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Time for a Change

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It's almost five years since I arrived to live and work in Kenya. Gradually the feelings of excitement and adventure have given way to a sense of deja vu as the same stories come around again and again. Every year there are warnings of famine in Ethiopia. Every two years there is drought in north-eastern Kenya. And Somalia is on a constant slide into the abyss. Eventually the wide-eyed reporter becomes tired and jaded. (I had always been cynical, but that's a different story.) It's a gradual process that takes place unnoticed over years.

Then something comes along to make you realise it is hampering your ability to do the job. That moment came for me last week, during a trip to Dadaab - the world's largest refugee camp, where 280,000 Somalis live. As I interviewed new arrivals it dawned on me that nothing much had changed since my previous visit three years ealier. Refugees were still flooding across the border. Islamists were battling for control of Mogadishu. And the world had little idea what to do, beyond sending arms and ammunition to anyone killing Islamists.

I filed my copy and came home. A couple of days later I looked up what I had written on that earlier visit. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast. What I found was a reporter running out of ideas. 

This is what I wrote in August 2006... 

They are arriving in droves, on foot, by donkey, or in matatus - the crowded minibuses that crisscross Somalia's border with Kenya. Some 18,000 refugees have left their homes in Somalia this year for Dadaab's sprawling city of sticks.

And this is my June 2009 version... 

They are coming in ones and twos, families and friends, on donkeys and in trucks, dressed in the clothes they were wearing when the mortars landed or the battlewagons buzzed through the streets outside their homes. Thousands of Somalis in search of safety are arriving at an overcrowded aid camp over the border with Kenya in search of safety. 

The story has changed little, sure. Only the numbers are any different - the camp has doubled in size during those three years. But it is time to move on when it seems as if you are trying to fit what lays before your eyes into some preconceived pigeon holes. I had used similar imagery to fashion intros that were just too alike. So at the end of this month I'm packing up my books and pictures and heading back to the UK to freshen my tired eyes and find a new place in the world.

Somalia will remain a mess and Kenyan nomads will keep losing their cattle every couple of years, but it is time for someone else to tell their stories. 


Steve Jackson | July 2, 2009 10:04 AM | Reply

I reckon I've pretty much scooped up every last English language blog in Cameroon - linked them via my own and added them to my blogroll.

I've noticed that even the amateur writer reaches a point whereby the incredible becomes the run of the mill.

When young Peace Corps arrive or VSO volunteers, their blogs are full of tales of eight people in a taxi and goats running wild on the main shopping street or whatever.

Then you suddenly realise that you haven't seen an update in a couple of months and eventually when it arrives it comes with an apology for not updating sooner but also with the explanation that they had run out of inspiration. Eight people in a taxi was no longer surprising, goats on Commercial Avenue happens.

And that is just day-to-day stuff.

I suppose the reason why people often talk of famine, wars, refugees in Africa of being under reported is that quite often it suffers from the same issues. It's not news in the sense that people have heard it before. It's not surprising. It's not what people are going to talk about at work the next day.

And to be in the middle of that reporting on it - it must be hard not to repeat yourself. Hard to keep being moved by it and even harder to convey that.

I still cringe from the pronouncements of new volunteers here - "Cameroonians are poor but happy" (I don't see it) one Belgian volunteer said..."I thought I'd see more people with drums".

But there's a fine line between fresh faced naivete/ignorance and reaching a state where you know the problems so well that even in empathising you are going through the motions.

Truth is, for me, I've never fallen in love with Cameroon. I waited for it to happen and it was months and months in before I gave up on the idea and concentrated instead of simply finishing my (just one) year long stretch.

In a country so disenfranchised and unempowered by its own corrupt government I see apathy all around me and very little belief that there can be any improvements.

It's hard to love a country that even its own people don't love.

There's two months left and then I'm leaving. What little can be achieved by grass roots volunteers like me doesn't equate to what could be done by governments - not just the Cameroonian government but others in Europe and North America through pressure to force change. We talk of "bottom up" development a lot with VSO but the truth is Cameroon needs top down first.

I think five years is a very admirable stint. With most countries I have surprised at how I've looked back at them so fondly. I am sure you will do too in time. I'm not sure I could say the same of Cameroon.

Fréderike | July 2, 2009 11:06 AM | Reply

Strong decision to actually immediately take action when you feel it's over, in stead of postponing the big change. But I wonder about something. You mainly work for newspapers, right? Because I wonder if it would be different if you didn't mainly write the news stories, but also background stories with totally different angels then just again the news. A reportage with a photographer about the first people who came to that camp: how do they manage after all these years, how did they try to get away from there and really start a new life elsewhere? Or a story for an economical magazine about how the camp affects the economy of the closest by village. It comes to mind, so maybe you can say something about it? Or did you write aaaaall those stories as well?

Toaf | July 2, 2009 11:45 AM | Reply

This is a sad post, mate. I hope it feels good to have come to this realisation, though, and that you find the change you need when you get home. And I hope you still manage to finish that bloody book of yours!

Rob Crilly replied to comment from Fréderike | July 2, 2009 2:22 PM | Reply

It's a good idea. And it's the sort of thing I'm doing with my book on Darfur. But ultimately I'm a news man, and staying in one place for five years - regardless of where that place is - tends to sap the energy and drive

Rob Crilly replied to comment from Toaf | July 2, 2009 2:29 PM | Reply

You suddenly realise five years is a long time. A lot of news orgs move their people after 2-3 years. You need to keep fresh. Book coming along nicely thanks. Publisher happy. Just going through revisions now. You any closer on where next?

Rob Crilly replied to comment from Steve Jackson | July 2, 2009 2:40 PM | Reply

I reckon it took me 18 months to really hit my stride: to recognise that rebel leaders make bad presidents, that not every famine warning should be heeded and to move Somalia into the Known Unknowns column. It took that long to get under the skin of the various countries I have covered. But even by then the fun and surprising things had become less noteworthy. As you say, it's a fine line and one of the problems with the NGOs and diplomats I have dealt with here is that few have spent long enough here to really understand the place (and when you live behind high walls and in constant airconditioning it is all the harder).

This isn't about Africa. I'll post another column along the lines of "whither Africa". There's a million great things about such a diverse and vibrant continent. It's just about a journalist who wants to stay fresh and excited.

I'll always read the Africa news in the papers first. One day I hope to have a booklined study (possibly in Dorset) from which to bash out pompous op-ed pieces. And I'll bore all my friends with my Africa stories. Now I just want to see somewhere else.

dd | July 2, 2009 2:45 PM | Reply

You'll be dearly missed by me, but I look forward to the inspiration new pastures bring to you and your writing. Good luck!

Danny | July 2, 2009 4:30 PM | Reply

Sorry to hear that Rob. I applaud your dedication to what has been an excellent blog. Best of luck with the next move. Danny

Mr Graham Holliday | July 2, 2009 4:48 PM | Reply

As you say,

"one of the problems with the NGOs and diplomats I have dealt with here is that few have spent long enough here to really understand the place (and when you live behind high walls and in constant airconditioning it is all the harder)"

That's something I've noticed too and I think it could be the root cause of a lot disastrous decisions around the world.

I've had quite a lot of discussions with NGO and "international types" about our probably up and coming move - which you know all about - I get a universal, "Oh you've got to go, think of the experience. Wonderful" But the perspective they're coming from is often entirely idealistic and based upon aircon hotels and villas, a few weeks here, a couple of months there or maybe a 6 month to a year stint somewhere else.

Visiting, even extended stays, and living somewhere are two very different things and bring you to a place where just "the experience" is not enough. Accchh... you know what I mean. Onwards and upwards. Very much looking forward to your book, although I may now have to change the delivery address on my Amazon pre-order.

Rob Crilly replied to comment from Mr Graham Holliday | July 3, 2009 8:36 AM | Reply

Of course there are some great people who do get it and who do spend enough time to get under the skin of the place. But there are many others who did not have to spend a week sorting out their own work permit, or dealing with a landlord who refuses to return a deposit.

rob | July 3, 2009 12:20 PM | Reply

its very sad to hear you are on your way out. have really enjoyed reading your blog posts for the last year and a half. hope you get some good rest. Best of luck with the future

Rob Crilly replied to comment from rob | July 3, 2009 1:46 PM | Reply

Thanks Rob. The blog won't be going away although it will probably end up somewhere new come September or October. So keep reading. Cheers

Michael Kleinman | July 7, 2009 3:29 PM | Reply

I'll actually be passing thru town in early August -- you still be around for a drink?

And, great piece.


Rob Crilly replied to comment from Michael Kleinman | July 8, 2009 8:11 AM | Reply

Will email you my movements. Would be good to catch up.

What do you think?