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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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