Togo, unlike Ghana, is a francophone country, and it has gifted me with the chance to use the French I've been poring over the past two years in southern France for just such a time as this - I've been studying French to aid in my international reporting work.
I've been here with a small group of people observing the impact of a particular model for poverty reduction (more on that in the future). I loved working with the members of our visiting team as well as our Togolese hosts. But this has also been a reminder of parts of my past sub-Saharan Africa reporting experiences: You will often not be able to perfect or control your reporting experience - you'll have to just go with the flow and really test your journalist muscles.
Many of our "interviews" have taken place in group settings - more like the White House press corps posing questions than a Barbara Walters in-depth one-on-one with someone. I prefer the one-on-ones. I didn't travel all the way here for sound bites.
With the dearth of it on this trip, I'm realizing how much I depend on connecting with interviewees to aid me in my work. It's also part of why I do this work. I'm not a hardened reporter simply out for a good story. I do this work because I love people and find them fascinating. For me, much of the pay-off of interviewing (which is hard work, mind you) comes in the opportunity to connect with a person, to really SEE them, and to receive the gift they offer of letting themselves be seen. In return, I try to share a bit of myself too.
Here, though, that's been hard to do in the genial-though-it-is press conference environment we've been working in.
My favorite experience of this trip so far came on Sunday afternoon when our visiting team arrived to hear the stories of a large group of gathered facilitators in Kpalimé, a city near the Ghana border. The facilitators were divided into three groups, and our team was dispersed between them. But with only two translators aiding our team, I was left to fend for myself with my group. :-) Really, it was an honor that the organizing Togolese pastor and his wife trusted my French enough to leave me unattended. Some group members spoke French, and for the rest, one of the members--a teacher--translated between French and the local language. Left alone as the sole foreigner in their midst, I finally felt like I was able to have the connections with the group that I depend on to give spark to my work. I really enjoyed hearing the insights and experience of that group of people. We got beyond sound bites.
And this was partly possible because we could speak mostly the same language.
Fast forward to this morning when I and the local fixer-new friend headed out for me to do a few more interviews. I've come down with a travel cold and am tired. My French is working less well today. So again, the interviews I'd hoped for didn't play out quite like I'd planned. And I realized part of the reason is that just by nature of having the fixer present--helping with a bit of translating here and there--my usual interview dynamics are changed, no matter how nice and unobtrusive the fixer is. The press conference effect was gone today, but the interviews still weren't one-on-ones.
So, the moral of this little story (that I need to finish so I can go sleep off this cold before tomorrow morning's interviews!) is that it's nearly impossible to have the same interview through an interpreter than you can have on your own with a source. And that's why I needed to learn French and need to keep working toward better fluency. It's an invaluable tool for my work.
Okay, off to sleep. :-)