Behind-The-Scenes Of 'Africa Update'

News & Notes producer Devin Robins talks with Tony Cox about some of her favorite "Africa Update" segments she's produced over the past two years and offers an insider's perspective on a few high-profile interviews.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is News & Notes. This week, I'm going to be talking with the people who work behind the scenes here at News & Notes about their best experiences getting this show on air. First, we turn to Devin Robins, who's been producing our Africa segments for the past couple of years. Hi, Devin.

DEVIN ROBINS: Hi, Tony.

COX: You know, I wanted to ask you. What was your reaction when you were first assigned this?

ROBINS: I have to admit, I didn't know much about the continent. It seemed a really faraway place, and I was a bit hesitant.

COX: Well, now, you've become an expert. You've done hundreds, literally, hundreds of these segments, haven't you?

ROBINS: I have.

COX: Any stand out?

ROBINS: Yeah. You know, there's a couple that stand out to me, and one I haven't been able to shake is the story that we did on albinos being murdered in Tanzania. And I was reading a blog one day and I saw a very short blurb at the bottom about this. And I thought, well, I'm going to look into this a little bit more, and was able to track down the reporter, and it turns out, her name is Vicky Ntetema. She's the BBC bureau chief in Tanzania. And she had written the story because more than two dozen albinos had been murdered in about a nine-month period of time, and she felt like nobody was really paying attention.

COX: And how and - the way that and why there were murdered also made it interesting, didn't it?

ROBINS: It did. Because apparently, witch doctors in that area, that part of East Africa, believe that albinos have special powers, and that they can make you more successful in business and such. So, you know, there's some cultural history to it as well. And it took me a couple of weeks to track her down. And when I found her, she was in hiding in Kenya. She had fled Tanzania after her life was threatened. And I found her in a hut in Kenya on her cell phone.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. VICKY NTETEMA (Bureau Chief, BBC): Yes. I'm out of the country right now. And I don't know how safe I am in Tanzania. But because of these threats, the BBC authorities said that I should get out for a while and let things cool down. If they come and kill me, the report is out, the witch doctors have been exposed. At least I would say I died for a good cause, and maybe one less albino person would die.

ROBINS: The number of albinos murdered since we ran our story has risen to 45, but the president of Tanzania has urged people to tell on the killers, so that they can try to bring them to justice.

COX: Well, you know, there are many different kinds of stories, and that was a very serious and dark story, but you've also done a lot of musicians, and there's a lot of music coming out of that continent, right?

ROBINS: Yeah.

COX: Anybody stand out for you?

ROBINS: Yeah, the music pieces are one of my favorite to do. I am a big music fan. I like to hear the reasons behind people's songs. A lot of the African musicians we've spoken to have had some pretty dark times, and that's where their music comes from. And one that stands out for me is a gentleman named Emmanuel Jal, who was a child soldier since the age of 8. He fought with the Sudan People's Liberation Army and after about four years, he was smuggled by a missionary to Kenya, where he was able to, I guess, regain his childhood and begin to start a new life. And here's what he told us about that time as a child soldier.

(Soundbite of interview with Emmanuel Jal)

Mr. EMMANUEL JAL (Musician): My escape, you know, when the things were real horrible, you know, you kind of sometime want to lose hope, will this war ever end, what's going to happen? And my trek in the desert wasn't easy, you know, seeing some of my friend die and watching some were starving to death, it's not a good thing because some would become skinny. And also, me getting tempted even to eat one of my best friend because there was no food and the cannibalism that broke out there.

COX: Wow.

ROBINS: What he does is, he raps in his songs about those experiences, which if you listen closely, you can hear were pretty traumatic. And that's where the strength of his music came from.

COX: You've been responsible for setting up a number of interviews. Some I've done, some Farai Chideya did. Talk about some of the more memorable ones.

ROBINS: I think for me, you're always amazed at the regular type of people that you can get on the air to tell their stories, but it's also a thrill to be able to book heads of state. And I've had the privilege of being able to book several African heads of state. And one that stands out for me was in June. We spoke with Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He won the primary election that happened last year. There was issues over ballots and counting and such, and refused to be in a run-off election with Robert Mugabe because his supporters were being targeted by the Mugabe government, as he put it. And we were able to talk with him back in June during the violence that was going on prior to the power-sharing agreement. And we asked him about several things, but what stood out to me was what he had to say about his political nemesis.

(Soundbite of interview with Morgan Tsvangirai)

Prime Minister MORGAN TSVANGIRAI (Zimbabwe): Robert Mugabe invokes these conflicting emotions. There are some who forgive him for what he has done after independence, which is horrendous and unforgivable. But there are others who also know Robert Mugabe is a patriot; he is (unintelligible) committed to the freedom of the people. For me, I think that the first decade of independence, Robert Mugabe was my hero. I think he deteriorated, and I don't know why he's willing to transform from a hero to a villain, and now to a real tyrant, and I think that's very unfortunate.

ROBINS: You know, earlier this month, as we covered on News & Notes, Morgan Tsvangirai was injured in a car accident. His wife, Susan, was killed. And there's been some suspicion about the accident. But Morgan Tsvangirai himself has come out and said that he will continue to work with the power-sharing government. So we can just see what happens with that.

COX: You interviewed another head of state. Who was that?

ROBINS: In October of 2008, we were able to interview Jacob Zuma, who, as you know, is the head of the African National Congress. That's the party that was led by Nelson Mandela. What was important and interesting about this conversation was that Jacob was in the midst of a corruption trial. Also, just a few weeks before this interview, his party, the ANC, the African National Congress, had just ousted South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had succeeded Nelson Mandela. So there were some serious things going on. We were really surprised to get the interview. We were more surprised that he was as outspoken and honest in answering the questions that we asked him. Here's what he said about race relations in South Africa.

(Soundbite of interview with Jacob Zuma)

Mr. JACOB ZUMA (President, African National Congress): South Africa comes from a very divided, racially kind of society, wherein racism, more than any other kind, was institutionalized. And we had to tackle this from the beginning and indeed, establish a new nation, which we call the Rainbow Nation. And I think people who raise the issue of race or ethnicity as a major problem of South Africa, they're actually exaggerating the situation.

COX: Let me ask you one another question, Devin...

ROBINS: OK.

COX: Because you've done really great work, which all of us at News & Notes appreciate, myself particularly, because I work on these Africa Updates with you a lot of times. It has become, I suspect, a part of who you are now. Am I right about that?

ROBINS: Yeah.

COX: Share the story of waking up in the middle of the night.

ROBINS: Being a producer at NPR, you get to cover a lot of different things. But I have to say, Africa has been my main focus mostly because of the time difference and the amount of time it takes to bring these stories to air. So I take a lot of it home with me. And I woke up the other night in a cold sweat. And my husband woke up after I jumped up out of the bed, and he asked me what was wrong. And I said I had a nightmare. And he said, well, what was the nightmare about? And I said, I was being chased by the Janjaweed. He looked at me with a real puzzled look. And he says, I'm not sure what that is, but it seems like you're awfully scared. The Janjaweed are known as the devils on horseback. They're these armed militiamen in Darfur who have victimized and terrorized that population. And I guess I had done enough stories where they're involved, and read up on it enough, that it was in my subconscious and they were chasing me.

COX: Well, we're glad it was just a dream.

ROBINS: Yeah, me too.

COX: Devin, thank you very much.

ROBINS: Thanks, Tony, for having me. It's been a pleasure.

COX: Devin Robins is an 11-year veteran producer and director here at NPR, and has been the sole producer on News & Notes Africa segments for more than two years. You can find links to all of the stories Devin talked about at our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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