by Yuexuan Chen
I’m spending the next two months in Durban, South Africa interning for a small investigative environmental journalism nonprofit called Oxpeckers. It’s really a perfect internship for me in so many ways.
Last year, I was scouring through all the different journalism NGOs in the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and Oxpeckers caught my eye because it was a data driven news outlet specifically focused on environmental journalism. I sent an email, and Fiona—the founder of Oxpeckers—replied right away. After a couple Skype calls and a DukeEngage (a Duke University program that funds two-month volunteer trips around the world for students) application, I was committed to coming to South Africa for the summer.
I’m working in Durban with Andiswa who is one of the associates in the network of journalists who work for Oxpeckers. Right now, I’m mostly helping her with the more data-oriented side of investigative journalism, cleaning and matching spreadsheets of water-use licenses for various extractives companies. We’re also working towards a podcast and long-form article on water and fracking issues in Drakensberg Park which locals call ‘the Berg’.
On my second day in Durban, I was in the car with my new friend, Siya, who was telling me about his hometown. The city, the beach, the traffic, his childhood, the mixed school district he grew up in, the townships, the segregated communities…
“If you think a lot about it, it’s so [messed] up here,” Siya said. “So [messed] up.”
And that’s how every country I’ve ever been to has turned out to be. There’s layers to every country’s story and at a certain point, you hit the bedrock of everything systemically wrong with that nation. Sexism, racism, poverty, inequality, corruption and discrimination–to varying degrees and in different ways–make up the past and present of our world.
I’m lucky to have been able to see the best of many unique cultures around the globe. And I’m just as grateful to listen in on each country’s problems and attempted solutions.
Investigative journalism is a lot of thinking about everything wrong with the world and digging up the evidence to help change it. I think of investigative journalism as kind of a strenuous, uphill bike ride in the blazing heat while random fruits are getting chucked at you, you’re getting lost and sunburnt, there’s dust in your eyes and your contacts come out. And environmental journalism can feel like you’re just watching the world burn while typing away about how it’s burning.
Over my first weekend in South Africa, I stayed a night at my rock climbing partner, Marco’s, house in the bush. It was a night of spiders, other creatures, stars and him telling me about all the black mamba snakes breeding in the area.
In the morning while making breakfast, he said, “Recycling feels kind of like cleaning the door handles on the Titanic.”
With all issues regarding climate change, water and other resources, it can feel extremely discouraging to be spending all your time and efforts on trying to solve such a tiny part of a huge, global issue. It can feel disorienting in not even knowing where to start because there seems to be no end, except maybe the end of humanity at some point.
In my first week of work, Fiona and Andiswa invited me to listen in on a group call between many different organizations around Africa that advocate for the environment in various ways like media reporting, research or legal proceedings. It was so cool to see how all these different non-profits pooled their resources to fight against corruption and for the environment. Knowing that all these different people around the continent collaborate to help make changes in legislation was inspiring.
I couchsurfed for a couple days last week in New Germany, 25 minutes outside of Durban. My host, Heather, is a construction worker who is working odd jobs to save up money for yet another motorbike trip abroad. Her last one was India and her next is Tanzania.
About safety in South Africa, she said bad things do happen, but as with anywhere in the world, 99 percent of people are good and out to help you. She said she’s gotten a flat on the freeway twice and both times, people stopped, offered help even though she didn’t need it and didn’t let her finish changing the tire without help. The time that she got mugged during rush hour, the perpetrator finally realized she actually didn’t have anything in the car, shook her hand and left.
As a journalist, I think it’s important to remember that most people are good and most problems aren’t a result of bad people with horrible intentions. Whenever I mention to a South African that I’m here to do journalism, they laugh, mention red tape and wish me luck. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by how dire the situation looks, how helpless you feel and how impossible the issue can be to untangle, but there’s hope to be found and people who care about the same things you do.
I’m not here to break some big story or solve water scarcity, but I am here to contribute to an organization that I believe has identified important projects to tackle in a country where their extractives/mining is the major pollutive industry and their freshwater scarcity is making global headlines.
It’s my first week of investigating and so far I’ve discovered that there’s lots of love and stories to found in this huge, diverse and complex country.