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This March 22 is World Water Day, reminding us of the 1 billion people on Earth who lack easy access to the water most of us take for granted. This week, our first ever piece to broadcast on TV, CLP’s “Water Wars,” will air on PBS’ Foreign Exchange. It was a really profound experience work on this project and to discover how global climate change is leading to increasing drought and drying wells, threatening an ancient way of life and fueling conflict. Check it out on PBS’s Foreign Exchange all week; and on the CLP Web site and YouTube any time.

Also, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and 1H20.org is featuring a series of other multimedia stories by the Common Language Project group. For more details, check out CLPmag.org.

Cheers to the release of all these new stories, and Happy Easter!

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Ernest Waititu with traveling companion and Salihu SultanBy Ernest Waititu

When our four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux vroomed off the town of Negele I knew I was in for a giant adventure. Well, I must quickly clarify that I was not here for adventure; Negele is of course not one of those places you go site-seeing. I was here to work, following stories on water scarcity and how it had impacted the people of Southern Ethiopia.

But work or no work, I had to steal some moments and have some fun. For how could I close my eyes, ears and soul to the beauty of Africa? How could I possibly not be moved by the expansive fields and the distant hills of Negele, which carried me back to my childhood as I took care of my family’s cattle in the plains of Kieni in Kenya? While drier, this part of Ethiopia had more similarities with Kieni – the place where I grew up — than any other place I had been.

I was compelled by this alikeness to take a psychological journey back to my boyhood. In the small, bare-footed, parched-faced boys who were following dozens of their cattle, I revisited my childhood. I saw myself in every one of these boys. My eyes opened up to the wild, to the large birds I had trapped for food, to the deer I had hunted with my dog Simba and to the joy of carrying loads of wild meat in the evening when I accompanied my family’s cattle home for milking.

These experiences had brought me to a dreamy sense of being and completely banished from me the troubles of the journey — the bumpy and rugged roads that had completely exhausted us on our first day of travel and made our 600 km journey from Addis Ababa to Negele a 24-hour nightmare.The Road to Hudet

I was jolted from my reverie by a round burst underneath the car. The devil himself had visited terror on us again. By this time, the fifth time we had heard this sound, it was unmistakable — we had another flat tire to fix. But the most depressing thing about this experience was not changing the tire but the fact that we had exhausted all the spare tires we had. When we had left Negele we had decided to take a risk, bringing one spare tire and hoping the road would be better. Until this time, 150 km into the trip, it had worked okay.

But now there was no chance of finding a tire. The Red Cross chief of the Borena zone who had hosted us for the tour, Salihu Sultan, observed that we were now deep into the lion country and that the tire-changing exercise had better be done fast.

Curdled Milk

Ernest helps to change the tire.We quickly and nervously changed the tire and hopped back into the car. A few miles down the road we came to a small town called Hudet — a village of mud-walled houses lined in each side of the street where our host unsuccessfully sought ways and means of getting a new spare tire. While we could not secure a tire from here, we were able to get some food: a piece of the delicious Ethiopia bread, a cup of tea and glass of curdled milk made the Borena way.

Having eaten, we were ready to get started again. Immediately after hitting the road, a lump tightened in my stomach perhaps as a result of the fear of losing another tire and spending the night in the bush. Judging from the past day, we needed nothing short of divine intervention to protect all the four tires from the jagged rocks that dotted the road.

And still, the lump in my stomach tightened. I am usually not given to premonitions but something deep down in my tummy felt terribly amiss. But still I hung on to hope, we had covered more than 200 kilometers. We had less than 40 to go. We could do it. We surely could.

When it came, the bursting of the tire sounded just like the previous five: a loud puff and then a stream of gushing air. In unison, as if premeditated, we all muttered a muffled gasp of despair and rolled out of the car.

Some silence followed, and then rather foolishly I decided to enquire about the status of the lions to from a Borena man we had picked and given a ride from Hudet – our last town. The man, having grown up in the area and being well versed with the terrain was the best person to consult on such matters. The lion was not exactly here, he said matter of factly, but it would be found a little further, perhaps a kilometer or so up the road. Good Heavens, I have never been more scared in my life!

The Fire

Some more silence, and then a refreshing thought came to my mind. “How about making some fire?” I asked. The Borena man made a quick cracking fire from the dry woods that littered the bush nearby. While growing up, I had been taught that fire was a good way to scare away wild animals. I hoped to myself that the wisdom of my people would ring true even here in the bush of Ethiopia.Ernest Waititu with traveling companion and Salihu Sultan

The fire was a good idea but in our tiredness we soon got fed up with it, and some of my colleagues retired to sleep in the car. We were right in the middle of the bush – more than 30 kilometers each side to the nearest town. There was no way anyone was going to walk to seek help. Our one hope, Salihu told us, was a vehicle coming from the direction we had come, which could help us ferry the tire to Arero for repair. In Arero, we could get a Red Cross ambulance to ferry the tire back to where we had been trapped. For a long time we kept looking up the bushes for signs of beams of light from an oncoming car.

Presently, our Borena friend being more in tune with the bush way of life started clearing up a spot on the ground and conveniently retired for the night. Unlike me, he was a seasoned bush traveler who had chosen to be more practical in the face of the current realities.

In the back of my mind the thought of the lion showing up when I slept would not leave. In a split of a second, I thought the whole attack through, even picturing what the headlines in the Kenyan newspapers would say: Kenyan Reporter Killed in Ethiopian Bush, or even better: Kenyan Journalist Mauled by Lion.

Buffalion Dream

We looked for ways to get ourselves comfortable in the bed of the truck, foregoing the security of the enclosed cab, which came along with tremendous discomfort. At this time, after having slept a maximum of three hours the previous night and after being out in a turbulent car most of the day, not even the fear of the lion could stop me from falling asleep. I was tired. Soon after getting at the back of the open truck, I fell fast asleep.

And then, the buffalo came. It looked more like a lion than a buffalo: mid-sized, brownish and aggressive. Alex and I jumped of the back of the car and broke twigs from the dry branches as we desperately tried to repulse the buffalion. It was such a scary task, we had to do it to survive. Our desperate and frantic attacks from both ends seemed to bear fruit momentarily. With his long swinging hands, Alex was doing a better job of attacking the monster than I was. I had to try harder. The beast would retreat fleetingly before charging. And just in one of those moments when I was huffing and puffing from the charging beast, Alex shook me from my sleep. It was just one of those rare dreams that brings you as close to reality as you can ever get. It was 3:30 in the morning. We were still sprawled in the bed of the truck. But our driver had just returned with the mended tire.

Finally, we were set to begin the last leg of the journey to Arero.

Fifteen hours, 250 miles, and two flat tires after Negele, we arrived in Arero. Salihu booked us what was supposed to be the best hotel in town – a line of mud-walled rooms each with a bed at the edge. Its state not withstanding, my bed that morning was the one bed I had appreciated most in my life. It was 6.am. and I had to make maximum use of the precious bed. In two-hours time, Salihu would be waking us up to start our next trip through the wilderness.

Photos by Alex Stonehill

© 2008 The Common Language Project

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As I sit here in my drafty college apartment in Athens, Ohio, I begin to recollect a few remarkable moments in my life. Moments I like to call “a-ha! moments,” that have not only stirred inspiration in me, but have shaped what I am about to experience in the approaching months – a multimedia reporting trip to eastern Africa with the independent, nonprofit news magazines The Common Language Project and Afrikanews.org.

One of my first “a-ha! moment” occurred as an idealistic 17-year-old foreign correspondent/ columnist for my high school paper while living in Cochabamba, Bolivia. For six months I explored the issues ranging from carnival, coca eradication, globalization and poverty. It was there along the Andean valleys that I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I saw stories all around me that were just waiting to be illuminated, and I wanted to uncover them.

Five years later in a snazzy Hilton conference room during an annual Online News Association conference in D.C. the smell of dry-cleaning and potpourri poured through the halls as hundreds of journalists from various news organization discussed the future of online journalism. Amid some tedious talk of money-making and business, the three founders of the Common Language Project stood up and delivered what was the most refreshing presentation of the weekend. They defended our generation as not one that cares about merely money, celebrities and gadgets – but one eager to learn about issues facing people around the world and looking for a more human approach to storytelling.

The group showed everyone a picture of the CLP office – a comfy spot on the ground in a distant country, reminding everyone that journalism isn’t about glamor, but uncovering the untold or underreported. As they talked about their travels, obstacles and freedoms as independent journalists, I was instantly reminded of why I had decided to be an international journalist in the first place – to create awareness and give a voice to people who need it the most.The eastern Africa team hangs out at a park in Seattle.

Last spring, I met the CLP founders for the second time at Ohio University where I received a degree in journalism and am now pursuing a master’s in interactive multimedia. It was Scripps’ annual Journalism Day and the CLP were chosen to speak on media consolidation and reform conference, especially as it applies to international journalism. That same day I was awarded the Scripps’ international reporting scholarship to intern with the CLP as part of the Eastern Africa Initiative.

The distant dream of reporting abroad again was now becoming a close reality. I soon met journalist Ernest Waititu, a native of Kenya and fellow graduate of Scripps’ School of Journalism, who has also become part of the project team. Together we began research on eastern Africa, planned benefits and meetings, and even experienced a whirlwind visit to Seattle to meet with the three founders. There, Ernest gave us all Kenyan names – Sarah was named Atieno, Jessica was named Asha, and Alex – Kilonzo, and I was given the name Shiku – short for Wanjiku.

My most recent awe-inspiring moment occurred this November at the Kent Stark campus in North Canton, Ohio. The room resonated with a message of perseverance and perspective as John Dau – one of the thousands of ‘Lost Boys’ who had escaped murder, starvation, disease and hungry lions during the on-going genocide in Sudan, and director Christopher Quinn of the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” spoke to a large crowd.

Dau began with his story.

“Sudan is the largest country in Africa, but it has the problem of fighting each other all the time,” he said.

He then described his earlier childhood years before the violence started as being like ‘milk and honey.'”

But that goodness didn’t stay, he continued.

“Right in the middle of the night, guns woke us up,” he said. “I heard my mother say, ‘children! children! come out!'”

Dau described how he and other young boys escaped his village – forced to leave their families behind. They traveled east toward Ethiopia without any food, water or clothing. The boys lived on anything they could find such as leaves and grass as the days increased to months.

“I remember my body turning white, and I was crying, but no tears were coming from my eyes,” he said. “By this time, some of the boys had died. Some didn’t want to keep going. They wanted to stay and die there.”

By the time they were forced to leave Ethiopia and travel to Kenya, more than 9,000 boys had been killed throughout the treacherous journey – some from disease or starvation, others by guns or hungry crocodiles and lions.

In 1992, Dau’s group finally arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they started school. Soon afterward, the first Americans came to the camp, said Dau. “They spoke with their noses, and I couldn’t understand them,” he said chuckling.

The Americans began to talk to the boys about bringing them to the U.S. “I remember distinctly that the day that they came I was wearing a T-shirt that said U.S.A, but I pronounced it “ooosuh.”

I smiled at his sad and endearing story, trying to comprehend how someone who had underwent so much tragedy had such an incredible humor about him.

“The one thing I always share with people is the idea of “perseverance,” Dau said at the end of the speech.”If you want to succeed, you can’t give up. I didn’t give up, and that’s why I’m here today.”

When Dau arrived in the U.S., he has founded a number of nonprofit organizations including American Care for Sudan Foundation and the John Dau Sudan Foundation, which raise funds to build the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, the first medical clinic in Duk County where Dau lived as a boy. With the help of other ‘Lost Boys’ and related organizations, these projects are improving health care and education in southern Sudan as well as educating ‘Lost Boys’ in Africa.

Dau’s message was not one of anger or sorrow, but one of hope even in the face of war and loss. In that moment, his message of perseverance and perspective touched a very strong chord. Although I could not begin to fully imagine the pain that Dau had undergone while traveling so many miles and losing so many loved ones, it was easy to see how perseverance would be integral to our reporting trip to eastern Africa.

As journalists and even as students we have an understanding of perseverance – albeit a much less significant understanding than those who have struggled such as Dau. Nevertheless, we learn to whittle away at work for hours, staring at a computer screen and sifting through notes and notes on endless sheets of scrap paper. Perseverance is pushing forward even when it’s scary. It’s finishing something especially when it’s scary.

For our upcoming trip, perseverance will include adjusting to a new culture, learning new technologies and asking tough questions. Facing such stories head-on will allow us to challenge our inner-presumptions of what it means to persevere, introduce fresh perspective in storytelling, and like in the words of one of my favorite poets William Blake, “…see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour…”

As we continue to prepare ourselves for the adventure ahead, I hear Dau’s voice in my head calling me to persevere and keep life in perspective. I remember those moments that have inspired visions of voices being set free in Africa, and I am reminded of times abroad and at home that have reminded me to appreciate every new experience that awaits us.

© 2007 The Common Language Project

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