Reporting for Health in Kenya

Marie Yambo started as a weather girl at Kenya’s national broadcaster back in 2008.

“There was an opening for a weather reporter; a few of us were trained.” This was not a glamorous position; at least not by the standards of Kenyan media. But Yambo jumped at the chance – she would be on television during prime time, and getting paid for it.

While Marie threw herself into the weather, a new opportunity presented itself.  A colleague who presented a weekly segment, Health Matters, left and, hungry as ever, Yambo jumped in to health reporting. Her first story, she remembers, was on obstetric fistula, a condition that mostly affects poor rural women who lack skilled care while giving birth. The World Health Organization says fistula is the single most dramatic aftermath of neglected childbirth.

Yambo, now in a position to interact with people through her reporting, and even impact their lives, attended her first training with Internews Kenya in the coastal County of Kilifi in 2009.

The theme of the training was on the relationship between culture and HIV infection.

“Internews filled a void that is deep-seated in most newsrooms in Kenya – a lack of specialized trainings, equipment, mentorship and even space for telling stories.”

With space, Yambo means the Media Resource Centre, the newsroom-like facility at I&M Building in Nairobi’s central business district where journalists could research, receive mentoring by Internews staff, and write their stories.

Now, after a two-year hiatus, Internews is back in Kenya. With the aim of increasing the availability of information on maternal and newborn health in Kenya, the one-year project will train 28 journalists in Bungoma, Turkana and Nairobi Counties.

Yambo was among the 900 journalists trained in health reporting, data journalism and other skills through Internews’ health-focused reporting work in Kenya from 2003-2013.

“The trainings were practical and interactive; after which you could get travel grants to pursue stories in far-flung areas,” says Yambo.

Perhaps Yambo’s greatest fan is her trainer and mentor, Dolphine Emali.

“In the four years of working with Yambo, she has moved from weather presenting to producing award-winning, long-form unique stories,” said Emali, adding that, of course, while there are many more individual journalists who have found success through their dedication, Yambo’s passion and drive is unmatched.

An archive of Yambo’s stories attests to this. Though she says she doesn’t have a favorite one, a powerful and difficult story she struggled with was My own flesh and blood, a harrowing tale of pregnant women who inject drugs in Kisauni, an informal settlement in the outskirts of Mombasa town.

“It was a challenge telling the story,” she remembers. “First, I was confronted with the ethical issue – the sources demanded that we pay them. I stood my ground and softly made them understand why the story needed to be told.” Yambo adds that there also were threats to her and the cameraman’s lives.

But Yambo forgot all this when Internews screened the story to the public in Mombasa.

“The community showed-up, and I was happy that the documentary had them thinking about the shocking relationship between drugs and child bearing. It started a conversation.”

Another of Yambo’s memorable stories is Second Mothers, a story about the woes of traditional birth attendants, whom most rural women run to for delivery as health centers are far away, but who the government was seeking to phase out. 

This story earned Yambo the Global Health Workforce Alliance award, which she traveled to Brazil to accept, from the World Health Organization.

And she has won several other awards, the first one being the Children Rights Media Awards. Three months later, she bagged Storyfest, an award by Internews which celebrated creative health storytelling for a story about Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision. In 2013, Yambo again bagged Storyfest, and the Media Council of Kenya’s Annual Journalism Excellence Awards (AJEA) for the Second Mothers story.

Indeed, since the launch of the AJEA in 2012, Yambo has scooped the Health category award three times, including in 2014 for a story on kidney transplants and similarly in 2016 for a coronary heart surgery story.

In 2014, funding for Internews’ health journalism support abruptly stopped. Journalists like Yambo, and many others who daily used the Media Resource Centre, which had transitioned to the Writespot in 2013, immediately felt the effect.

“I am telling you it was a big blow to journalists. You see, in our newsrooms, equipment, cameras, recorders and resources like editing suites are hard to come by, especially when you are pursuing a documentary story which takes days, even weeks to produce.”

She believes that science and health stories have diminished from the Kenyan media since then. “This is such a pity seeing as, I believe, Internews helped us tell stories on HIV and AIDS, which as a daily narrative helped reduce stigma besides informing policy makers. As a result, a lot has been achieved since 2003.”

She pauses, smiles and continues, “It was the most pleasant news when the other day, someone told me that Internews is back with a new project on maternal and newborn health. I believe, like we did with HIV and AIDS, these stories will become rife in the Kenyan media.”

Story by Kiundu Waweru, Internews health media trainer in Kenya. Internews’ current health reporting work in Kenya, Health Voices Amplified, is supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). In addition to working with Kenyan journalists, the project will also build the capacity of DFID communication officers and health officials in reporting maternal and newborn health stories.