‘Big changes on a human scale’: Ryan Lenora Brown on reporting a continent (audio)

How do you cover a region where more than 1 billion people live? Sometimes, by focusing on just one or two at at time. A foreign correspondent’s mandate, Ryan once wrote, is to “draw the world in close” – to make it feel smaller, more relatable.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ryan Lenora Brown chats with a woman in a cocoa-producing village on Nov. 10, 2015 in Kwamang, Ghana.

‘Big changes on a human scale’: Ryan Lenora Brown

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True or false? Africa is not a country.

Easy. Of course it’s not a country; it’s 54 of them, in fact. But think of the images that come to mind when you hear the word “Africa,” and it’s not so hard to see why people think that it bears repeating that the continent is home to 1.3 billion people, hundreds of languages, and countless cultures. But historically, the snippets of Africa that flash across Western screens and pages have too often boiled down to a simplistic set of tropes: hungry schoolchildren, violent warlords, endangered species.

Dispelling the shadow of those stereotypes is central to the job of a foreign reporter in Africa today. It’s not that poverty and conflict don’t exist – but that the issues are so much more complex, and only part of the picture. 

Ryan’s writing has a way of wiping away the one-dimensional; of bringing the people who entrust their stories to her, and the places they live, into full-color life on the page. Frequently, they’re corners of the world most of us will never see, but that wind up feeling not so far away: a community circus in Addis Ababa; a newborn ward in Zimbabwe; an abandoned diamond mine in South Africa, plunging 700 feet deep. 

“For me, unlearning the things America taught me about Africa will probably be a lifelong endeavor,” Ryan wrote last year. Editing her work lets me come along for the journey.

Please take a few minutes to hear Ryan describe her compelling work in her own words. (Then scroll down to find a few of her stories.)

Note: This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.


MOLLY JACKSON: Hi, everyone. I'm Molly Jackson, Global South and Asia editor at the Christian Science Monitor. I'm here today, or recording anyway, with Ryan Leonora Brown, our bureau chief in Johannesburg, South Africa, which she's called home for six years. Ryan first came to the Monitor the same way a lot of us did, including me: as an intern. One graduate degree, one Fulbright Fellowship, and hundreds of clips later, she now reports from across Africa and fields and edits freelance stories from around the world as well. In the past year, she's written everywhere from a 56-mile foot race in South Africa to Ebola zones in eastern Congo to Middlebury, Vermont, where she spent a while intensely brushing up on her French in hopes of reporting more in Francophone Africa. So, Ryan, thanks for talking tonight. And let's start off by taking a look back at 2019. In the three years or so that we worked together, there have been several people you've introduced us to in your stories that I'm still thinking about now.

RYAN LENORA BROWN: Yeah. You know, I mean, there's lots. I'm always, always looking to meet people who can kind of bring down to a human scale big changes happening in a place, because I think especially when a place is far away from my readers, it can be hard to grasp something as huge as, you know, a coup or a war or a huge natural disaster or something like that. So I'm always looking for people whose experiences kind of encapsulate something about what's going on, but that can also speak to us just on a person to person level about what's happening. So I've met a ton of people like that this year, but somebody who really sticks with me and I think will really stick with me is Meaza Ashenafi, who is the chief justice of the Ethiopian Supreme Court, and she's the first woman to hold that position. And she's also just of a really fascinating person. And she was, for most of her career, a lawyer and an activist for women's rights, so kind of a thorn in the side of government. And so to see her kind of switch gears and joined the government really says a lot about where Ethiopia is right now. Ethiopia being a country in the midst of a big political transition. And then another one is, is this young man I met in Botswana who is just a university student and decided, sort of just off the cuff, that he was going to bring a legal challenge to Botswana's law that criminalized homosexuality. His name is Letsweletse Motshidiemang. And that challenge ended up being successful. And Botswana decriminalized homosexuality this year. So, yeah, his his story was really remarkable.

MOLLY: Yeah. And let's, you know, thinking about the portraits that you bring to life for people in your stories. Let's talk a little bit about how you do that in the first place and how you approach the people you're reporting about. When I think to your most memorable stories, the characters, the people are really always at the heart of them. And they're often people who you've just met, right, and often under very difficult circumstances. And the things that they're willing to share with you, usually those really demonstrate a lot of trust in you. And this person who has just met them is asking them questions about themselves. So can you tell us a little bit about how do you try to build that connection of trust with people, you know, with your sources, especially under often really difficult circumstances?

RYAN: Yeah, I mean, in a way, it's tricky and in a way, it's really simple. You know, obviously, if I have time with somebody, time is that is the best way to build trust and rapport. If you know that you're going to spend a while with somebody, then don't ask the hard questions in the first interview and kind of let them get to know you and you'll get to know them. But of course, you know, in this profession, we don't always have the luxury of time. And when there's not the luxury of time, I would say the thing that I always, always just try to remember is to be a human being before I'm a journalist. I think it's really easy as a journalist to get in the mode of just shooting off questions and recording the answers. And you're kind of this wall and it's this one way flow of information from the other person to you. And I found that everywhere I've ever been. People respond really positively if you give them a little bit of yourself before asking for a little bit of them.

MOLLY: There's one more thing that I would like to talk about, which is what it means to be an Africa correspondent, especially as an expat and as a white woman. Now, you work in a place that outsiders often read about or see on screen in a way that can be pretty one dimensional or reduced to stereotypes, or that just isn't shown on screen or in papers much at all. And you've often talked about your wish to show readers a fuller picture of Africa. So I wondered if you could tell us a bit about what that means to you and how that shapes your work.

RYAN: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think I think an important thing to keep in mind about the fact that Africa is so stereotyped in the Western imagination is that... that stereotyping was done by people who look like me for publications like the one I write for. You know, if you look into the Monitor archives and of course, it's not just the Monitor of all sort of Western media, a lot of our Africa coverage from earlier eras is a little bit cringeworthy when you see it through 21st century eyes. So there's there's a lot of people in in Africa who think that there should be a lot fewer people who look like me doing reporting about this place. And I don't think they're wrong. And I think that if I want to do this work, I must then justify every single day I'm here with every single story I write, why it's valuable for me to be here. Because I don't have some particular moral or intellectual authority, you know, that makes me an expert or makes me worthy of being the one who gets to tell these stories. I have to find ways and reasons to justify it to my readers and in the U.S. and everywhere and to people here who I write about and for as well. And in terms of making the media portrayal of Africa less one dimensional and stereotypical, I think that's first of all, that's just about there being more reporting out there from Africa, more and different reporting. So I try as much as I can to not be writing the same stories that other people are reporting because like I said, I'm trying to bring new perspectives and voices into conversations around the news here. And then just tell a wide spectrum of stories with nuance and grace and thoughtfulness. Because I think that's what we need. There's no one narrative about the continent of Africa. There's not one sad, depressing, stereotypical narrative. There's not one chirpy, positive, happy narrative. There's many, many stories. And there need to be equally as many people telling them. 

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: Thanks for listening. To see more of Ryan’s coverage, you can visit csmonitor.com. This story was produced by me, Samantha Laine Perfas with sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright The Christian Science Monitor, 2019.

Related links:

In historic shift, Botswana declares homosexuality is not a crime

When reporters talk about witnessing history, it’s often in slow motion – reflecting on years of subtle change. Not in this case. Ryan was one of just a few foreign journalists with a front row seat to history in a Botswana courtroom, watching judges deliver a life-changing ruling.

From women’s rights activist to Supreme Court chief: Meet Meaza Ashenafi

Asked which sources she’ll most remember this year, Ryan quickly said Meaza Ashenafi. She’s the first female chief justice of Ethiopia’s Supreme Court, and a woman with a modus operandi: If the world she wants to live in doesn’t exist, she tries to create it.

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