The complexities of reporting on sensitive issues such as sexual violence and child marriage are enormous, and made infinitely thornier when you have a very limited time to build rapport with your subject and you have to work through several translators. I had been working on the story of child marriage in the DRC for more than a year and interacting with local groups lobbying to end the practice for at least six months, communicating in writing via email with broken French (courtesy of an online translation tool). But once I hit the ground in Kinshasa I was met with an entirely different set of challenges – the girls were unnerved at having a foreign journalist in their homes, even though they had known I was coming and had openly invited me in (I’m told I am the only foreign media that’s been here); they were also not used to talking through a translator, which was necessary as they spoke a combination of French and Lingala and I spoke English.
The immense value of my IWMF fixer was immeasurable here, not just for his ability to translate quickly, but to do so with much-needed understanding, compassion, and sensitivity. I’ve covered many stories like this across the developing world and often used a translator, and it’s a big ask: someone who doesn’t just translate the words but who ends up caring as much about the subject as you so that they go the extra mile. It’s moments like these that can make difficult field reporting so much more rewarding.
Gaining enough trust to conduct the sensitive interviews took some time, in each case my fixer and I had to work closely to weave a cross-stitched conversation of English/French/Lingala until each of the teenagers felt secure enough to tell her story. Some of these interviews went better than others. Often, I had to talk a lot about myself before they were willing to share their story, trying to find relatable points in our very different lives.
At the end of quite a few of these interviews in the DRC it was apparent that talking about their journey from dark to light was therapeutic for many of these girls – in this place, not many people ask them about their lives now, or about their hopes and dreams for the future. And they have many dreams, despite what they’ve been through or, perhaps, because of it.
Sometimes, though, I leave an interview not really knowing if I had any impact at all, or knowing how my interviewee felt about my personal and probing questions. Is it necessary for journalists to know these things? I’m not sure – perhaps not. But it is important for me to try to know them.
My final interview was somewhat like this, longer yet I left knowing less about her than the others; she was more reserved, quieter and distracted by her infant child that she could hear crying just outside the door. But even here was a surprising connection. Just before I left the settlement where she lived, while I was getting background shots of the children playing, she walked up to me and squeezed my wrist and asked about my hair (through a translator) – during the interview she had told me she wanted to be a hairdresser one day and was now wondering what kind of hairdresser I used.
“I do it myself,” I said. “I travel too much to have one good hairdresser.”
“Next time you come here I will do it for you,” she replied with a smile.
It sounded like a good plan.
— Serusha Govender, 2018 DRC Reporting Fellow