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Students Learn About Sub-Saharan Africa Through Investigative Journalism

War News Radio

Bobby Zipp '18 and Meagan Currie '20 of the South Africa group work on a podcast about the recent wave of student protests against continued educational inequities.

A podcast on student protests in South Africa; a deep-dive into the politics of oil extraction in Nigeria; a story on the role women will play in the upcoming Kenyan elections.

At first glance, it might seem these stories are the work of veteran journalists at national news outlets. In fact, they are all the work of students in Assistant Professor of Political Science Emily Paddon Rhoads’ Politics of Sub-Saharan Africa class, as they were tasked with producing a significant piece of investigative journalism to complete the course this past spring.

Rhoads, who joined the faculty this past fall, said the goal was for students to develop expertise and knowledge of a particular country and political issue, to deepen their primary research, writing, and interviewing skills, and to tell a good story.

“I wanted my students to go beyond the text and actually interact with individuals on the ground in these countries. One way to do that was through these projects,” says Rhoads, who recently authored the book Taking Sides in Peacekeeping and is an expert on the politics and practices of United Nations peacekeeping, humanitarianism, and military intervention with an emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. “This was a way to bring the field to the classroom and focus on the human dimensions of politics.”

The student projects were sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.

Students worked in groups and could chose from one of four African countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. They were also given the freedom to choose their topic. Each of the four groups focused on activism and protest movements with a particular emphasis on women and youth. 

So how did the students, sitting more than 5,000 miles away from the African continent, complete such detailed and informative pieces of investigative journalism?

First, each group worked closely over Skype with an in-country expert. The expert served as a sounding board during the research process, directed students to sources, and connected them with interview subjects. Additionally, Rhoads’ husband, Christopher, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, ran a workshop on reporting. This session covered the nuts and bolts of researching and writing an investigative news story, how to work with sources on the ground, and the art of conducting interviews.

The projects included:

  • The Nigeria group wrote about women activist groups in the Niger Delta and the politics of oil extraction. The group worked closely with Tony Iyare, a veteran Nigerian journalist and communications expert and former correspondent with The African Report, group editor of the Daily Times in Nigeria, and stringer for the West African Bureau of The New York Times.
  • The South Africa group produced a two-part podcast entitled “When Things Fall Apart.” The group examined the recent wave of student protests against continued educational inequities in post-apartheid South Africa. Interviews were conducted with students and alumni of the University of Cape Town. Part one of the podcast examines educational inequity and the wave of student protests that took place in post-Apartheid South Africa. Part two explores a movement that seeks to develop a standard for basic education across the country. 
  • The Kenya group investigated the role of women in Kenya politics in the lead up to the August 2017 elections. They worked with Neo Sinoxolo Musangi, an experimental self-taught genderqueer-feminist artist and scholar who is currently coordinator of Nairobi Becoming: A Portrait of a 21st African City, which is housed at the British Institute in Eastern Africa.
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo group researched youth political activist groups in eastern Congo with a focus on Lutte Pour Le Changement (LUCHA) youth movement.

According to Rhoads, the most common challenges students encountered during the process were tracking down individuals to interview and time differences.

“In some cases, students had to get up at 6 or 7 a.m. in the morning to conduct their interviews, and they contacted a long list of people just to get some usable material for their projects,” says Rhoads.

Still, student feedback on the project was overwhelmingly positive.

"The level of engagement and empathy I was able to share with the [South African] students involved in Rhodes Must Fall/Fees Must Fall was something I had rarely experienced,” says Shua-Kym McLean ‘18, an economics major from Lansdowne, Pa. “Cultivating relationships and conversations like these are sure to be a priority going forward.” 


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