Monday, November 9, 2009

Thoughts from a retreat

The newsroom is quite a hectic four-wall confinement. It is gruelling and daunting to perform the task of seeking the story of a man who bit the dog. Daunting because that involves dealing with sources that sometimes act funny when you are trying to get that extraordinary story.
That pressure really gets to your head. You find whole hours going down the drain and the workload remains just as much as it was when you energetically first entered the room; blank pages—which are supposed to be filled with stories—are just gazing at your face.
While you are figuring out who to call for this or that story, you are also wondering which is a good enough picture to go with the stories. Reading a story you just wrote moments before, makes you want to get some paracetamol to ease the headache. You realise that you wrote tenses that were not making sense, the syntax was not correct and that the subjects and verbs were not in concord while the spellings would upset the Queen.
All the while, you are wondering how this or that meeting will go and before you realise what is going on around you, it is way past normal working hours.
Not that there is nothing pleasant in journalism. You get to meet lots of people from the top (or something like it) to the bottom of the social strata. You get to travel quite a lot to places where you see dogs with navels. In between all this pleasure, you never cease to learn, everybody wants to teach journalists new things all the time!
When DStv service providers Multichoice Malawi sent me an invitation to join fellow journalists for a media retreat at Club Makokola, I saw no reason to fail since it gave me a break from the hustle and bustle of the newsroom.
The Blantyre team of journalists from several print and electronic media houses converged at the Chichiri Shopping Mall that Friday morning. Immediately we were aboard a Toyota Coaster, I knew it was time to forget a little about the pressures of gathering news.
The jokes were flying, especially from MBC’s Frank Kandu. One such joke implied that mobile phone networks in Mangochi switch to Chiyao.
Approaching Liwonde, one newspaper vendor came to the bus, exposing copies of the day’s newspapers. One print journalist remarked to the vendor: “Don’t waste time. Yesterday we read the paper you are selling today.”
Arriving at the Club Mak, we found the Lilongwe team already there. Camaraderie was in the air, as old colleagues reunited. More interestingly, new acquaintances were made: “So, you are Lucy Kadzongwe, the one behind the byline in the Guardian newspaper’s sports pages? Wonders shall never end. And you are Mike Chipalasa of Blantyre Newspapers Limited?”
For those of us who had shut out our brains for the retreat, a little bit of shock awaited us. Soon after lunch, there was an investigative journalism ‘discussion’ hosted by veteran journalist Al Osman, director of Capital Radio. Remember the bit about journalists being taught new things all the time? It was a wonderful two hours, racking brains on the merits and demerits of immersion to get stories.
With unbated breath, the journalists looked forward to fun and games on the beach. That did not come until dusk. A game of volleyball by the lake in the semi-darkness was an exciting affair. On one side were journalists who were dressed in white t-shirts labelled Ma Scribes while on the other were practitioners with black T-shirts marked Ma Journal. I was on the ‘blacks’ side.
Most of the volleyball rules in that game did not apply. There were some three umpires or so. The scorer (the one recording the points) was Zodiak’s Pilirani Tambala, who was clad in a white, Scribes T-shirt. It is little wonder that the whites won two sets against blacks’ one. A rat on a clay pot is difficult to kill, so they say. Of course, Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s Clifton Kawanga—the whites’ ad hoc captain—proved to be a fine player. That as it may be, his skills were buried in the sand by the blacks’ cheerleaders Joy Radio’s Lloyd Zawanda and Yvonne Sundu.
After that game and dinner, it was time for the journalists to shake the boogie on the dancefloor. Who said MBC’s Nomsa Mkandawire cannot follow the rhythm in Petersen’s Fendela Fendusi? What could stop Capital Radio’s Chikondi Juma from dancing to the Black Missionaries’ Walakwa Chani vibes? Star Radio’s Chikondi Phinda did not forget her dancing shoes at home. Of course, Multichoice’s Titania Katenga-Kaunda, TVM’s Saukira Banda and everybody else danced to the music until late in the night.
The more adventurous sneaked out deep in the night for Zithere Pano Pub. It was a Friday night and the fun mood engulfed the pub, where you are welcomed by a ‘Drink Beer, Save Water’ notice. Men and women were carousing. Daughters and sons of Malawi were lost in song and dance on the dancefloor, with others in pairs and groups chatting the night away.
Back to Club Mak, I slept like a log, too tired to think or try to reread Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. That was after a tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte with my comrade-in-arms Herbert Chandilanga.
Saturday morning was time for a cruise to Bird Island aboard the MV Sunbird. It was an invigorating experience watching mphipe, fish eagles in such large numbers, fearless fishermen in canoes lost in that paradise of water and the beach in the distance.
The height of the cruise was the famous childhood song. At one point, it was Capital Radio’s Ulemu Teputepu taking centre stage:
Walowa m’bwalo ndani/Koma Ule/Ule dula dula dula chiuno/Amake Ule/Eeeeh! Dula chiuno
As I figure out when the last full stop will come, I remember where I started from: I went to that retreat to forget the pressure of newsgathering. Then, when I realised that I wasn’t fully off-duty, my mind was all the while engaged in how I would narrate this story. Yarning this tale was a daunting and gruelling task.

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