are the last generation on the earth; we are so selfish in the way we use resources and do not think about what we are going to leave for the future generations.... Actually it was the death of Mathari Wangari who opted for cremation that motivated me to do the story. Wangari was widely known and a model so I thought readers would take characters like her more seriously.
What drives you? What makes you tick?
I love animals especially chimpanzees and gorillas. I love people. I love fighting for justice and fairness. I love writing stories about wildlife and people, their suffering because I am trying to make a change. I do not sleep until the story is done; it is like a constant debt.
I am a keen listener. I listen and understand what I am going to write about. When I get a story into the newspaper and realise there is something I didn’t do, I feel bad.
When I am doing stories I use ‘mind-mapping’ to get out all the facets of the story. It helps you to know what you should ask depending on the issue. This is the approach I used when writing this particular story. Now I apply it when writing stories, it is my companion and it guides me.
Also [continuing] training is important. It is important especially for serious journalists. Some things are not taught in class but the training helps you re-learn, unpack and then repack information to write stories that have an impact on society. If you are not guided by anything, you just end up doing stories with no impact. The awards are just a milestone but you must leave space in your mind to keep learning.
How did you end up covering the environment beat?
I went to King’s College Budo where we had grass quadrangles and we were not supposed to step on them. They looked beautiful. Even when I became a prefect and could cross them, I made sure I didn’t. Wherever I go, I do not step on the green. I love green.
Also, when pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in forestry, I was exposed to many scientific concepts. Later, I did the environmental journalism course [at Makerere Unviersity] as I was working at New Vision. I also worked with David Sseppuuya on a community conservation project in Buso-Lulagala in Wakiso district. During that time, I met the grandfather of environmental journalism [in Uganda] Ndyakira Amooti. We worked together and both insisted that I write about some of the environmental issues I encountered. They were my mentors. Ndyakira passed on one of my stories to the editor and it was published.
He died in 1999 and pressure mounted and I was encouraged to fill the gap. Simon Kaheru also encouraged me. Another reporter, Geoffrey Kamali, practically dragged me to the newsroom and told me to write regularly. Soon after, Stephen Asiimwe, another editor for the Business desk asked me to write stories on tourism. In just one month in 2001, I had 20 stories in the paper. While still a freelancer, I was assigned to the investigations desk by [Editor-in-chief] William Pike. My landmark was when I was sent to cover an international conference in South Africa in 2002 on environment. Mr. Pike however told me not to be pressured to send stories on a daily basis but to learn and network while there and establish sources. It was then that I won my first award on exceptional reporting from the National Environment Authority.
Where does your inspiration come from?
From many good writers within and outside. I get inspiration from Bernard Tabaire, Peter Mwesige, David Sseppuuya, Andrew Mwenda, William Pike, Teddy Cheeye, Richard Kavuma, Kalungi Kabuye, Felix Osike, Carol Kasujja (undercover reporter) Patrick Luganda, Esther Nakkazi, Michael Wakabi, John Nagenda, Paul Busharizi, Lilian Nsubuga and also Ken Opala, a Kenyan journalist. Kavuma told a story on MDGs by connecting various actors. It is a powerful way of reporting.
I also get inspiration from reading good stories in New Vision, Monitor, East African, the Standard and The Observer, Time, Newsweek, Economist and a number of blogs.
I take assignments and I do them very seriously even if it is a simple story. I do multi-sourcing even for the smallest story. If an editor does not run my story the first time, I take it as an opportunity to make it even more interesting, adding more information and then re-submitting it.
Do you consider the CNN award story your best story?
No it wasn’t. I believe I have done others in a bigger way. For example the Mabira [Forest] stories. The fact that the forest wasn’t cut down tells you how powerful environment journalists can be. We spent days in Mabira experiencing and observing what was happening. We wrote eight pages of stories in the paper. We got positive feedback from different people.
Why do you think we don't have many journalists who are as passionate as you?
Young people want everything to happen fast. They work for a few months or a year and then move on because they want to buy a car or a house. They lack concentration. As a journalist, you have to subscribe to the principles of good journalism.
I see reporters lining up to get money from Ugandan Wildlife Authority. Whatever product they write after that is slanted. The issue of you receiving money will keep coming up. If you take the Shs10,000 more than 20 times, that is 200,000 and it becomes a bribe.
If they are not my paymaster, I can write my story objectively. They know I am a good journalist because I have set my standards.
Media houses are also not modelling young people into strong journalists. For example if there is a story in Masaka, due to resources, journalists will do the story on phone instead of going there. People continue to write stories only from Kampala. They go for the easy kill because of story count. If you are required to write 30 stories per month, they will have no context. Many journalists do not bother to investigate and make the story bigger.
There also editors who do not appreciate the beat. They would rather have a story on parliament instead of an investigative story about the environment.
What tips do you have for young reporters who are looking up to you?
They should be good listeners, open minded and willing to learn. They should persist. This is not an easy beat so you have to keep working hard.
They should learn to treat workshops as learning events and not just places to get one story. No one is going to tell you what environmental journalism is all about; it is a continuous process of learning. Also, use the internet effectively and learn.
I see people abandoning reports in the newsroom after doing one story. I get them, read and do stories out of them. Get five stories wherever you go. For example if you go to cover a story on Gorillas, don’t stop there, look around and find more stories. If you do well-researched stories, the editors will [place] more confidence in you.
They should also not touch brown envelopes. If you are covering a story upcountry that is facilitated by an organisation, inform the editor.
How do you navigate the usual challenges that many reporters lament about, claiming they stand in the way of them doing good solid journalism?
Achievements come to people who put in a lot of work. If Tenywa has done it, why can’t any other person do it?
Today, it is easier to get information for a story unlike 10 or 20 years ago. You could write a letter to Kilembe Mines, which would get there days later or even weeks then wait for a reply which also would take too long. All you have to do today is text or call to get information.
Awards, however, do not come to those that sit on a desk. You need to move.
When you have just started, it is hard to cultivate sources but if you are a good journalist, they will start contacting you. It is about making yourself relevant and things will fall in place. Keep your expectations modest and keep your feet on the ground.
What big story should we expect from you in the coming weeks/months?
We have a very big lake from which we get water, fish and transport goods. We are killing the lake through many activities. I have written many stories about it but there hasn’t been much impact due to powerful people behind the degraders. I am looking at a way to write them differently because I want people to realise what is at stake.
I also want to write about issues to do with oil. The environment story on oil is at the moment not so obvious. We are going to see a lot of changes in the oil rich areas in a few years to come. I also want to look at the draft laws critically.
Anything else you would like to add?
I know the responsibility in my hands is even bigger. How I wish there were more people I could work with and make the environment an issue at The New Vision, Daily Monitor, The East African, on TV and Radio.