AEJ deputy-secretary general JAMES CHAVULA, 36, won three awards at the 2020 MISA Malawi annual gala and the haul includes the Green Media Award sponsored by the European Union. We speak to him to appreciate his passion for environmental reporting as many Malawian journalists prefer politics.
Q: How do you feel winning the Green Media Award during this year's Media Institute of Southern Africa gala in Malawi?
A: I'm delighted, motivated and fired up to win some more. I won three awards this year, but this is the most important of them all because it comes in recognition of the reporting that I really love to do.
Q: Why is environmental journalism so important to you when all reporters are scrambling for political stories that dominate front pages in Malawi?
A: Politics is the heartbeat of our nationhood because that's where the big decisions that make or break our country, even environmental management, are made. I sometimes report politics as well, especially when politicians lie to the highly illiterate population and not exposing their lies they tell would make any silent person in the know complicit to their political untruths or half-truths. However, environmental reporting is more important and closer to my heart because the people we politic about do not exist in a vacuum. Their livelihoods depend on natural resources. We cannot do without the soil that supports our agricultural economy, the trees that refresh the air we breathe and cool our planet amid global warming, the water that keeps us alive and plays home to numerous living things, including fish. We need clean energy to run our industries, to cut emissions that fuel climate change, to keep children studying beyond sunset, to irrigate crops, provide water drylands, to save trees going up in smoke due to lack of sustainable fuel for cooking, to preserve vaccines, to provide cooling where it is needed and to ensure no baby is born in the dim glows of smoky candles and paraffin lamps. So, environmental reporting is the journalism I believe in, the reporting that focuses on everyday crises often taken for granted. I put a human face to these everyday realities and gaps to persuade people to give them a fresh thought, appreciate their gravity and start doing something about them or embrace solutions that work. In this reportage, this life is a relay race and the environment we live in is a button. We got it from our parents who played their part to conserve it and we have an inescapable duty to pass it intact to our children and many more generations to come. If we live like we are the last-borns of humanity and destroy everything we inherited for the best of our species and all creatures, nature will most likely hit back and our children will frown on our graves, saying: Here lies a reckless generation that didn't care about the well-being of its shared home, survival and offsprings. We have only one planet we call our home, workplace, playground and highway to the quality life we seek, including a future free from hunger, poverty and inequalities.
Q: So, what was the first environmental story you wrote?
A: Malawi's worst waste crisis. A human tragedy caused by an ill-placed dumpsite in Mchengautuwa Township in Mzuzu City. I was shocked that a city council, which is supposed to promote the health and well-being of everyone in its territory, was actually dumping all the waste from the entire city in the middle of the densely populated settlement named after white sand. That was in 2005. I was a second-year journalism student at the Polytechnic, desperate to find my way in this highly competitive industry. I used to spend the most time studying in a small public library in the city and I stumbled into a new newspaper called 'The Guardian' and decided it could be a good launchpad for the journalist that I have become. So I went back to Mchengautuwa, spoke to the locals living too close to the filthy mountain of waste which was emitting a foul smell only good for a battalion of green flies and producing thick, blackish flows into nearby streams where people without access to safe water were drawing bucketfuls for household use. During the visit, I discovered that as council trucks were constantly bringing refuse from the rest of the city, the burden of sanitation-related diseases was high in the settlement exposed to dehumanising waste dumping and these people were getting poorer due to off-pocket payments for hospital trips and stay. The area played home to low-income earners but they were virtually blowing their budgets for food and other basics on seeking treatment for sanitation-related diseases. So the city council had to answer a few questions, especially why a city so declared in the 1980s had no proper waste management plant. I am happy that the government has constructed a multipurpose waste management site at Msilo on the northern margins of the city with support from the European Union in partnership with Plan Malawi and other actors. That should mark the beginning of the end of the mess I saw in Mchengautuwa which my friend Charles Mhone calls home. Mzuzu city council needs to put this facility to good use. They need to invest more in mass awareness and behaviour change campaigns to ensure people ultilise this facility by reducing, sorting, reusing and recycling waste.
I won three awards this year, but this is the most important of them all because it comes in recognition of the journalism I really love to do.
Q: How common is this story in Malawi?
A: It’s quite familiar. Tragically, it has become a part of life and service provision by councils that are supposed to be exemplars of best practices in waste management and public hygiene. Save for Mzuzu, none of all 28 districts in Malawi has a proper waste management facility. The question that comes to mind is: Where does the waste from their fast-growing populations go? Surely in rivers, lakes, open grounds, crop fields, the air and mountains. If you are approaching a town in Malawi, the surest sign you sight is not a skyscraper or two, but a rising heap of waste dumped by the roadside in a marginalised area said to be out of town when it comes to services delivery. That's the tragedy of communities located on the border between rural and urban settings in Malawi. Any pit left by road constructors who pocketed man to reclaim the land but did not do their work becomes a dumpsite.
Q: So what was your winning story for the Green Media Award?
A: It’s about the soil we are standing on, especially how we are degrading it much to our own detriment. Soil is important in Malawi because ours is an agricultural economy. However, we are not doing enough to conserve it. At worst, we are depleting trees and topsoil as if they have no bearing on our livelihoods. Taking off from Chileka Airport, you get a bird’s view of vast farmlands deprived of trees and the bare lands stretch all the way to the Shire River, where 99% of Malawi's electricity is generated. Zoom in, you will see the crop fields losing fertile topsoil to murky rivers that are heavily silted, brownish, and drying as they crawl towards the Shire. Did you know that Malawi loses 29 tonnes of topsoil--a truckload--per hectare per year, but it takes over a century to replace the lost soils? This is why we are talking about falling crop harvests, endless blackouts, dwindling fish catches and global warming. Strangely, policymakers and development partners see these things every day from their lofty pert in the comfort of international flights. From my few air trips to international conferences on water, sustainable energy, climate change and human rights, I have endured enough torturous sights of environmental degradation which should convict us all. So, I said enough of this and I am going to talk to the people who make a living in those parched farmlands to appreciate what they are going through and what they are doing about it. During the visit to communities west of Blantyre City, I was startled to learn that as trees fall, food prices are taking to the skies. That's the thrust of the winning story, especially local efforts to reclaim the degraded farmlands and harvest more as soils race to the Shire on the way to the Indian Ocean.
Q: Wow! What prize did you get for this story?
A: A trophy from Misa Malawi and a mobile journalism kit from the European Union. The kit includes a modern phone, a stylish tripod-cum-selfie stick and a microphone muffler.
Q: How will that help you do your job better?
A: Journalism has given me the ease to interact with people of all manner, from presidents spelling out their agenda for national transformation to a rural farm digging pits in his field to trap elusive rainwater and harvest more as the climate is changing and soil degradation worsens. However, I value voices from the field more. The phone, which is a camera, a recorder and a newsroom in one piece, will help me capture untold stories from policymakers and rural populations.in their own words. It's so sleek and portable, so I can travel light and go far, making inroads into hard-to-reach areas likely to be left behind. So, this is a prize I can use.
Q: What motivates you as a journalist?
A: Equality, human rights and fair treatment of all. I love telling stories of hard-to-reach populations, giving a voice to the silenced, speaking to power and seeing change get underway where it wouldn't have occurred had I kept silent.
Q: Which journalist do you admire most?
A: Many, too many to count. They are all over the place in my newsroom and beyond, but I think Nicholas Magaga Msowoya has had the greatest impact on my approach and style. Now working with Tevet Authority, Magaga was always there with me when we spent our boyhood days and nights critiquing and writing news articles and fiction in a grass-thatched ‘White House’ in Chiputula township in Mzuzu. A stop in the shadow of Magaga is a buffet of words, news, analyses and freedom of thought. I like free-flowing writers, so I am looking forward to the day Magaga will write again and benefit the world in more ways than he gifted me along with his deceased brother, former MBC journalist Patrick Mzozodo Msowoya.
Q: What needs to change to improve environmental reporting in Malawi?
A: Journalists must look at lush graveyards that dot Malawi and remind themselves that the environment can do without us, but we cannot do without the environment we keep ransacking. They must not cease learning new skills and knowledge. The only thing that needs unlearning is the overreliance on events. We must cut back on reporting from conferences held in air-conditioned hotels and embrace our agenda-setting role by going out of the newsrooms to tell stories from the ground where people live and experience the environmental phenomena we always report. Armchair journalism must fall. Events should just sharpen our knowledge, but we need to get dirty to put human faces to the big words, theories and numbers that divorce environmental conversations from the people they complex discourse is meant to uplift. We need more women voices in our reporting. We cannot leave the majority of our population behind. They bear the brunt of environmental crises made worse by manmade problems, especially the rush for day-to-day profits at the expense of everything humans need to survive beyond our generation. Besides, we must always remember that we play a crucial role in educating and informing the nation, linking people with life-changing solutions they need and providing checks and balances. In the end, environmental reporting is journalism like any other: It is about people and we must always strive to do it well for the benefit of the people who look up to us for greater insights into everyday realities.
Q: What impact has the Association of Environmental Journalists in Malawi had in your life?
A: A huge impact, I can’t measure it. Most importantly, it has accorded me an opportunity to learn from the best in our beloved green journalism through training workshops, informal knowledge-sharing interaction with like-minded journalists and transformative partnerships with organisations in the country and beyond the borders. For example, a training AEJ conducted in partnership with HIVOS and ClimateTracker in 2017 solidified my interest in sustainable energy and climate change reporting, putting me at the centre of global conversations about clean cooking, sustainable energy for all and climate action. In 2018, I won the UN-OHRLLS Voices of a Brighter Future Award at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Portugal, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) reporting fellowship at the World Water Week, spoke at the 24th Conference of Parties to the UN climate change treaty in Poland and bagged the Best Water and Energy reporting awards in the AEJ Green Media Awards. Just last year, I spoke alongside ministers in Beijing during the UN conference on scaling up investment in energy for all and also got UNDP Malawi funding to attend COP25 in Madrid, Spain. It's been an enlightening journey and I am grateful for this and more.
Q: Where are you going next?
A: Nowhere. We have to stay home to stop the spread of Covid-19, which has shown us that a disease outbreak in any part of the world should be handled as a global emergency because it can spread at the speed we are travelling. Covid-19 outbreak beyond China has beaten jet speed. Who knew it would get here? So we have a shared responsibility to keep the virus in check before it overwhelms the global healthcare network. I hope it will end soon so we can revert to the human-friendly normal, not the new normal. By the way, the Green Media Award prizes included a reporting trip to COP26 which was supposed to be held in Glasgow, UK, in December 2020 but has been postponed to November 2021. I hope the offer from the European Union will still be available when Glasgow happens. For now, we have Covid-19 to overcome for the good of our planet which is getting warmer and more populated as the focus shifts from strengthening environmental sustainability to saving humanity from the pandemic, the enemy in our hands.