What I did this summer: Reporting from West Africa
Print journalism junior Paul Bowers has been telling stories that detail the world around him since he was a boy. Last spring, New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof surprised Bowers with the opportunity to expand his worldview. Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, announced that Bowers would be his reporting partner on a two-week trip to West Africa.
Bowers beat out 900 other applicants for the spot.
“The fact that Paul’s entry was viewed more favorably than students’ submissions from Harvard, Yale, University of North Carolina, and Columbia University Graduate School demonstrates everything that’s great about studying journalism,” said Carol Pardun, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications. “If you are tenacious, brave and, yes, talented, the sky is the limit.”
Bowers stood out from the competition with an essay and video blog that expressed his need to share other peoples’ experiences. Kristof said it was Bowers’ compassionate storytelling that gave him the edge in the third-annual competition.
“I picked Paul partially because I thought he could effectively communicate with college students,” Kristof said in a video blog. “He had a great record of writing, he does blogs, and he knows video.”
During the May trip, Bowers was given free rein to blog about whatever he thought the rest of the world should see and hear. He posted daily stories and video blogs about his adventures with the locals and the struggles of everyday life in Liberia and Sierra Leone, two neighboring countries on the coast of West Africa.
Although he has been writing professionally since he was 13, Bowers said he was surprised by the amount of people who followed his online stories. Though he claims that friends and family made up the majority of his followers, people from Africa and across the United States have commented online about the truthfulness of his reporting.
With long histories of political instability and civil war, Liberia and Sierra Leone presented Bowers with issues and situations he had never experienced.
Liberia’s social unrest began in 1980 when a coup overthrew the current ruler. By the late-1980s, economic collapse sparked the country’s ruinous civil war when the Patriotic Front of Liberia militia invaded the capital of Monrovia. Fighting among Liberian rebel groups continued for the next two decades with brief periods of fragile peace as militia groups supported emerging rebel movements in Sierra Leone. These Sierra Leone rebels later become known for inflicting severe physical punishments, such as hacking off the hands and feet of civilian women and children.
The United Nations is credited with bringing more stable governments to the two countries, but peace remains strained in Liberia and Sierra Leone as both nations struggle with the turmoil their wars have left behind.
Bowers believes that journalists’ coverage of the civil wars has exposed others to the plight of boy soldiers who were recruited to do much of the fighting. Filmmakers and rock stars, including Bono and Kenya West, have lent their voices to the effort to expose social injustices. Celebrities’ role in this and other humanitarian causes has led the Western world to demand change.
Bowers says he admires Kristof -- who he calls the Indiana Jones of Journalism -- and others who live their lives to uncover injustices with the hope that their stories will reach people who can help.
After the fighting, African countries rooted in patriarchal practices generally struggle with a dark heritage of rape.
“Rape is a legacy of war,” said Bowers, recalling his visit to a rape clinic in Liberia. During the civil wars, rape was used like a “gang initiation” to create a bond among the boy soldiers, Bowers said.
These boys, who are now grown men, do not always understand the psychology and physical implications of rape because of their backgrounds.
Government officials and women’s rights organizations are pushing for tougher punishment for rapists and a shift in the social understanding of rape. But Bowers says this fight is an uphill battle.
Bowers also wrote several stories about the medical issues facing the poorest residents of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Although the Western world believes that AIDS is Africa’s biggest health epidemic, Bowers said, the women and children of Africa are dying of curable illnesses.
“Most African children die from malnutrition or some curable virus or disease,” Bowers said. “Doctors don’t have the proper training or treatments.”
In a maternity ward, Bowers watched expectant mothers suffer from labor pain and infections because of a lack of medical resources. This suffering left Bowers wishing he could do more to help.
“I asked myself, ‘What should our response be as Christians?’” Bowers said. “I am still wrestling with those things. Some things still haunt me when I think about it. I pray for wisdom.”
But not all of Bowers' experiences were so wearisome.
West African boy
One afternoon while exploring a local market, Bowers ran across a group of young boys playing soccer on an old basketball court. The boys, thinking Bowers was rich, crowded around asking if he would sponsor their team. The boys played on the dusty court in old street clothes and kicked around a flat ball.
Bowers spent the next couple of hours searching the market vendors, negotiating for a suitable ball for the boys to play with.
After returning with a rubber ball, which the boys eyed as treasure, Bowers ran up and down the old court with his new friends until the sun set.
After returning home from West Africa, Bowers didn’t slow down. He began a two-month internship with the Post & Courier, working for the metro desk and writing features for the Faith section.
He plans to work even more next summer before his senior year at Carolina. Bowers then has plans for a career in print journalism, despite the shifting landscape of the news business.
“If I was in this for the job security and good pay, I would have picked a different profession,” Bowers said.
But Bowers, who is following in the footsteps of his "Indiana Jones" mentor, will likely survive industry shifts thanks to his experience telling stories.