On a seemingly relaxing Sunday afternoon at an Ethiopian friend’s house, I received a phone call with news that earlier that day more than 100 people had drowned or been crushed to death.
A stampede had ensued at an annual festival – to which I’d been invited with the press pack – after protesters and police clashed beside the waters of a holy lake, 30 miles south-east of my location in the Ethiopian capital.
After hanging up, my thoughts swung from: “Damn it, what a scoop I’ve missed!” to “Hold on, who cares you weren’t there? More importantly, what a grotesque human catastrophe.” Indeed, the mind baulks at the horror and panic of those caught in the epicentre before utter darkness replaced all.
I’m learning about the grubbier side of journalism as a freelance in Ethiopia, which shortly after the festival disaster declared a six-month state of emergency to deal with protests that had been smouldering since November 2015.
When I first arrived in late 2013, I typically wrote about entrepreneurial businesses amid the growing economy, and cultural topics such as traditional food and dancing. “You do human interest pieces, James,” a friend commented with a gently derisive smile, “interesting in their own way.” Well, yes. They weren’t searing investigative pieces set to garner a Pulitzer Prize. But I nevertheless felt they had their own justification.
“The West knows how Africans die but not how they live,” is a refrain with which I can’t argue. So I liked how my stories demonstrated that good news existed through how Ethiopians lived their lives. Most importantly, my writing wasn’t related to anyone suffering, a key relevance after passing my twenties in the British Army, busily engaged in the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan.
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