Freelancer Checks In: Off to Africa

As post-violence violence continues in Kenya, freelance journalist Emily Meehan is packing up her Brooklyn apartment for an extended reporting tour from Africa. She'll cover events in that country and in Somalia.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Turning the corner now to talk about Kenya. It's a situation that is not getting any better. Despite international mediation efforts to bring some stability to that country, violence continues.

Over the weekend, at least 19 people, including 11 children, were burned to death by a mob. It's the latest in the spate of ethnic violence triggered by the disputed national elections there on December 27th. Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga keep blaming one another for the ongoing violence.

The former head of the U.N., Kofi Annan, has been trying to work out a deal between the two leaders that would end the killing. Here's what he said over the weekend.

Mr. KOFI ANNAN (Former Secretary General, United Nations): I think it is important that all Kenyans respond with sympathy and understanding and not try to revenge.

MARTIN: Kenya had been called one of the most stable and prospering countries on the African continent. And this is where many foreign correspondents all over the world base themselves when they cover Africa, because Nairobi, Kenya's capital, is such - has been such a stable, relatively cosmopolitan, safe place. Not anymore. At least not right now. But what makes Kenya more dangerous also makes it a bigger story and an appealing destination for our next guest.

Emily Meehan is a writer from Brooklyn who's packing up and leaving her cushy job as a columnist at the Wall Street Journal and moving to Nairobi for four months to cover stories around East Africa. And Emily joins me now in the studio. Hey, Emily.

Ms. EMILY MEEHAN (Writer, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Thanks for being here.

Ms. MEEHAN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, from the outside, people might look at you and say, okay, here is this successful 27-year-old young woman with a high-profile job as a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, living the good life in New York, and you're about to pack it up and move to East Africa. What triggered this decision?

Ms. MEEHAN: Well, I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. But, you know, when you get into a routine, you get a little bit entrenched. And I was certainly entrenched in my column and living in New York. It was a good life. But there was that eureka-in-the-bathtub moment which occurred over and over again for about a year. I think it started after the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

And I read an article by Max Rodenbeck in the New York Review of Books. And I didn't really know a lot of the stuff that he brought to light in that article. When I read it, I felt like he'd made such a significant contribution. And it was so meaningful, that I felt suddenly compelled to change my lifestyle and do something like that, too.

MARTIN: But of all the places, why Kenya? Why Somalia? You're also going to be covering - you know, Somalia has notoriously been one of the most underreported and most violent destinations, violent spots. Why did you choose these places?

Ms. MEEHAN: Well, I wanted to go to a place where there had been a feud going on - you know, not necessarily a war, but violent conflict. And so I drew up a list of all the feuds in the world. And, you know, a lot of them are really oversaturated. There's already a lot of reporters there. And Somalia is in the news the least, but it's also one of the more, kind of, never ending…

MARTIN: Long-going, sure.

Ms. MEEHAN: …and intractable situations.

MARTIN: But, this is also, you say, these are underreported more often than not, especially in Somalia. How are you kind of working through in your head, okay, I might be risking my life for a story that might not make it into the paper or might not make it on the radio? Have you thought that through?

Ms. MEEHAN: I've definitely thought that through. You know, for me, it's more, you know, when I'm 90 and I'm telling my grandchildren stories - hopefully, if I don't get blown up by a landmine in Somalia - I'm going to want to have been to this place so I can have it on my life's resume. You know, it's like it's going to be personally meaningful, regardless of whether it's a good business decision.

MARTIN: Now, you talk about getting blown up in a landmine. I mean, these are things - it's not just in the theoretical, Emily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This is something that could really happen. And, you know, I know that allure. I've been to some of those places where there are - where there's a conflict going on, and it's really interesting. It's intoxicating to a certain level. But there are some real fears. What's freaking you out the most about this experience?

Ms. MEEHAN: Definitely the landmine issue. There's a lot of old landmines all over the country from when people are tying to oust Siad Barre, and the other issues is there's…

MARTIN: Siad Barre - remind people who Siad Barre is.

Ms. MEEHAN: He was this military dictator who ran the country a couple of decades. And then the other issue is there's a lot of radicals, religious radicals that are kind of declaring a global jihad against Christians. So…

MARTIN: And this - you've somehow been able to make peace with all of this. This is something you've just - when your friends and family come to you and say, Emily, we understand you're ambitious. You want to go see the world. You care about these conflicts, but you're insane. What is your response?

Ms. MEEHAN: Well, there's a lot of things you can do to mitigate the risk. I'm going to take a landmine clearance class at the U.N. in Nairobi. And as far as the radicals - you know, you talk to a lot of people in Somalia and get an indication of where they're located and what alienates them specifically, so there's a certain amount of stuff you can do.

But when people, you know, tell me I'm crazy even though I give them all the information I've done to prepare, there's nothing I could do, because you can't change people. You just have to kind of laugh and say things like, oh, well, you know, if I get kidnapped, I hope you'll pay my ransom.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Have you gone through all the medical protocols? Have you gotten all the shots? Have you taken those Lariam pills…

MARTIN: The insurance.

STEWART: …those Lariam pills, which were like the size of quarters and make you have these strange dreams?

Ms. MEEHAN: I'm not taking Lariam. It made my friend go insane. So…

STEWART: It's nutty. I went to Kenya, and I took it and saw, like, people in the doorways and things.

MARTIN: Seriously, I almost had a Lariam overdose in Delhi. That's another entire segment. So, yeah, be careful about that.

STEWART: But in terms of your medical, I mean, you're going - it's not just the big picture issues like landmines and the like, it's about infrastructure and your own personal health and being able to get care if you need it.

MARTIN: And unlike Baghdad or Afghanistan, where there are huge American military presence, there is not that in these places you're going.

Ms. MEEHAN: That's right. I'm definitely going to be depending on kind locals, and I've made a lot of contacts of people that are pretty reliable in the country. But I have taken all my shots, and I've read all about the diseases that are there and there's a lot of stuff you can do to prevent it. My cousin was a soldier in Iraq, and they have very similar issues in the desert of Iraq that they do in Somalia. So he gave me kind of a little prep - soldier's prep course on it.

MARTIN: And this might lead to my next question, real quick, Emily: I know you've talked to a lot of people in preparation for this trip. What is the sole best piece of advice that you've gotten from someone?

Ms. MEEHAN: The best piece of - God. I think it was from William Langewiesche, the guy who's the foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair, who told me that I shouldn't worry about the business angle of this because if I'd go and write a really good story and send it to somebody, they'll take it. So I should just go.

MARTIN: Good for you. Well, Emily Meehan, freelance writer from Brooklyn, New York, packing her bags, moving to Nairobi, going to cover Somalia for four months. Thanks for coming in and sharing with us some of your thoughts…

STEWART: And be safe.

MARTIN: …on this adventure. Yeah, hopefully we're going to get you to blog for us. I haven't told you about that yet.

Hey, you've been listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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