On the 12th floor of the United Nations building on the east side of midtown Manhattan, Jocelyne Sambira taps away at her computer on an article about the Somali disaspora. She moved a world away for this opportunity, away from Burundi, the tiny verdant East African nation of nine million she calls home. In her sparse vanilla colored cubicle a small flag of Burundi next to the computer monitor is her only decoration. Rain lashed at the windows, and against the steel-colored sky, her tightly braided hair with highlights and dark grey top with slashing zebra stripes seem almost out of place.
After more than 10 years working as a journalist in East Africa, Sambira is now a staff writer for the United Nations’ Africa Renewal magazine, a publication that departs from the stories of poverty and suffering that dominate headlines about Africa. She fits into a growing group of journalists who want to present a more affirmative vision of life in an African nation. In her writing, she tries to bridge geographical, cultural and even historical gaps to show the socio-economic advances all over the African continent. In the latest issue of Africa Renewal Sambira penned two articles: one about educational advances in Burundi and another about the destruction of relics in northern Mali. Two regions of Africa, two very different nations, but Sambira unified the writings under one question: how can African nations move forward?
“The vision for Africa Renewal is to also write the untold stories of Africa that you won’t see in mainstream, where things are working or things are being built,” she said. “A lot of Africans feel that there is only one story (about Africa) that’s being told.” That story is the one about poverty, famines, wars and genocide. It’s also the story that first drew Sambira toward journalism – by nearly killing her.
On April 5, 1994, Sambira traveled to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to visit her pregnant sister. One day later, the heads of state of both Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated in a plane crash, setting off genocidal killings throughout Rwanda that would claim over 800,000 lives. Sambira and her sister barely escaped.
“(My sister’s) husband stayed behind. We never saw him again,” she said. After a month in a camp for displaced persons, Sambira made it back to Burundi to continue her studies. There was only one problem: a lot of people assumed she had died.
The experience profoundly touched an impulse in Sambira to investigate and observe how people handled that (mis)information. “I was curious to see the different reactions,” she said. “Apparently there was one student, the first thing when she heard that I died was she tried to get my room at the university.” She did not know it then – her ambition had been to teach – but that brush with her reported death would slowly pivot her toward a career in journalism to reveal people’s motivations in shaping events during a turbulent time in Burundi’s history.
The months after returning to Burundi gave Sambira a chance to reflect on the forces that pushed Rwanda into violence. For her, the explanations always led back to the power of information – or crucially, who controls it. “I felt that giving people accurate and reliable information gave them power – and the power to choose. Many people derive power from withholding important information or keeping it to themselves. Whether it is during war or peace, being able to access information empowers,” she said.
Sambira saw that dynamic firsthand when she reconnected with one of her best friends in Burundi, but one difference complicated the situation: her friend belonged to the country’s other major ethnic group. The same ethnic division had been at the heart of Rwanda’s genocide. Even worse, her friend’s brother was a militant activist. “I had people telling me you shouldn’t trust her, her brother is a killer,” she said. “There was a lot of hate media in the region at the time.” She pressed on with the friendship. Despite engaging in political arguments and holding conflicting political beliefs, they remained such good friends they searched for jobs together. When only one opportunity finally came up to translate for an American non-governmental organization (NGO) working in refugee camps, they agreed to split the assignment – and the pay.
Working with refugees, Sambira finally got her chance to influence the channels in which information flows, and she loved its influence in building communities. The media work to inform refugees of their legal rights and protections quickly captivated her. She learned how radio could be an effective inexpensive medium to spread information quickly, even with low literacy rates. She grew especially interested in a project to preserve camp residents’ oral histories.
However, as her passion for journalism grew, she found few openings at the NGO to advance. She pushed for better access for journalists into the refugee camps but when approval finally came, she was passed over for the assignment. She knew it was time for a change. “If you really believe in something,” she said, “if you can’t do it where you are, maybe you can do it somewhere else.” She decided to pursue a fellowship in South Africa instead. It would lead to a chance offer to work on a new U.N. radio project in Kenya for displaced Burundians in refugee camps.
She spent the next seven years in Kenya and three more in South Sudan working with northern and southern Sudanese, continuing to promote peace amongst divided populations co-existing in common lands. She recalls training journalists from different regions or ethnic groups to adopt a shared vision to help the entire population, not just their own factions. Her work became an advocacy tool to help leaders “experience accountability” and share a vision that could help heal past wounds. It has not been easy.
“I think when guerilla warfare has happened, it’s because people have been hurt and they’re passionate and I understand that,” she said. “But once you’re out of that and you want to lead a country, manage a country, you have to step away from the hurt and the pain.”
In 2009, she, too, decided to step back. She accepted the position with Africa Renewal so she could write stories about policy changes and social trends from a wider perspective. The switch from South Sudan to New York did not go smoothly. “My first impression of New York was brown. Everything was brown, brown, brown,” she said. “I started to think maybe I should have stayed in Africa.”
The extreme physical and cultural contrasts in Sambira’s life – New York’s dizzying skyscrapers versus the lush undeveloped hills of Burundi, her U.N. desk job vs. working in refugee camps, dealing with rival ethnic factions – have often lead Sambira to seek a workable middle space. She talked about the view from the Empire State Building, which she thinks is just ok, and how she has no love for the subway, which makes her claustrophobic and queasy. “I think most Africans will relate because most of the movies we watch in terms of American life, there’s always something bad happening in the subway station,” she said. Now she is less fearful, but she knows perceptions can linger.
Sambira’s parents live in Montreal, but she still considers Burundi home. She knows that she has a lot of work to do to change perceptions, both of African nations and also of Africans’ perceptions about the world. Friends and relatives sometimes call up asking if she works with Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the U.N. They wonder if he and Sambira work in the same room, if she has his ear. At first she tried explaining that the U.N. is a large organization, that she never sees him, but people thought she was just being modest. She sighs. Walking down a cavernous hallway in the U.N. building, passing people of all nationalities, she said, “Sometimes people believe what they want to believe.”
For someone who has worked with so many refugees and knows the precious meaning of home, Sambira felt she needed to leave the sunny landscapes of east Africa to tell its story better. It might seem like a step up – “the United Nations headquarters in New York” has a crisp ring to it, and for many in the development profession, it is the pinnacle. But it is also an institution with layers and layers of bureaucracy and unfamiliar assignments. It is a trade, she hopes, that has afforded her a wider perspective, and a marble-tiled stage to tell the stories of people she has met along the way.
“There are people on the continent who have lives similar to the rest of the world, who work hard, are innovative and have dreams for their future. Even those stuck in conflict zones work hard to put food on the table and educate their children and keep them safe. It’s a story that is rarely told,” she said. “And I feel honored to be given that opportunity.”