After gaining skills from a hands-on media training program, Paul Kayonga transitioned quickly from university student to full-time TV reporter. He now is an influential journalist for one of Uganda's top TV stations.
Soon after reporter Paul Kayonga arrived at the newsroom on the fourth floor of a high-rise in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a dusty metropolis on the shores of Lake Victoria with around one million inhabitants, he received a WhatsApp message. According to the source, a small row house had caught fire and neighbors had to break through a concrete wall to get the occupants out. Firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before it spread to neighboring houses but three people, including a toddler, were severely burned and taken to a local hospital.
For Kayonga, a young TV reporter for Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS), a popular locally-owned TV news channel, this was news worth covering. "For our Luganda audience, this is an important story," he said before hopping on the back of a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) and heading across town. While English is the country’s official language, around 16 million people, mostly in Uganda’s central region including Kampala, speak Luganda.
Kayonga has been an on-air reporter at NBS for less than two years, delivering packages in both English and Luganda. In that short time, the 25-year-old has cemented himself as a rising star in the national media scene. He has covered corruption, political scandals, protests, and breaking news for NBS. To reach the largest–and youngest–audience possible, reports are posted on Facebook and YouTube and often adapted into online articles.
For most Ugandans, success comes to those who work hard and "chase" after jobs and income. Making ends meet by working one nine to five job is not a reality for most Ugandans and steady employment is almost non-existent so extra effort and hours are required for Ugandans to find work and earn a living. They call it "hustling."
This is the daily reality for the country’s youth. People under 30 make up 77% of the country’s population of over 44 million. This is also the reality for young journalists who have to not only chase jobs, but also chase stories that hold those in power to account all while maintaining journalistic standards. It’s a delicate balancing act that Kayonga strives to achieve.
"As young journalists in Uganda, we have to hustle to get the story right," said Kayonga. "When we get it right, we compel young people to confront their prejudices and bring them into the political conversation."
Journalism’s role as a check to corruption and to political and economic exploitation in Uganda is a reason Kayonga believes that the country needs more well-trained, professional young reporters with both the courage and the know-how needed to investigate government malfeasance.
The long road to journalism
The road to the television spotlight was not an easy one for Kayonga. After both of his parents died before he was seven years old, he moved in with a network of extended family members in and around Mpigi, a trading center surrounded by small-scale farms around 30 kilometers west of Kampala. Like most rural areas of Uganda, Mpigi is a poor district where access to a quality education is limited and most adults work in agriculture or do casual labor.
Before long, this curious young boy caught the eye of Jane Nabatanzi, the headmistress of St. Catherine Secondary School, a nearby institution that offers education opportunities to children who cannot afford school fees. "He was this little boy with these big eyes like a Chihuahua, small but also smart and tough," said Nabatanzi. "He was not the best student but I decided to give him a chance." She gave him a scholarship and he was soon attending her boarding school and calling her mum. Before long, he was the top student in the school and had been accepted into a prestigious university.
Kayonga was motivated to pursue a career in journalism after watching his stepbrother host a radio show at a local station. Upon completing his A-levels, Kayonga went on to complete a B.A. in Mass Communication at St. Lawrence University in Kampala. Like many of his fellow university students, he found himself on the verge of graduation with little prospects of landing a good job in journalism.
Much theory, little practice
Uganda produces far more university graduates than it does good job opportunities so competition for open positions can be fierce. The main hurdle facing journalism graduates in Uganda is the lack of professional training opportunities like traineeships or internships. Aspiring scribes leave university with a wealth of theoretical knowledge but few of the proven technical skills required in a fast-paced and ever-changing media environment. This makes media executives reluctant to hire fresh graduates.
It's a no-win situation as graduates lack access to the proper training only available through employment and employers reluctant to hire them without it. Abaas Mpindi, a media trainer and the CEO of the Media Challenge Initiative (MCI), a youth-driven nonprofit supported by DW Akademie, noticed this gap and set out to fill it.
The mission of the Media Challenge Initiative is to "build the next generation of journalists in Africa, through training, mentorship, and experiential peer-to-peer learning. The initiative is rooted in the desire to create opportunities and platforms for other young journalists to have access to opportunities like jobs and internships," said Mpindi. Media Challenge Initiative begins its program by offering hands-on trainings focused on video production, writing, and on-air presentation at most of the universities and professional journalism schools in Uganda. The goal is to build upon the theoretical approach to journalism taught at the college level (ethics, writing basics, research methods, etc). The Media Challenge Initiative has also created networking platforms that link the participants to employers through the challenge competition, professional mentorships, and other related events.
"Graduates may have the passion and the drive, but they don't have the strategic connections that are needed to find that first job," adds Mpindi.
From the stage to the screen
During his final year at university, Kayonga saw a flyer for a training program organized by the Media Challenge Initiative and signed up. By bringing together training and a high-level competition, the Media Challenge Initiative has set itself apart from more traditional journalism programs in Uganda. It is this combination that Dr. Fred Kakooza, journalism professor at Makerere University in Kampala, thinks can foster more interaction between educators, students and employers. Makerere is one of the Media Challenge Iinitiative's partner universities. "Universities like Makerere work hard to properly train our graduates but we are limited by resources and personnel," said Kakooza. "Many of our students have taken part in the Media Challenge Initiative and have had success in both the program and in finding gainful employment."
Seeing an opportunity for professional growth, Kayonga later took part in the program's Inter-University Media Challenge, a journalism competition bringing together students from nine Ugandan universities. Each year over 1.000 students learn new, marketable skills at campuses around Uganda. After the trainings, the best 360 participants are invited to display their newly acquired techniques through the Media Challenge competition. After specialized training and production sessions, select participants are invited to submit their final reports at a competition modeled after "Britain’s Got Talent," complete with judges, a large stage, television cameras, and a cheering audience.
Kayonga's report on the challenges faced by women in the media industry, the topic for that year's competition, wowed his colleagues, the organizers, and members of the media in attendance. After the judges deliberated, Kayonga, wearing his finest suit and tie, was asked to step onto the stage and accept the award for best political reporter, beating out 11 other young journalists. "The Media Challenge Initiative was a great program because it shaped my destination. It got me out of the classroom and into the newsroom," he said.
Watching Kayonga accept his award were representatives of NBS, who became interested in this energetic student who could not only deliver a professional news report but also appeared cool under the pressure of the competition. They immediately offered him a three-month internship, which later led to an offer of a full-time position.
Kayonga’s performance since joining the station has impressed Joseph Kigozi, the chief strategy officer of Next Media Services, the parent company of NBS. "I've seen him do stories that would normally have been done by journalists ten years his senior and he's not scared to do it, to face the heat," said Kigozi.
Well-trained journalists as a check to corruption
Politics has always been a passion for Kayonga who regularly listened to radio reports and read newspapers and books on history. But reporting on politics in Uganda can be a dangerous business, especially as President Yoweri Museveni and his political party have ruled for 33 years. With democratic checks almost non-existent, the role of holding the government to account has fallen mostly to journalists and civil society.
In early 2019, Kayonga’s colleague Solomon Serwanja and three BBC journalists were targeted by security officials for their investigation into the theft of prescription drugs by government officials. They were later released and allowed to continue their investigation. The resulting report, a collaboration between NBS and BBC's Africa Eye investigative unit, was a groundbreaking look into government corruption and greed called "Stealing from the sick." Their findings caused a public uproar that spurred the police and associated government agencies to take action. Arrests were made and some officials lost their jobs. Serwanja's colleagues at NBS and the journalism community at large were shocked by the actions taken by the security forces and many spoke out against the persecution of journalists doing their jobs.
"We have to cover stories objectively so that all sides can have a say on an issue, but I think that truth is more important. No one in government can complain about a story where all we are doing is reporting the facts," Kayonga said adding that while he was not involved in the stolen medicines story, he too has been confronted by plain-clothed security officers because of his reporting.
Working in an industry that is always changing, Kayonga is hoping to further develop his journalism skills and his knowledge of politics and history. His ultimate goal is to get a master’s degree, a rare feat for working journalists in Uganda, and to travel outside of the country so that he can gain a more complete view of the world.
"Uganda is just a small country in a big world," he said.
While Paul Kayonga is ambitious to continuously learn and advance, he attacks each day and the journalistic grind with youthful rigor: After interviewing witnesses to the house fire, he jumped back on a boda to head to a press conference at Interpol headquarters followed by an interview with a noted political analyst. Then it was back to the newsroom to write his script and edit his pieces for broadcast before heading out again to chase the next story.
Hustle. Report. Repeat.
Ole Tangen Jr is an American journalist who has reported stories from the US, Europe and Africa for over 20 years. He spent five years in Uganda where he worked as a reporter and taught journalism giving him first-hand knowledge on the challenges Ugandan journalists face when reporting the news. He now lives in Bonn, Germany and works as an editor for Deutsche Welle.
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