The Ugandan Reporter Shedding Light on the Lives of Missing Children
How Gladys Kalibbala Found her Journalistic Calling
“LOST AND ABANDONED”
Many children get lost every day, while others are abandoned
by their parents. Every Saturday, we bring you stories of those
seeking to reunite with their families.
In 2005, when she was in her early forties, Gladys Kalibbala stepped into the newsroom in Kampala for the first time. It was a bright, modern office with clusters of desks and computers sectioned by low dividers. She should have felt cool in that high-ceilinged space. But she was standing at the desk of Catherine Mwesigwa, deputy editor at New Vision, one of the largest newspapers in the country. Sweating.
Everywhere around her, she saw reporters who were closer to her children’s age than to hers—well-dressed young professionals from middle-class urban families, with university degrees in mass communication. Here she was, a struggling middle-aged mother of two who had not completed secondary school, asking for a job.
Maybe this woman will ask me to produce my degree, Gladys thought, the degree I do not have. What choice was there but to come clean?
“I would like to tell you how it is I am here,” she began. “You see, I was working in civil service . . .”
She told Catherine Mwesigwa the whole story. How she had been reassigned from one government ministry to another, so that when job cuts were made, she was among the first sent home. How she searched fruitlessly for employment for two years, during which time the father of her children died, leaving her to care for the young ones on her own. How she tried opening a small bookshop, only to be plagued with break-ins. How all seemed bleak until she heard about a new program offered by the subcounty.
The program had been set up to educate college-bound students in media communications. Gladys had no chance of higher education, but the idea of studying journalism appealed to her on two fronts. First, she came from a family of readers. She would rather miss lunch than a newspaper. While working for the Ministry of Agriculture, she had savored big fat novels like those juicy ones by Harold Robbins. Oh, how time would disappear!
Second, she was relentlessly inquisitive, and no matter her job, people would tell her she was in the wrong profession. “You really ask a lot of questions!” her bosses would remark. “You can scare people with all your questions.” “What are you, a reporter?”
Gladys signed up for the media communications program, although it had already been in session for two months. Walking into the classroom, she felt old and new and awkward. The other students were half her age; she looked more like their mother than their classmate.
As she began to study, though, her discomfort dissipated. In journalism, her natural curiosity was more than a strength, it was a requirement. A reporter needed to pursue the five W ’s: the Who, What, When, Where, Why. If Gladys was asking the questions, no one would get away without giving her all five.
While her fellow students struggled to come up with even a couple of articles a month, Gladys found material everywhere. One didn’t have to interview the prime minister to have an interesting story; one could have a chat with one’s elderly neighbor.
Maybe this profession can work for me, Gladys thought.
It was a financial struggle, but after two years she completed the course. As her younger classmates headed off for college, she went looking for a job.
All this she explained to deputy editor Catherine Mwesigwa. “So I don’t know if your paper can employ such a person as me. As I don’t have a degree . . .” She trailed off, ending the lengthy recitation not with a bang but a whimper.
There was a beat of silence. Then the other woman laughed. It was not a mocking laugh but a kindly one. Surprised, Gladys began laughing too.
While Cathy looked younger than Gladys, she was much closer to her in age than the 20-something reporters who populated most of the surrounding desks. With her patient, low-key demeanor, she projected warmth and intelligence.
“I want you to note one thing,” Cathy said, pressing down on each word as if she were signing a document. “Journalism is not about a degree.”
Emboldened, Gladys reached for the papers she had brought with her. Around the newsroom, one could hear the clicking of keyboards, the whir of copy machines. Gladys had no printer, no computer. The sheets she held out were handwritten in pen, like a student’s homework.
“These are some stories I have written,” she said. “So you can see my work.”
Among the stories Gladys offered was one about an old car, a Fiat, that had been running for over 40 years. She knew about the Fiat because it was the vehicle that had taken her to primary school in Entebbe. Roads in Uganda, with their dust and ruts and potholes, were infamously cruel to cars. But the trusty white-and-black Fiat was still puttering away. The owner had not even replaced the seat cushions. “Other than its old registration number, you would hardly believe the car was in existence even during the reign of King Freddie Muteesa II,” Gladys had written in her broad, loose hand. But she did not focus solely on the car. She wrote about the owner of the “wonder Fiat,” a former printing engineer who liked to play music on the weekends and who had been jailed for two months during the government changeover in 1979, after Idi Amin was finally deposed. “For his leisure, Doka reads the Koran,” the article concluded. “His favourite food is kisira (cassava flour) and fish.”
They published it. A big, two-page feature. Under the headline “Doka in Love with His 40-Year-Old Fiat,” there it was: by Gladys Kalibbala.
She was a New Vision reporter.
Gladys soon developed a reputation for her human-interest reporting. She covered many subjects—airport construction, Ebola testing, garbage management, a five-legged bull—but it was her writing about ordinary people that attracted attention. Other reporters declared that without even looking at the byline, they could tell which stories were hers. The 17-year-old with severe mental retardation who had just learned to feed himself. The funeral of a 94-year-old local council chairman. The orphan who received an artificial leg.
Cathy told her, “You know what? The stories you are producing, these are unique! We can’t get such stories from any of those people with degrees from Makarere University.”
Another boss who noticed her work was Dr. Charles Wendo, the editor of the paper’s new weekend edition, Saturday Vision.
Like Gladys, Dr. Wendo had not entered journalism through the front door. He had risen from poor, rural roots, studying veterinary medicine before switching to the newspaper trade. Journalism, he believed, had great potential to improve society. Over the years, though, he had found it difficult to find like-minded colleagues.
In the 1980s, when Dr. Wendo was a student, good schools were spread out over the country. Even with his humble background, he was able to attend a solid secondary school. These days such an opportunity was rare. The good schools had become concentrated in urban areas around Central Uganda. They were expensive facilities in expensive neighborhoods, accessible only to those with means. So the Ugandans with degrees in mass communication had less and less in common with the disadvantaged.
From what Dr. Wendo had witnessed, journalists fell into two categories. The first contained the vast majority of reporters, interested in prestigious stories: those who hunted after the light, comfortable assignment. Profiling the owner of a new hotel, for example, where the reporter would be welcomed at reception, given a soft chair in the lobby, and served a cup of sweet-smelling coffee to enjoy while waiting for the big man. Or breaking news—say, the juicy corruption scandal that would be on everyone’s lips by teatime.
The second—and far smaller—category held those reporters who prioritized substance over glamour or comfort, embracing assignments about health issues, human rights, poverty. As a member of this second category, Gladys stood out. It was rare to find journalists with enthusiasm for covering the disadvantaged. Few wanted to venture into slums, past piles of smoking rubbish, to talk with people in depressing situations.
Reporters in the first category might relax at their desks, conducting interviews on their phones. If those were known in the office as “helicopter journalists,” Gladys was a foot soldier: out in the field, boots on the ground. She was always running outside to flag down a boda boda. Those motorcycle taxis were the most dangerous means of transportation, especially for women sitting sidesaddle, but also the fastest. No one else in the office would ride a boda boda for hours to reach someone with a rare disease, or spend half the day in the hospital with an indigent accident victim.
For Gladys, there was no other way to cover a story. The only way to get what she needed was to go to the scene. Especially when writing about a child—what could a four-year-old tell her over the phone? Many rural children had never even held a mobile, let alone spoken to a stranger on one.
The observations Gladys made in the field revealed more than any phone interview. Like the state of a home. Did the family have a mattress, or only mats on the ground? Did the children have shoes? If they lacked shoes, did they have jiggers, those terrible parasites that attacked the feet? One look at a child’s face could tell Gladys whether he had eaten supper that night. The way a mother held her infant could indicate her level of affection. Even odors provided information: the length of time since a child had been bathed, the sobriety of a parent.
Dr. Wendo noted Gladys’s observational skill and dogged focus, which often put her younger colleagues to shame. Every day he received “helicoptered” stories at his desk in neatly packaged paragraphs, but the information contained within was often superficial or incomplete. Anyone could throw statistics into an article: family planning is available to only 20 percent of married Ugandan women; over one-third of the population lives on less than $2 USD (6000 shillings) a day. It was quite another matter to profile a family of 11 huddled under a leaky roof.
Granted, Gladys was not the best writer in the pool. Her work took more of his attention to edit. But given the choice between a good packager and a good gatherer, Dr. Wendo would take the latter any day! Only a fool would choose a mansion of cardboard over a hut of brick.
One day in 2007, Dr. Wendo called Gladys over to his desk to discuss an assignment.
His brother-in-law was a policeman at Wandegeya, where lost children frequently showed up. Wandegeya was the closest police station to the New Vision offices. Gladys had covered similar stories of neglected and abandoned children; what if she were to go to Wandegeya to write about all such cases they had this week?
Gladys needed no coaxing. She waved down a boda boda and went to the station, where she interviewed the children and gathered information from the officers. The resulting piece in Saturday Vision included a half-dozen profiles. Next to the children’s photos, Gladys summarized the circumstances of their plight, the locations where they had been found, names of known relatives, home villages, and schools, followed by the phone number of the police station.
The next week Gladys checked back with the police to see whether the article had had any impact. Sure enough, three people had come to the station to pick up their children.
“Oh!” Dr. Wendo exclaimed. “That’s great, Gladys!”
He sent her back to Wandegeya. Again more children, again more reunions.
Gladys quickly made the assignment her own. The only assistance she required was transport money and the loan of a company camera. She easily got in the good books of the police, and between the officers and the children, she gleaned every bit of relevant information.
Dr. Wendo was delighted. Again he called Gladys to his desk. “I feel that we can create something with this. Weekly.”
Gladys’s heart beat faster. A weekly column? “Yes, it is a good idea.”
“But will you be able to get the stories every week?” he asked. “I don’t want to be disappointed one time when I have the space for you and you can’t fill it.”
“Trust me! It can’t fail.”
This was less a boast about her reporting skills than a comment on the state of the world. In Uganda, millions of children were growing up without parents. The mass abduction of children by Joseph Kony for his fanatical Lord’s Resistance Army in the 1990s and early 2000s had drawn much media attention, but there were other, less sensational reasons for the neglected generation: extreme poverty, the loss of family members to AIDS, the lack of education, and most of all lack of access to family planning. In 2013, the average Ugandan woman gave birth to six children. Gladys had seen many children having children—girls who had never been taught about sex.
Every day hundreds of these children and children of children washed up on the shores of urban centers like Kampala. How many of them could Gladys feature in her column?
Lack of material would never be her problem. Only lack of space.
Very quickly, “Lost and Abandoned” gained popularity. The format—a photo of the child accompanied by a biographical haiku—was easy to digest. Every column elicited a handful of responses, usually between one and ten. It was not a large number, but the leads were solid. Relatives would call to claim a child; neighbors would offer information; strangers would donate assistance. Some Good Samaritans were well-to-do; many were not.
As Gladys’s phone number was often listed in the column, people began to call her directly. Sometimes ordinary citizens reported children they had found; sometimes parents reported children they had lost. Many times police officers or social workers called to request her help with a case. Gladys widened her rounds to include other Kampala police stations—Kawempe, Old Kampala, Jinja Road—babies’ homes, and “reception centers” where older kids were housed.
On Thursdays she hopped on and off of boda bodas, conducting interviews, snapping pictures, taking notes, and making phone calls. On Mondays and Tuesdays she compiled her stories; on Tuesday nights she submitted them by email. Editing and layout were completed by Friday, and on Saturday morning the issue would appear at kiosks and on newspaper racks around the country.
It was a challenging schedule, made all the more so by the fact that her earnings from “Lost and Abandoned” were too little to live on. She had to keep producing feature articles, even if, as a freelancer, she was paid only for articles that were published. The time and money she invested in a piece could well be wasted if it did not find a home on the page.
But there were always subjects she wanted to write about. Programs for people with disabilities. Sleeping sickness. Pollution in Lake Victoria. HIV and prostitution. And everywhere there were individuals whose stories she could not ignore. The young woman scarred by an acid attack. The family battling hereditary disease. The boda-boda driver maimed by a truck collision.
Sometimes people simply showed up at the offices of New Vision. If, say, a fruit vendor brought in a stray child, Camilla, the sympathetic receptionist, knew that there was only one reporter to call.
“Gladys, I have someone to see you.”
“My program is too full already. Can you call someone else? There are many other reporters here.”
“Yes,” Camilla would answer, her voice bright with confidence. “But this one needs you!”
Gladys might laugh or sigh or do both, but she would come.
Because she knew it was true.
From Garden of Lost and Abandoned. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2017 by Jessica Yu.