Reporters on the Job

Last Names First: When the main subject of today's story,"Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness," introduced herself to staff writer Abraham McLaughlin she said her name was Atto Betty.

The order of names she used was typical among folks in this part of Uganda and in other rural parts of Africa – her clan name first, and her individual name second. In the US, of course, we'd know her as Betty Atto.

"It's a small thing but also hugely symbolic of what I see as the basic difference between Western and African culture – Western individualism and African communalism," says Abe.

"Western culture essentially revolves around individuals – celebrities, biographies, individual and human rights, etc. But in many places in Africa," he says, "it matters much more where you come from and which family or clan or ethnic group you belong to. Group identifiers, in fact, are arguably far more important than each individual's identity."

Abe says that in this communal context, Betty's homecoming wasn't just about one person stepping on an egg".

"The fact that the community was willing to welcome her back meant that, after years of exile, during which she was effectively a nobody, she was now regaining her identity. It's why she seemed particularly proud that day to introduce herself first as Atto, then as Betty," he says.

But Abe's interview with Betty – and her photo – almost didn't happen. Throngs of schoolchildren were elated about the presence of this white guy and "followed me everywhere, which meant I couldn't get time alone to interview Betty," he says. "Finally, I had her step into the quiet of my rolling office – the 4x4 SUV I'd rented.

"Later, after interviewing lots of other people, I realized that I hadn't taken a picture of Betty. When I finally found her again, it was dark," he says. "I was a bit panicked. After all, as our photo editor says, 'You don't have a story without a picture.' I positioned the 4x4 so its headlights were on Betty, and they were just bright enough to get her photograph. Saved by the 4x4!"

David Clark Scott
World editor

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