How I did it: Gerald Tenywa on reporting on Uganda’s water thirsty cities

How I did it is an ACME series where journalists who have done compelling stories talk about how they executed the job. The interview has been condensed for space and clarity. Listen to the full version on the ACME Talks podcast.

Welcome, Gerald, tell us about yourself professionally.

My name is Gerald Tenywa, an environment reporter for the past 20 years. I hold a bachelor’s degree in forestry, a post-graduate diploma in environmental journalism and communication, and another in media and land rights. I have had a passion for the environment since my school days.

What was the spark that got you to the environment beat?

There was an environment reporter [in the I990s] at New Vision named Ndyakira Amooti. He did ground-breaking stories on trafficking of chimpanzees, [degradation] of forests, and wetlands. I was a student and I used to read his stories. I was also contributing to the newspaper while at the university. Sometimes I would give him tips. Then he would demand: I want this story; you write it the way you are telling it to me. So, in a way I got inspired. When Ndyakira passed on [in 1999], the people who knew me encouraged me to take up from him. In 2001 I started working as a freelancer, and in 2004 I became a staff reporter.

Talk to us about the importance of specialisation in the newsroom. 

Specialisation is important because it allows you get in-depth knowledge about a given subject or particular institution you are reporting on. It enables deeper interpretation and investigation. Specialisation helps empower you to dig through different layers of the story. Of course, managing a newsroom is costly, and if you have one reporter dedicated to reporting about one thing it also costs a lot.  However, specialisation is a good thing and it should be encouraged — it builds good reporters.

Earlier this year, 2021, you did a two-part investigative report for Sunday Vision titled “Saving Uganda’s water thirsty cities” (March) and “Uganda’s toxic growth: Economy eating environment” (April). How did you do this powerful story? Where did the idea come from?

Many times, when I am doing a story, I don’t look at it as an end in itself. My best story is not the one I have written today; it’s the story I have not yet written. I keep on looking to the future to improve. In the past, I have been given reporting grants by ACME and would somehow delay producing the stories. Last year, I resolved to change. Part of that entails that I plan what I should report on in a year, given quarter and build a story ideas bank. This story about water thirsty cities was in the bank. I had planned in terms of how to do it — the resources, the reports, the sources. What was left was the facilitation to go to the ground to get the active voices. 

Why I chose this story. I looked at several stories done over time. There was one in Mbarara we keep reporting on i.e. the dying of River Rwizi, but it’s kind of bits here and there. Beyond Mbarara, they are other areas that are running out of water — Mbale, Gulu, and Arua. Most of the stories about these areas have not been comprehensive enough to connect the real issues. Where the water for these cities is coming from, in the upstream/catchment areas, there are lots of problems. They have to do with how people use their land: cultivating anyhow, turning trees into charcoal. We don’t give much attention to these things yet in the long term, this is going to determine whether people in Mbale, Mbarara, Gulu, and Arua have water or not. Cities being the centre of development, the story helped me to say: look here we are planning for all these cities yet someday something small as water is going to derail things. Following the politicians’ focus creation of cities helped me tell this story in a different way. Good journalism is writing about the same story differently, hence the idea of saving Uganda’s cities as a way to tell the environment/water story. 

When one looks at the physical story in the paper, not the online version, it was a splash — the maps, the pictures, the sidebars. Good infographics to illustrate an important story. What level of collaboration is there when you are doing a project like this?

I work with the editors back and forth. But this can be challenging because editors in many cases want a good story but they don’t want good investment in terms of time or money. So, it’s a bit tricky at what point to let the editor know what you’re working on. The moment you announce that there’s a story like this, they want it in the next 2-3 days. So, you need to be good in terms of timing to bring in the editor. That said, when I was preparing, I engaged the people who do the graphics to understand what I was working on. I kept feeding them with information relating to figures which required visualisation or information that needed a bigger illustration to be understood quickly. I don’t only work with the editors. I work with my neighbours. When I am crafting the headlines, my intros, I let fellow reporters read through because I know if they can’t understand my headline or intro then many other people won’t either. I engage them to find out exactly if I am delivering. It’s important to work with editors and fellow reporters, but you need to engage them at the right time

It takes some level of confidence to allow your colleagues, especially if they are younger reporters, to look at your story drafts. Anyhow, what was the impact of this story?

I write these stories to cause change on the ground, but in many cases, it’s difficult to get feedback. The few people I engaged that read this story said it was well explained, focused on real people issues, and comprehensive because it tied together untold stories or stories told but in halves and quarters. For example, Rose Bwenvu is a disaster preparedness official in the Office of the Prime Minister. She said: “You write about these complex issues in a very simple way. When I read this story, it helped me to explain easily to colleagues [related disaster elements]. Whenever I see your stories, even if I don’t have time, I keep the paper aside knowing that there’s a story by Tenywa which I must read.” And fellow journalists applauded the piece. It was one of the stories of the month at New Vision. To some extent, I feel I got there, but feedback is always a challenge for me.

What did you learn, one or two things, from doing this water crisis story?

First, getting this grant and having a meeting where grantees and mentors reflect on the story ideas in the same room, as happened at ACME, was important. Sometimes you might be absorbed in these stories and you think you know it all, but you might be leaving out other crucial perspectives. Second, getting down to where things happen —going to the catchments of Rwizi, Manafwa, Oyitino Dam in Gulu, and then Arua and talking to people there — gives you this kind of rush that I must get this story out. Third, breaking down these concepts like ecosystem or precautionary principle and making them real. It’s important to listen to experts, but as a journalist, your role is to step down the language.


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Bernard Tabaire

Bernard Tabaire co-founder and Director of Programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence. He is a former managing editor for weekend editions at the Monitor Publications in Kampala and also a columnist with the Saturday Monitor.

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