In March of 2019, the media in Kenya reported that people were dying of hunger in Turkana, a vast semi-arid County to the north of the country. The 2019 Food and Nutrition Security assessment by the National Drought Management Authority would later reveal that up to 2.6 million Kenyans faced acute food insecurity and needed humanitarian assistance. Of these, about 2.3 million were in the crisis phase of food insecurity.
Yet for some time, the starving villagers did not receive any help from the government; eleven people had reportedly died of hunger by the time Kenya’s deputy president spoke to the press denying any famine related deaths and announcing that government would support communities facing food shortage
“The local reporters there had actually sent in reports that this is the situation [people were dying of hunger] and then the government denied the allegations.Roncliffe Odit, BBC News Swahili
In an article for the online magazine The Elephant, columnist Rasna Warah considered this denial by the government and concluded that authorities were avoiding the embarrassment of declaring a famine. “Essentially it says that the government not only failed to prevent the famine, but also did not prepare for it, suggesting a lack of leadership in disaster preparedness. Secondly, a declaration of famine in a poor country usually unleashes an international famine relief effort – and no self-respecting government would like to admit that foreign donors and NGOs should do what it should be doing, i.e. making sure that all its citizens have enough food to eat.”
While officials sought to save face, millions were staring at death. For the journalists covering this impending disaster, it was time to go beyond writing headlines. An extra effort was needed to ensure these communities got the help they so urgently needed.
“I was one of the first journalists from Nairobi to go to Turkana. And so, I took a few photos and videos and thought just to magnify it, we need to speak to the rest of the world and tell them this is the real situation. I happened to be in a WhatsApp group that is vibrant and with over 250 journalists, we came together, coined a hashtag – #WeCantIgnore – and decided: tomorrow morning lets go big on this.”Roncliffe Odit, BBC News Swahili
But what about the objective, neutral point of view usually expected of journalists? What many journalism schools teach implies a sense of detachment: a journalist should witness, analyse, and leave judgement to others. Roncliffe Odit, senior broadcast journalist with BBC Africa, has a vast experience covering various disasters in Africa. He was on location during the Turkana famine when he, and a group of his fellow journalists, decided to actively advocate for change. Leveraging their credibility and online influence, the journalists began a campaign on Twitter and Facebook, sharing ‘the faces of hunger‘– stories of individuals experiencing a famine – as it happened. Roncliffe shared his experience in Turkana covering this story for the BBC, and what motivated him to start the online campaign #WeCantIgnore in collaboration with 250 other journalists in their professional WhatsApp group – Scribes254.
We spoke to Roncliffe about why it was not possible to simply report and leave, and the power of collaborative journalism during times of crisis.
Roncliffe Odit in his own words:
“We went to this woman and the next day we had to go back and get some packets of milk because her kids were really suffering. I called the office to say with the little funds that I had, I had to buy milk for this woman because the kids are really suffering. And you could see the smiles in the faces of the children once we gave them milk and biscuits to just give them strength for a few more days”
“And it worked because a day after that the government reacted, we had the deputy president addressing a presser saying yes, this is the situation on the ground and by that time 11 people had already succumbed to hunger.”