Why Didn’t I Know this Africa?
What Canadian newspapers too often don’t show you
In the 1970s, there was Idi Amin. The vicious dictator made big news in the West with his brutal murders, rapes and torture of Ugandan citizens. Amin was ousted in 1979 and a few years of further instability ensued. In 1986, the current president, Yoweri Museveni, took over. The Globe and Mail praised him for being part of a new generation of African leaders after decades of big-man rule. Coverage suggested a blip of hope for legitimate democracy.
Then AIDS hit in the late 1980s. More instability. More death. Coverage waned; the six-year-old Globe bureau closed and we heard a lot from the wires throughout the 1990s. What did we learn? Hundreds died in tribal clashes, Asians exiled under Amin returned to the country, a religious cult convinced hundreds to commit suicide, Bono swooped in and promised to fix everything. The Globe’s Africa bureau reopened in 2003 and Canadians got more in-depth news from Uganda. We learned a lot about Joseph Kony’s army of rebels waging a civil war in the north, abducting children and putting them to work as killers or sex slaves. We learned a lot about AIDS. Uganda was praised for decreasing incidence. We also learned about anti-gay laws, a Canadian-funded clean water project and, well, more Kony and more AIDS.
This image of Uganda, indeed most of Africa, is familiar to Canadians who haven’t been there. It’s characterized by war, disease, poverty and political instability. It was what I expected to find when I went to work as a reporter in Uganda last summer. But I saw a whole other side of the country, one that was—and still mostly is—left out of the coverage. The Uganda I saw is more dynamic, cosmopolitan and modern than our papers suggest. Cellphones are everywhere (people use them to read newspapers online and trade commodities), nearly half of the country’s university students are women and every evening the bars are packed with people complaining about the president’s latest antics. The place is vibrant and alive.
Nowhere was this vibrancy more apparent than at the country’s oldest university, Makerere, founded in 1922, which I was assigned to cover for Uganda’s Daily Monitor. The campus was teeming with smartly dressed students sitting in the hot Ugandan sun, drinking tea and chatting about the 2011 national elections, university politics or Obama’s recent visit to Ghana. Many asked me informed questions about Canada (most knew more about the Prairies than I), the result of an education system still half-rooted in British colonialism.
The first story I came across on campus was about a campaign to fund innovative research projects that supported business plans to market tofu in stores, turn garbage into bricks for household cooking and use paper waste to make gift wrap. For another assignment, I met a young man who led a campaign to empower women to fight against sexual harassment on campus. There was also Venansius Baryamureeba, now the university’s vice chancellor, who has amassed a handful of international awards for grooming the university’s computer science department into one of the best in the country. And there was Sylvia Tamale, the outspoken law professor who very publicly opposes anti-gay legislation in Uganda.
There was so much more than absolute poverty, desperation, disease and violence. Uganda is more layered and sophisticated than that. Why didn’t I know this?
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Since the 1980s, COVERAGE of Africa in Canadian newspapers has been event-driven; we usually hear about it only when a major war, outbreak of disease or famine occurs. “There’s nothing good from Cape Town to Cairo,” says Jim Travers, one-time correspondent for the now-defunct Southam News, who compares coverage to a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
But bad news sells newspapers. And there’s a lot of sensational bad news coming out of Africa. It also comes down to resources. Foreign bureaus are expensive to run—a former Globe foreign editor estimates a $300,000-a-year price tag in the case of Africa—and today, more than ever, it’s harder for papers to justify shelling out the money to have a permanent Africa correspondent when they’re laying off journalists at home.
In fact, The Globe and Mail is the only Canadian newspaper with a reporter permanently stationed in Africa. Geoffrey York, like his predecessors over the past 26 years—Michael Valpy, Oakland Ross and Stephanie Nolen, all award-winning journalists—is an exceptional reporter. And like his predecessors, he’s been handed an impossible task. Nearly one billion people. Forty-eight countries—all of sub-Saharan Africa—to cover. Each with a unique set of rulers, history and economy.
So the Globe offers readers what it can: snapshots. Overall coverage provides little depth or nuance and almost no continuity. In the last decade, some western African countries have been glossed over almost completely (only three pieces written from Gambia, seven from Cameroon, and 13 from Togo). We don’t hear much about progress or Africans bettering their lives. We don’t get much analysis of why Africa is home to so much tragedy. We learn little about whether foreign aid is spent effectively. And we’re oblivious to the everyday realities. We’ve come a long way from racist depictions of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but we’re still not getting the full picture.
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Over the phone from his home in Toronto, Stephen Lewis, former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and co-director of AIDS-Free World, tells me why Canadians should care about Africa. “Common decency requires some feeling, generosity of spirit toward people in other parts of the world who are struggling,” he says, letting out a long sigh. He sounds exasperated, as anyone who has spent the last decade convincing Canadians to pay attention to Africa would.
Globe foreign editor Stephen Northfield offers a different response to the question of why Canadians should care about Africa: “9/11.” Places like Somalia and Nigeria are breeding grounds for terrorism and that’s why we should pay attention, he argues. There’s also the question of money. Investors, many from China, are looking to Africa, rich in natural and human resources and potentially a big player in the global economy. “Africa is going to be a very important continent when it gets itself together,” says Jonathan Manthorpe, who spent several years in Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s for Southam News.And then there are all those Africans living in Canada—over 400,000, according to the latest census. Today, knowing about Africa means knowing about your neighbours.
All of this is true, but readers should also care simply because it’s a compelling place. “Newspapers have always taken pride in being able to bring news from distant places to people for whom it is news, it’s previously unknown and perhaps misunderstood,” says the Globe’s former foreign editor, John Gray. That is, after all, what journalists are supposed to do.
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The number of Canadian correspondents feeding our papers with news from Africa wasn’t always so low, but it’s been waning since the early 1990s. After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1993, most correspondents turned their recorders off, stuffed their notebooks in their suitcases and returned to Canada. The Globe closed its bureau in 1990, the Toronto Star in 1995 and the National Post in 2001. Southam News had a string of Africa correspondents from the 1960s to the 1990s, but also closed its bureau in 1995 after the end of apartheid. Colin MacKenzie, the Star’s current foreign editor (who spent the bulk of his career at the Globe before joining the Star last fall), believes it was only natural. “We’re magpies, right?” he says with a slight smirk. “We look for the bright shiny thing and if a bureau is not producing a bright shiny thing, you are inclined to open a bureau where there are bright shiny things.”
In the 1980s, apartheid was that bright shiny thing. “There was an enormous appetite for what was going on in South Africa at the time,” says Valpy, who established an Africa bureau in Harare in 1984 (there hadn’t been a Globe bureau there since 1968, when the Nairobi-based correspondent is rumoured to have lost it in a poker game). When he and then later Ross were stationed in Africa, that appetite was fed more frequently in the newspaper than it is today—sometimes every day. After the bureau closed in 1990, stories from the continent were supplied by the wires and short-term correspondents until it was reopened in 2003. The flow of news from Africa has slowed since Valpy and Ross’s time, though stories today are on average longer and more thoroughly reported. It comes down to economics, according to Valpy. “I mean, we’ve got less space in the front section and we’ve still got the same number of writers, all of whom desperately want to be in that paper,” he says. “We fight to get in the paper.”
For Stephanie Nolen, though, the bigger fight was about getting herself to Africa. In 2003, she argued her case for reopening the Africa bureau to the newspaper’s then editor-in-chief, Edward Greenspon. She wanted the paper to run more stories with a focus on AIDS and said she should be the one to go to the continent to write those stories. Initially, Greenspon didn’t think readers would care, and suggested they were sick of predictable coverage that made them feel guilty about the suffering of Africans. But Nolen was passionate and persistent, and Greenspon sent her there for a trial run. She returned with two stories, a profile of Stephen Lewis and an account of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which Greenspon calls “extraordinary pieces of journalism.” His apprehension dissipated and the Globe reopened the doors of its Africa bureau for the first time in 13 years.
Nolen, now in India, earned three National Newspaper Awards for her Africa work and endless praise from journalists and Africa experts. “She’s very, very good at conveying a sense of Africa and Africans and capturing people and places,” her successor, York, notes. “She had a real sense of passion for what she wrote, which came through in the writing.” Lewis agrees. “She takes issues of great complexity and renders them simply and compellingly—in the years that Stephanie was in Africa there was no journalist writing for any paper that even came close to her. There just wasn’t.” Nolen put Africa on the map for Canadian readers who didn’t know or didn’t care about the continent before treating themselves to one of her small masterpieces. The subjects and places she wrote about came alive. Her work blended hard news with human stories, and readers were deeply moved by these riveting narratives.
One of Nolen’s earliest stories from Africa, about the civil war in northern Uganda—one of the pieces that persuaded Greenspon to reopen the bureau—showcases her skill. Her opening alone is magnificent: “Molly was 15 when the rebels took her as a fighter and sex slave. ‘After one month,’ she says, ‘you feel like killing.’ One day, she sliced a woman open. In Acholiland, there’s a Molly in every family.” As she does in most of her work, Nolen sketched a gripping scene for readers, making it difficult to dismiss as merely another dismal Africa story. Still, while beautifully written, the piece leans on sensational stereotypes of Africa as a place of savage brutality—using the term ‘sex slave’ supports the notion that Africans are submissive and oversexed. Also, with no supporting stats, it’s hard to know for sure that every family in the north has had a daughter kidnapped and forced into sexual submission.
Nolen faced the same problem as York, in that she was alone on a continent with millions of stories to be told. But she did her best to convey a side of Africa that most Canadians likely didn’t know existed. As she prepared to leave the bureau in December 2008, she wrote a farewell story in the Globe: “I started this job well aware of the preponderance of negative coverage of Africa in the Western media. So I was determined to tell the good news, as often as I could, even if famines and mass rape did demand my frequent attention.” She admits she didn’t always succeed. “In my bleaker moments, I was doing what I often chided others for—seeing Africa as an unchanging disaster and not realizing that between this coup or that rebel insurgency, change was happening—sometimes almost imperceptibly slowly, but definitely, defiantly happening.”
One place that Nolen insisted on showing us change was Uganda. She told us about a young girl abducted by rebels in the north, only to escape and start a support group for others like her; a rural community that had been transformed by a successful vanilla-growing project funded by Canadians; strides that Uganda had made slashing AIDS incidence in the country (even though some have attributed plummeting numbers to high deaths from the virus). But despite her best efforts, the bad news was so gripping and constant that a reader could still have a tarnished image of Uganda as a place characterized predominantly by civil war, AIDS and helplessness.
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Today, most papers rely on wire services for news from Africa, one benefit of which is that they have more than one correspondent on the continent. On the other hand, they don’t give any one paper a competitive edge. “You get a richer menu, although everyone subscribes to the wires,” says the Star’s MacKenzie. And news from the wires is generic, often lacking depth and analysis. Manthorpe thinks so too. “Africa becomes a series of headlines,” he says, the result of shallow coverage. For Gray, who became the Globe’s foreign editor in 1985, a year after Michael Valpy reopened the Africa bureau, the problem with wire stories is that they aren’t tailored to Globe readers. “Their audience is too broad and ill defined,” he says.
Stories with a Canadian angle are what give the Globe an edge at a time when audiences can easily go online to get Africa news from other sources, like The New York Times, which has five correspondents on the continent. But focusing too narrowly on the Canadian connection can also be a detriment if the stories aren’t particularly newsworthy and it means missing out on more relevant news. Northfield is conscious of this. He doesn’t want to “turn every international story into a parochial Canadian story,” but still thinks the Canadian angle can’t be ignored. For some, Africa stories with a Canadian angle are tiresome and not very informative. “I’m not sure in the end if that approach is a great service to the readers,” Manthorpe says.
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It was late winter 2008 in China when Geoffrey York’s foreign editor, Northfield, asked him if he would be interested in taking over the Africa bureau. He didn’t hesitate to say yes. York had wanted to work in Africa since reporting from Somalia in 1992, and calls it “one of the most fascinating parts of the world.” Nonetheless, he admits, “When Stephanie left, it was a big pair of shoes to fill.”
It’s hard not to compare the two. Nolen’s Africa coverage is rife with emotion, whereas York’s work is less literary, and doesn’t usually have the same emotional punch. Nolen hitched rides with AIDS-infected truck drivers and attended the funerals of people she wrote about, while York is more distanced and analytical in his approach. But every so often, he does something like stand in line at polling stations to interview voters, giving readers a sense of political conversations on the ground. Valpy says that while York’s writing is missing some of the “pizzazz of Stephanie,” his work is solid, authoritative and thoroughly reported. “It’s almost like the word of God.”
Godly or not, York is doing a fine job informing us about Africa. As of February, he’d visited 14 countries and written over 100 articles since moving to Johannesburg in December 2008, ranging from national elections in South Africa and China’s burgeoning economic influence on the continent, as well as a series on Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were kidnapped in Niger in 2009 and held for four months. Like his predecessors, much of his work is focused on crises—common to all foreign beats. “It’s a professional tendency that journalists have in any part of the world to cover conflict and tragedy,” he says in his commanding baritone voice.
York can only do so much. As he tells me via e-mail from his base in Johannesburg, “with 48 countries to cover, it’s always complicated to choose.” He says he tries to report on major social issues (food security, AIDS and the environment) and key leaders (Meles Zenawi, Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma) and does his best to report from different regions of the continent too. He also recognizes the importance of providing readers with a broader sense of Africa, though he admits it’s “a small fraction” of what he can do. “To the extent that you can, it’s nice to get a more rounded view of the beat that you’re covering,” York says, “to give our readers a sense that life is not all doom and gloom in the rest of the world.”
York’s doing his best. He’s written about a Canadian wine producer in South Africa, one of the only women in a male-dominated industry. He’s also contributed to Sports, Report on Business and Review, writing about the lead-up to the World Cup in Jo’burg, waning investments in Madagascar and Hollywood’s fairy-tale portrayal of post-apartheid South Africa, as a way of reminding readers there’s more to life in Africa than war and AIDS. He often uses his blog, Africa Diary, to convey some of the day-to-day realities that don’t make it into the paper. “There are so many gloomy stories about Africa, from the wars of Somalia to the cholera of Zimbabwe and the chaos of Congo, that it’s important to remember how much progress has been achieved by many African countries in recent years,” he wrote last June. “This is not a continent of hopelessness and despair, even though many people like to portray it that way. Disasters and coups always make the headlines, but there has been remarkable progress on many fronts during the past decade.”
Progress, for example, in Botswana, which in the last 35 years has experienced the highest per capita economic growth of any developing country in the world (we rarely read about it in the Globe). Or progress in Ghana, where school enrolment has swelled, infant mortality has dropped and democracy, though still fragile, has stabilized after two consecutive peaceful elections (this news did make it into the Globe, and York admits there’s a lot more progress to be made in Ghana).
York is an old hand who has been at the Globe since 1981, when he was hired as an intern fresh out university. That’s when he first met Ann Rauhala, a copy editor at the time, who later went on to be foreign editor. “I think I was under the impression that I was going to give him a hard time,” she remembers of a story critique, to which he responded “eloquently and succinctly and in powerful declarative sentences.” Rauhala expected him to be “one of these neurotic, ambitious, robotic kind of guys,” but he proved her wrong. “He established right away that he was not somebody to be trifled with, that he was really serious about his work.” They later became friends, and Rauhala discovered York’s dry sense of humour and love of old rhythm and blues. York’s passion for music earned him the nickname “King of Funk,” which Rauhala laughs about today. “It just seemed riotously funny to call this very tall, very pale, very baby-faced young man from the Ottawa Valley the King of Funk.”
Most agree York is doing a great job as the country’s only newspaper correspondent in Africa. He’s a relentless reporter, and refuses to back down when faced with stubborn officials. In October, he travelled to Ethiopia to write about the country’s most recent famine and the government’s tight grip on power. The government, which is downplaying the number of citizens dying of cholera, refused him access. York went anyway.
The article he wrote impressed members of the Ethiopian community in Canada. “It reflected the stories I hear at coffee shops, at Ethiopian restaurants,” says Samuel Getachew, an Ethiopian-Canadian who works for the Government of Ontario and contributes to the Ethiopian newspaper in Toronto, TZTA. “Whenever I go there that’s the story I see, that is a reflection of the majority of Toronto Ethiopian’s opinions,” he adds.
But York’s story about Ethiopia shows the general state of the Globe’s Africa coverage: spotty, sporadic and inconsistent. An exceptional piece of journalism, but one of the only glimpses of the country we get. Getachew recognizes that many stories are missed with only one reporter on the continent. The story, for instance, about Ethiopian-Canadians returning home with money they’ve made abroad to fuel development projects in their country. “Those people are having a large impact in Ethiopia,” he says. But we don’t hear about this in the Globe. Instead, we are left with the same impression of Ethiopia we first got 25 years ago when CBC reporter Brian Stewart showed us haunting images of thousands starving to death. The solution, Getachew suggests, is more reporters—including more African-Canadian reporters—an option that is simply not in the Globe’s budget, Northfield confirms.
Uganda, one country that York had not yet visited as of early spring, receives the same brief treatment. We haven’t seen in-depth coverage from Uganda since Nolen wrote a series of stories between 2005 and 2008 about the civil war in the north. York wrote about a controversy dividing Commonwealth leaders at a summit in November 2009: President Yoweri Museveni supported a proposed bill to make homosexuality punishable with life imprisonment, which inflamed some attendees. The article gave us a glimpse into the frightening homophobia of some Ugandans, an attitude that has bled into national politics. We’re left with a pared-down impression: the government hates gays. Period. But what about tireless gay activists like Nikki Mawanda, who wake up every day, risk their lives getting into public taxis and fight for their freedom? What about the liberal-minded (and heterosexual) Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo, who speaks publicly in defence of Ugandan gays and lesbians? These perspectives complicate the picture, showing us that some Ugandans are trying to effect change.
Ugandan-Canadian journalist and elementary school principal Opiyo Oloya, who lives in Newmarket, Ontario, and writes a weekly column for a Ugandan national paper, The New Vision, says the lack of nuanced coverage solidifies clichés about Africa. “It is crisis coverage rather than a consistent coverage of what else is going on,” he says. “The alternative point of view needs to be available to break the stereotype.” We’re missing a sense of what happens in between these crises. The Globe doesn’t give us much about post-genocide Rwanda, he notes, we read little about Africa’s first female president—Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—and we’ve heard almost nothing about Sierra Leone after a decade-long civil war that ended in 2002.
What he’d like to read more about from his own country is how western donors continue to pump money into Uganda, despite crippling corruption. “There is a silence on the systemic corruption that has wracked Uganda for so long,” he tells me. The president has been let off the hook, “almost scot-free” he says, because our papers have written nothing about it. “If we don’t provide another perspective every so often, what you are left with is a really narrow view of what Uganda is all about,” Oloya says. Based on coverage of Uganda over the last decade, the narrow view we’ve been given is that there is a vicious war in the north and homosexuality is illegal. In the period when Nolen was feeding us news about the civil war, the Globe glossed over the Ugandan national elections in 2006 and ignored the discovery of oil in the same year. Like Getachew, Oloya believes the only solution is more correspondents. But, he says, “They don’t have the resources, so we will have to rely on the little windows that are provided by people like York and Nolen.”
The downside of snapshot reporting isn’t lost on Northfield. “In the rush and anxiety to cover political developments, I worry that there’s another side of Africa that we’ve missed,” he says. “There’s joy and humour and humanity everywhere, so at some point along the way we want to take a deep breath and write those stories as well.”
Another story that deserves more thorough coverage in the Globe is the role of foreign aid. In recent years, some in the development community have questioned, and even rejected, the usefulness of aid. At the Munk Debates in Toronto last year, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo took Stephen Lewis to task over the ineffectiveness of foreign aid. Moyo said aid should be cut off completely, blaming the flawed foreign-aid model for corruption, inflation, debt burden, the death of the export sector and a culture of dependency. Lewis insists the answer is to ensure money reaches people at the grassroots, not to completely “expunge it from the balance sheet.”
It’s an important story for Globe readers. The Canadian government has pumped billions of dollars into Africa in the past decade; in 2007 and 2008 alone, $1.73 billion was spent on development projects. Moyo wrote an entire book on foreign aid, Dead Aid. Lewis has dedicated much of his career to ensuring international aid is spent wisely in Africa. It’s a complex issue that can’t be captured in one or two brief articles and blog postings. In general, the paper praises Canadian development projects and fails to give us much critical analysis.
York disagreed with the work of Moyo and others who dismiss the efficiency of aid in one article. “Canada’s aid often works very well, making a crucial difference in the lives of the poor,” he wrote last May, citing the example of a Canadian-funded water sanitizing project in Malawi. “Before the Canadians arrived a few years ago, the maize and banana farmers of Njale took their water from a dirty stream below their village.” A week later, York delved deeper on his blog, telling us aid could be spent more effectively. However, the Malawi story is the only time York has written about the grassroots effectiveness of Canadian aid in Africa, despite the huge sums of money spent there every year.
Africans in Canada have a unique and valuable perspective on what coverage of Africa should look like: Oloya would like to see regular updates about Canadian-funded projects in Africa, offering a better understanding of the flaws (and successes) of development work. Zimbabwean-Canadian journalist Innocent Madawo thinks current coverage encourages us to donate, but doesn’t tell us enough about the flaws of international aid. Madawo, who fled his country as a political refugee in 2001 and now lives in Toronto, says stories that encourage aid instead of investment convey a pitiful image of Africa that fuels a culture of dependency. “When you highlight the political strife, the disease, you are appealing to me and you to donate.”
Madawo, too, would like to see more in-depth coverage in the Globe. “If you tell me that there is a problem in Zimbabwe today and you don’t tell me tomorrow how that problem has been solved,” he says, his calm demeanour giving way to agitation, “all you are achieving is showing me the problems in Africa as they sprout up from various areas. You are not taking time to give me the solutions so that I also have a rounded view.”
Madawo is right, and his line of thinking applies to coverage of the entire continent. We never learn about the everyday complexities of Senegal, Rwanda or Uganda. We don’t learn about the vibrant political debate that keeps Ugandans awake late into the night sipping local beer, whether in raucous Kampala or the sleepy countryside. We don’t hear about refugees in the country making sanitary pads out of local papyrus reed. We don’t hear about the burgeoning popular music culture.
That’s what I found when I went to Uganda. Certainly, there was poverty and illness, but it’s not what I noticed first and it’s not what defined the place and the people. What was perhaps most remarkable about Kampala was how unremarkable it was. It was a society that functioned like most others I know. Even in the countryside, where poverty is most pronounced, people simply get up, feed their families and get to work—selling bananas or chicken on the side of the road. When I told people this after arriving back in Canada, I sensed their disappointment. It was as if they wanted to hear how exotic and different it was, but in many ways, that simply isn’t true.
As a reporter, I, too, was drawn to stories about what was going wrong in Uganda. But I tried not to ignore the people I met trying to make things better. That is what struck me about Uganda: the resilience, tenacity and intelligence of so many politicians, refugees, lawyers, farmers and young students.
One sweaty August afternoon on Makerere University’s historic campus, where thousands have come to learn over the past 88 years, I packed into a sun-soaked auditorium with dozens of people. We were there to hear a debate between two renowned Ugandan intellectuals, Mahmood Mamdani and Dismas Nkunda, co-director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, on how to rebuild Darfur. After the discussion, audience members got up to ask questions or challenge the speakers. “We need a system to satisfy victims. What about people who have experienced suffering?” charged one young man, confronting Mamdani’s assertion that jailing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for his war crimes merely perpetuates violence. Most who spoke were well informed about the politics surrounding Darfur and the debate about whether to jail al-Bashir. These were not the illiterate, helpless and impoverished Africans I so often read about in the pages of theGlobe. They were engaged, bright and analytical. I left the auditorium and hopped on the back of a boda boda, one of the motorbikes that weave through traffic on Kampala’s congested red dirt roads, to go back to the office to file the story.
I learned a lot about Darfur that afternoon, but even more about a side of Uganda I didn’t know existed; it gave me a complex picture, not just a snapshot. I want to learn more about this side of Africa in The Globe and Mail. And I want other Canadians to know, too.
Jenny Vaughan was the Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.