Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Editor | Writer | Media Consultant

A simple walk

Posted on | March 5, 2014 | 1 Comment

Before the chaos hits: heading home from school through the compound.

Before the chaos: heading home from school through the compound.

We moved to Kinshasa a few weeks ago. We don’t yet have a car, something most expats consider a necessity in this sprawling city of 9 million. While my older son takes the school bus across town, my younger son and I take a 20-minute walk to his preschool.

We’ve only been doing this a few days and I’m already thinking about all the things I will miss if we start driving instead. When we walk, it’s impossible to tune out the sensory immediacy of the street. We hear the horns, we smell the dust, we jump over streams of gray water, we avoid muddy spots or suspicious-looking trash, we dash across the street when there’s a break in traffic. These are not things one would generally consider desirable, but to me they resonate somewhere deep within, memories of a childhood spent in Pakistan. I want my son to feel the same sense of familiarity as I do with this landscape.

Sometimes, we step aside for speeding SUVs, and sometimes, they slow down to let us pass. We pass street-side vendors with cartons of eggs and baskets of baguettes. As we walk, we join the trickle of other people on foot, Kinois who are always smartly coiffed and dressed in pressed shirts and pretty dresses, carrying handbags or backpacks, and going somewhere — to work or to pursue the chance of work. The rutted hexagon-paved sidewalk cuts in and out like a faulty cellular signal, interrupted by shallow banks of sand, and we adjust our strides to match.

Sometimes someone will look at us, me and my little boy with his little backpack, as if wondering what we’re doing on foot by the side of the road in this neighborhood overrun with expat SUVs. Sometimes strangers will smile spontaneously at us, or murmur a greeting in reply to ours. Today, while I eyed where the shallowest point might be to cross a flooded street, a man cheerfully called out to me with the respectful moniker given to all mothers: “Bonjour, Maman!”

A tart berry right out of my childhood.

A tart berry right out of my childhood.

My favorite part of the walk is entering the vast industrial compound where we must wind along a long road to the little corner where the preschool has rented an old office lot and turned it into a child’s paradise. The road into the compound is shaded by giant trees with leaves the size of melons and roots so sturdy and large they look like buttresses on a castle, or more appropriately, the powerful tails of alligators. These old trees block out the noise of the traffic outside, making the dirt and din seem far away. Instead, my son and I see on the ground green and golden almond-shaped berries whose red flesh has burst from passing cars. The little flesh they have around a large seed tastes tart and rather stringy, I remember from my childhood. These berries used to grow in Jeddah and in Karachi. Even my mother remembers them from when she was a girl: vendors would stuff them with masala for an extra-sour treat outside her school.

Sometimes a lizard will flash by in a blur of yellow and red stripes. I try to catch a glimpse of my favorite bird, a tiny sparrow-like thing with a dainty blue head and tail and dusky grey wings. It seems to like the almond-shaped berries too. There are lots of workers around the compound: street sweepers leisurely moving the berries and leaves to little piles on the side of the road, men in overalls napping on the grass, men on large trucks headed out of the compound. My son takes them all in.

And this is why the walk to school has been a gift so far. I live in an upscale neighborhood that is considered isolated from the everyday reality of most residents of Kinshasa, a capital city that is itself considered isolated from the rest of an impenetrably forested and conflicted country. The enormity of the Congo’s geography and painful history cannot be grasped during our two years here. But during our walks at least, my little son looks and exclaims at the ground, the birds, the lizards, the giant trees, the people around him in the Congo. He looks, and he sees, and he grows a little with each excited exclamation. With each walk, he and I feel a little more of a part of Kinshasa.

We've learned that after a rainstorm, this intersection can get pretty flooded.

After a rainstorm, we learned this intersection floods.

Vision Man

Posted on | August 5, 2013 | No Comments

I’m still taking in the details around Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post, but my first reaction is of unbridled delight and of — what’s that unfamiliar feeling? — oh yes, optimism, when I think about the future of the digital news industry.

The Washington Post’s reporting has suffered huge blows in recent years, with multiple buyouts and the departures of most of its best-known talent. As readers have shifted to free digital news, the Post has suffered a precipitous drop in print circulation and classified ad revenue, on top of losses from its parent company’s other ventures like Kaplan. Moreover, these staff reductions have corresponded with an increase in proofreading and copyediting errors.

I would argue that a big reason for the decline in readership and profits is that the Post has displayed a real lack of imagination in leveraging the Web for news gathering and reporting. I’d say this has been an issue for nearly 10 years. When I interned at washingtonpost.com in 2004, operations at the Washington Post newspaper and its website were completely separate: these were two separate organizations with separate logos, working out of offices separated by the Potomac River, and holding morning meetings by videoconference. This was not a recipe for seamless collaboration.

Even now, the Post site reads mainly like the newspaper on my screen, with a few blogs thrown in. I even uninstalled the Post mobile app from my smartphone some months ago because it was buggy, the local news section wouldn’t update for months, and when I complained to the Post about it via Twitter, I never heard a tweet back.

So when the Post recently implemented a pay wall, even a news junkie like me was reluctant to sign up for a digital subscription. (This unscientific poll on a local parenting forum shows I’m not alone.)

I believe Jeff Bezos can bring new energy into this picture. If there’s one thing Bezos has, it’s vision. He dreamed nearly 20 years ago about what he could do to jump on the exploding use of the Internet and created the technology to dramatically change the way we access the things we need, and even the things we don’t need but must have once we spend time on his site. He fought off competitors and created the world’s largest and best known retail website without sacrificing top-quality customer service. (The work conditions at Amazon’s warehouses are another story, I think, and worth some thought about what this may say about reporters’ jobs. Not that things could get any worse for many reporters, really.)

Old-time news organizations need a digital kick in the pants. They are in a rut. First they gave all their print content away on the Web, and now they are taking turns trying the same things — staff reductions, paywalls, ad nauseum — trying to get readers back. They are cutting reporters, copyeditors and photographers, and somehow expecting the inferior quality of their content to convince more people to read it.

I’m counting on today’s announcement to mark the start of a new future for digital news. I’m counting on Bezos to re-imagine the way the Washington Post, and indeed the entire news industry, can use the Web to gather and deliver information in a financially sustainable way, so that the bloodletting can finally stop — and consumers can get what they need  before they even know they need it, so that, ultimately, the public’s right to information wins.

Maybe Bezos is the man who will finally implement a concept I’ve been fervently wishing for: creating a consortium of online news organizations that provide universal online news access for a single monthly fee, preferably under $10 a month. A fee that most people would not find burdensome and which would help support real news gathering, without feeling exploitative. Kind of like subscribing to cable, but for online news. I would love for something like this to happen, because I am not very happy at the thought of a future where every single news site I visit — and I visit a lot during a day — demands $14.99 every month. (I’m looking at you, New York Times and Washington Post.)

So, Jeff Bezos — your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to save a dying news industry.

You’re the best shot digital news may have for some fresh ideas. There’s not much left to lose.

The NRA’s not-so-hidden message

Posted on | April 13, 2013 | No Comments

policeman and schoolkids in karachi, photo credit RFERL.org

Schoolchildren in Karachi, or the NRA’s vision for American schools? Photo credit Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In my hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, it’s common to see a bevy of mustached guards holding machine guns, wearing crisscrossed bandoliers over their chests, and riding in a caravan of pick-up trucks behind some Very Important Person.

Usually, the size of the security contingent is directly proportional to that person’s estimation of his own political power. On the road or in any public space, the contingent enforces its expectation that other people will clear out of its way.

The message behind such an over-the-top presence is clear: Do not mess with us. Don’t get too comfortable. This is not really your city. It’s ours.

Last week, the National Rifle Association made me feel as if I were back in Karachi. Back in a place where the person who flexes the biggest muscle claims the right to push others around on their own turf.

On April 2, an NRA-funded taskforce held a news conference at the National Press Club, a storied 100-year-old organization in downtown Washington where journalists cover press events during the day and hang out socially by night.

The club rents out press briefing rooms to other organizations, often hosting four or more events a day. National officials and foreign leaders regularly stop by for press appearances. Like time capsules, headlines from national and local newspapers at crucial points in history hang outside its bar, The Reliable Source. “Nixon Resigns.” “Local Ranch Owner Elected President.” There’s a great taco buffet on Friday nights.

I’ve loved inhaling the mix of journalism history and ideals at the Press Club since my days as a student reporter working a few floors down in the National Press Building. The Press Club, to me, is a safe space, its open access to world-famous leaders the antithesis to the swaggering, gun-toting, might-is-right politics in Pakistan.

That’s why I was taken aback when I entered the club to see eight or nine burly guards in dark suits stationed around the lobby, surveying everything with eagle eyes. At least one wore an earpiece with a wire traveling down the back of his collar. They were, as one journalist cracked to me later, “as big as refrigerators.” I’d never seen such a security presence in the eight years I’d been coming to the club.

Was it the Secret Service? I wondered. Surely, in a city where I’d seen U.S. senators walk alone and spotted Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer all by herself in a public food court, only an American or foreign president would warrant this kind of security.

No, they were just NRA-supplied guards for an event on school safety. An NRA taskforce was releasing its recommendations that morning for improving security practices in America’s schools. A guard checked my backpack and asked if I was carrying any water before I was allowed to enter the briefing room.

Another eight or nine men guarded the front and back exits of the room as Asa Hutchinson, a former Congressman from Arkansas and the director of the taskforce, presented his report. His recommendations included training at least one staff member per school to carry a gun.

“What are you afraid of?” a reporter asked Hutchinson after his formal presentation, referring to the massive security.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Hutchinson replied, surrounded by guards. Shopping malls have security, he said, and so did the Press Club.

I had to chuckle.

It got less funny when reporters emptied out of the briefing room after the press conference, some positioning themselves in the lobby with their cameramen in preparation for Hutchinson’s exit.

As one cameraman veered in front of the library to get a better view, a very large guard stepped in front of him and told him to move. The camera guy protested. The situation was so blatantly unreasonable I had to interject.

“This is the Press Club,” I told the guard, who towered about a foot and a half above me. “He can film there if he wants.”

Then it was my turn to be called out of line for standing in the lobby of my own club.

Guard: “Ma’am, you have to move.”

Me: “Why? I’m a journalist and a member and I can stand here if I want.”

“Ma’am, I’m telling you to move.”

“Why? I’m not doing anything.”

Pause.

“The gentleman is going to come through.”

“So I’ll move aside when he comes, like I would for anyone else.”

The message behind the NRA’s intimidating security presence was as clear as the tactics used by Very Important People in my hometown: Do not mess with us. This is not really your space. It’s ours.

That message is more alarming in light of the NRA taskforce’s proposal to arm teachers and other school staff members as a way to increase security in schools. It’s a recommendation that the NRA itself put forward soon after 20 elementary school children were gunned down in their classrooms in Newtown, Conn., last December.

I’m a journalist but I’ve also been a schoolteacher. And I want to know how my 7th graders in Pakistan would have felt if they thought that the bulge under my shirt, as I stood in front of them in the classroom, was a gun.

And how children in American classrooms would feel thinking that not just one, but several teachers in their school, including those they don’t get along with, were carrying guns.

Would they feel intimidated? Would they feel scared? Would they speak up less or think twice before challenging them to heated classroom discussions about topics they cared about?

What message would kids get from an armed contingent of adults in their school, a safe space they should consider their own?

Don’t get too comfortable. This is not really your school. It’s ours.

Kinshasa

Posted on | March 28, 2013 | 3 Comments

View of Kinshasa

Looks familiar to me. Photo courtesy of David Hecht/IRIN.

I’m moving to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, probably later this year. We don’t know exactly when, but we’ll be there for two years. I’ve been reading a lot about the country in the week since my husband found out his next work assignment.

I’ve got a lot of learning to do, starting with the fact that DR Congo is not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo. They are separate countries whose capital cities, Kinshasa and Brazzaville, gaze at each other across the river Congo.

Of the things I’ve learned about Kinshasa so far, the knowledge that it has a locally grown symphony orchestra is my favorite. Check out this YouTube trailer of the movie Kinshasa Symphony, which came out in 2010.

DR Congo was at war just 10 years ago. Fighting still rages in its east. But life there is getting better, by all accounts: the World Bank estimated last year that DR Congo’s economy would grow by 7 percent over the next two years.

This economic development marks DR Congo as part of Africa’s emergence as the world’s fastest growing continent. I had no idea of how far things had improved in Africa until I read this eye-opening cover story in the Economist.

I’m a little nervous about the move. But the landscape reminds me of growing up in Karachi, now a city of 16 million people. I feel an instinctive recognition, a connection, when I look at pictures of Kinshasa, home to 9 million people and Africa’s second-largest city. In its concrete structures and crowded streets, its graceful palm trees and rolling private lawns, I see echoes of my own childhood.

I think my family’s going to be fine there.

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