Nairobi, Kenya / The Standard Media Group
Host: The Oklahoman
— By Thobile Hans
As a child, Mercy Adhiambo would run home and do her chores and help cook so she could break away to hear elders telling village tales in her native language Luo. When she reached high school, Adhiambo showed a knack for writing stories of her own in English – her fourth language.
Adhiambo lived in a small hut without electricity with four siblings, and her single mother, Beatrice, worked as a fishmonger to see them all through school.
At age 20, she witnessed a village man sexually assaulting a girl. She reported the man, but he accused her of defaming his name. Instead of him being locked up, Adhiambo spent the night in jail in tears. The following day Adhiambo was released without a charge. This was one of many social injustices she was to witness early in life.
Adhiambo passed high school in first class, but she could not pursue her dream of becoming a journalist because she had no money for college. Her quest for knowledge saw her regularly visiting an internet café in the nearby city, Kisumu. Adhiambo would help out at the café and she was allowed to use computers for free. She taught herself basic computer skills and honed her writing skills and refined her short story manuscripts.
“I volunteered for a community newsletter that wrote on issues affecting slum dwellers,” Adhiambo said. “Within a short time I felt that I was handling stories that needed to be told beyond the confines of the community where I stayed.”
In 2007, Adhiambo was a runner up for the Glass Woman Prize, an international literature writing competition for women who are, in the founder’s words, “expressing themselves authentically and fearlessly and passionately.” Her short story, The Untold Story, was about a 12-year-old rape survivor who ran away from her village as she was being married off to the uncle who had raped her. Despite missing out on the $1,000 prize, her story got the attention of an elementary school teacher in Minnesota, Kim Robinson.
Robinson contacted Adhiambo and they continued exchanging emails. Their friendship culminated to the formation of Adhiambo’s academic scholarship, which was funded by the principal of the school, Deb Sauter.
“When Deb found me I didn’t have a single dollar on me,” Adhiambo said. “She came to my life and told me she was going to pay for my fees, I thought it was one of those empty promises, I had been promised so many times before.”
Mercy speaks with Global Journalist at the University of Missouri School of Journalism to talk about journalism in Kenya and her journey as a reporter in her country.
She enrolled for a four year journalism degree at the United States International University Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. She stayed on the dean’s list of high performing students and won the Baobab Prize for African writers in her second year.
Children from the Minnesota school sent Adhiambo congratulatory messages recorded on the Glass Woman Prize website; one of the well-wishers was a fifth grader named Donjanne.
“I am your number one fan,” she wrote. “I have some questions for you. Where would you go first in America? Why don’t you celebrate your birthday? Do men ever mistreat you? I appreciate your answers.”
This year, Adhiambo came to America as an Alfred Friendly Fellow and answered one of those questions by landing in Columbia to train at the Missouri School of Journalism. She also finally got to meet her benefactor, Sauter, after communicating via the telephone and internet for 10 years. Sauter traveled from Minnesota to Columbia to celebrate Adhiambio’s 29th birthday.
“There was a moment where I teared up,” Adhimabo recounted of their meeting.
After graduating with honors from the university, Adhiambo started reporting on science and development issues for a London-based news website focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, the Science Development Network.
In 2015, Adhiambo started at The Standard Media Group as a trainee and in a few months she was promoted to a general news writer. After the al-Shabab terrorist attack in Somalia the following January, Adhiambo was among the journalists who were flown to the neighboring country to cover the repatriation of the remains of Kenyan soldiers killed there. Other events she covered were the visit by Pope Francis and a World Trade Organization ministerial conference.
“Journalists should be able to tell stories people are afraid of telling, and also stories that impact people’s lives long after they are no longer practicing as journalists,” Adhiambo said. Journalists should strive to tell stories that change people’s perceptions and make society better, she said.
After the three weeks of training at the Missouri School of Journalism, Adhiambo attended the Association of Health Care Journalists’ annual conference in Cleveland to learn more about health care reporting and generate story ideas.
As an Alfred Friendly Fellow, Adhiambo, wants to spend her five months at The Oklahoman newsroom learning how to best serve her people back home. Adhiambo wants to start a health desk in her newsroom to empower people with health knowledge. She says health awareness will help alleviate problems confronting poor Kenyans.
“My long term goal is to be an editor, especially in the special features and investigative desk,” Adhiambo wrote. “In Kenya, the media industry is male dominated and females always get the ‘fashion’ or ‘relationship’ column, because of the stereotype that they cannot manage certain desks. I want to change that and become a top editor who mentors other young journalists.”
For more on the fellows’ interaction with journalism students at the University of Missouri click here.