A young woman asked for my advice; she wants to be a journalist, is that a good career path? Looking into her youthful eyes, still brimming with a fetching combination of determination, naiveté and the secret sauce of life that separates the innocent from the wicked, I knew I had two options.
I could gloss over the request and paint a wholesome picture of glamour, glitz, fame and fortune. After all, young people seem to be obsessed with that. Or I could be a dull, cynical grown-up and pontificate about the inherent dangers of pursuing the truth for purposes of changing the world.
I could take infinitesimal pleasure in dashing her dreams of adventure and a life full of curiosity – because nowadays, more than ever, curiosity killed the cat. Journalism in our fetid part of the world is not about attending galas and hobnobbing with celebrities. It is underpaid and under-appreciated; sweaty without the succour of deodorant.
Journalists are constantly assailed and demonised, damned if they don’t and especially if they do. Journalists take the blame for the evil they reveal, the words that come out of other mouths and the actions of other hands.
Journalists witness the best and worst of everything; after the guns are silent and the smoke has cleared, you will show up where mass graves are dug up and be required to find justice for the forever silenced.
You will take account of conflict, strife, crisis and confusion. Your humanity will be tested and your faith shattered. Your testimony will haunt the lives of the people you touch forever; evil men and women will pay for their crimes and the innocent may find some relief. If you are lucky. Statistics show journalists are increasingly likely to be killed, maimed or lose their freedom simply because of what their job entails – to see, hear, and report back to the rest of the world.
Sure, journalists are fallible. But even basically right-thinking, fair-minded people are infuriated by what they read and hear because compromise is a lost art and nobody seems to be able to disagree without being extremely disagreeable.
Difficult times have set everybody on the edge of reason, and as tensions continue to rise unabated, lines have been drawn in the sand that are impossible to breach. Those with power will abuse it, and those without will covet it. And yet the elusive truth, in its most beautiful shape and form must persevere.
I said all that and watched her eyes gleam even brighter. I added that when I travelled to Burundi for an assignment, I was advised not to declare ‘journalist’ as my profession on the entry form. So, I cowardly wrote ‘communications specialist’. The same happened in two other countries not far away, I dare not say which ones.
In many places, announcing you are a journalist is inviting trouble. It doesn’t help that the tools of your trade are usually visible in your hands, hence the physical attacks on you and them. Oftentimes, attempts will be made to destroy you along with the evidence, so a little prudence doesn’t hurt.
I can say with gratitude that being a journalist, by qualification and experience, has been deeply enriching. Telling stories is a gift like no other; even if nobody is listening, your mind will savour the experience of knowing what you know. The day you no longer want to know is the day you will die.
Ms Barenzi is a communications professional and writer