Yes, there must be joy in the struggle


For The Daily Nation

A few weeks ago, I received a distressed phone call from a journalist colleague. This friend of mine had started out in journalism a few years before I did, and is now a multiple award-winning journalist, who has covered everything from terror attacks and corporate malfeasance, to public health and human-interest stories.

He is, I can say without reservation, one of the finest journalists of my generation. So to hear him on the phone sounding so dejected was jarring.

My friend told me he had become jaded by the political opportunism and slick propaganda that he saw was increasingly commandeering Kenya’s public discourse, and had got to the point where he felt his stories — awards and all — had no real impact, except that they were supplying credible terminologies for the people who would later turn around and use his exposés to further their own political ends.

“What’s the point of doing what we do, if the very people we are investigating find a way to use our work as talking points when it is politically expedient for them?” he lamented. He further told me that his work as an investigative journalist had always been demanding and stressful, but now was turning into something altogether different — a grim and ultimately meaningless affair.

My friend and I have been working in public interest journalism for about a decade. As millennials, we joined the newsroom during President Mwai Kibaki’s optimistic days when the economy was booming, television studios were getting swanky new makeovers and business journalism became the in thing.

However, we now find ourselves caught in the middle as the digital revolution and struggling media business models have resulted in wave after wave of job losses. Most worryingly, we have watched, sometimes in bewilderment and other times with a kind of cynical detachment, as political coalitions have aligned and realigned with such speed as to give one whiplash.

The State has become so dysfunctional, my friend says, that even participating in straightforward reportage — like simply attending a government press conference — makes one feel like one is complicit in propagandist narratives.

Many in our cohort have now left the profession, and for those of us who have remained, what keeps us going is a kind of psychological wage, even as the financial rewards have dwindled. It is the quiet assurance that if nothing else, we are writing the first draft of history, and perhaps somewhere down the road, our work will eventually hold powerful people to account.

Now, in a context where memories are short and even the most thoroughly researched investigation can be repurposed into redemptive talking points for those implicated, even that last bastion of meaning in the work we do is threatened. What, as my friend asked, is it all for?

Still, I believe this kind of environment may provide the opportunity for the emergence of alternative spaces for self-expression. If journalists, artists, writers, filmmakers — anyone telling stories in the public interest — are going to find a way address these challenges, then they need sanctuaries for trust-building, innovation and opportunities for collaboration.

Already, digital spaces are providing new and vibrant platforms for reflection, commentary and analysis.

Initiatives like Book Bunk are revitalising public libraries and repositioning them as physical spaces for shared knowledge, heritage and memory. And events like Too Early For Birds, The Moth and Engage KE are bringing emerging voices into the public discourse, pushing the boundaries for what is possible in the country’s creative ecosystem and collective imagination.

I was tempted to give my friend quick reassurances about fighting the good fight, but what is better is say that this work doesn’t have to be all grim emotional labour, fought in isolation at a lonely desk, cybercafé or coffee shop. There can, and there must be, joy in the struggle; in the words of Dr Cornel West, “joy in your moral and spiritual witness enacted even as you fall on your face”.

To move forward we must find each other in this moral and intellectual desert and create our own oases, where new possibilities can emerge.

In a context where the most hard-hitting investigative piece can fall flat, fizzle out, or become fodder for the opportunistic hijack, the one thing that can keep us going now is a kind of revolutionary joy, cultivated in these places off the beaten track.

Ms Mungai is the curator of Baraza Media Lab.

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