I had been a foreign correspondent since 2003, and Burkina Faso was perfectly matched to my tastes. It was quiet and fun with a lot of personality. People worked hard, and they had a lot of personality. This, however, wasn't naturally suited to be put on display in the global media. Burkina Faso didn't have wars. Food security was an issue, but famine was non-existant. Burkina Faso had a memorable name, but it was not a memorable place.
These ladies were different. All passport holders from Burkina Faso, they ladies lived and worked all their lives in Cote d'Ivoire, but had been forced back to the land of their nationality because of civil war and -- even more horrifically -- ethnic strife. Once back in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso's capital), the refugees were happy to be safe. But they didn't know what to make of this place. "How do people live here," one of them asked me.
These interviews were quite a coup for me. The ladies were going to make my journalism career. I had fought against telling the Africa of the media, and spent my time interviewing regular people with oversized personalities and reporting on cultural issues. This was a NEWS story -- But I couldn't sell it.
I can't really blame the news organizations I pitched it to. Perhaps my heart wasn't in it. Perhaps I didn't make a good enough case. Perhaps I took a bad focus. Regardless, no one wanted it.
I stayed in Burkina Faso for three and a half more years. I did a few odd jobs, but I was always writing. Thankful for my wife's government job, I tried to sell, but I was never what you'd call 'successful.' After Burkina Faso, we ended up in Fiji, which journalistically was going to be much easier. It was English speaking -- my French was passable, but I had self confidence problems with it; my local language skills were limited -- and richer: Development gives journalists more diverse stories. Most importantly, people knew where it was.
But politics got in the way. Fiji had lurched between generic democracy to chauvinistic ethnic-based governments to military takeovers. The military was in power when we arrived, and they had clamped down on news from outside sources. even write travel pieces. My wife still supported the family and still worked for the US government. I couldn't jeopardize that. I followed local bloggers and such, and that was interesting to a point. But things went worse after a Constitutional Crisis eventually forced me even further underground.
"Getting PNG'd will fuck with your life in uncountable ways," the head of a media organization I volunteered for told me.
I never got kicked out of the country, but my taste for journalism was waning. I had always felt that journalism was something noble, and no matter how many bad journalists, lazy journalists, pack journalists spoiled our media, the process of telling other peoples' stories and putting them in context was important. Fundamental even. If a single newspaper carried one interesting story a day, it was worth the price of admission.
Did I feel like a failure leaving journalism? You bet. For one hundred reasons.
Just a big waste, I felt. I had a nagging feeling that I had picked the wrong side of information. Why not give people the information they want -- instead of giving the information you think they want. And that's how I changed my career and went into Library Science/Information Science.
The subtext here is this. Sure, my mistakes and ultimate ambivalence towards journalism may have forced me out. But journalism was also a tough place to earn a living in the first decade of this century. The entire industry was lurching through layoffs, a lack of direction and blaming anything and everything for their mostly self-inflicted errors.
This was the story I told in front of my colleagues a week or so ago. This cheap coming of age story was to shed a little humanity on their manager, but also make a cautionary tale: The same disruptions driving people out of paid journalism jobs are also driving people away from our library. People who figure out things they can do for themselves will keep doing it themselves until it becomes too complicated or too problematic.
The foundations of libraries, too, are crumbling. They are being forced to re-brand themselves, re-imagine their roles and refocus their competencies. They must change or die. This is especially true for scientific libraries, which can't count on civic group meetings or computer classes to keep them afloat.
In the end, those Burkinabe refugees knew a hell of a lot more about change than I did. When the world as we know it crumbles around us, we can only change on thing: ourselves.