When I call James, it is 11AM in Lilongwe. He is soft-spoken and humble but it becomes very clear to me that he’s motivated by a deep conviction to tell the real stories of the people of Malawi.
“I don’t report politics most of the time,” he says, “I want to report stories about people, about what they’re going through, and how they’re being affected by problems that many people take for granted.”
“I see myself as a solutions journalist, I want to look at solutions,” he says.
Reporting on Energy Issues with a Human Face
James says that he’s drawn to climate change reporting because Southern Africa is one of the hardest hit regions affected by climate change. “Almost every year there is a food shortage, I’m hearing about drought, about water bodies running dry. It’s affecting the backbone of our economy.
For James, this is not just a story about the economy or the environment – this is a story about the Malawian people. “Most of the people affected are the poor, who are the majority of the people in our country,” James says.
“It’s a story that many journalists don’t want to write about, but it’s the majority of our audience.”
James has written widely about the impact of climate change on Malawians. He’s won an award for his coverage of a conflict between Malawian and Mozambican fishermen in Lake Chiuta, which almost dried up as a result of drought. “The fishermen are fighting every year because they are scrambling for the few remaining fish in that lake,” says James.
But he hopes that his journalism can provide more awareness and direct efforts to a more productive collaboration between the fishermen. “Maybe, there’s something these people can do together to strengthen their resilience and to safeguard the remaining fish.
Instead of fighting, they can come together and start conserving their things, bring back the trees that have been cut away.”
The Silent Crisis of Clean Cooking
James has also covered the lack of access to clean cooking. The main piece on this topic, “Smoky Kitchens: Malawi’s Cooking Crisis,” led him to win the Voices of a Brighter Future, run by the United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS).
For the story, James traveled to Kuchawe Peak on Zomba Plateau, the second largest mountain in Malawi. There, he met groups of women carrying bundles of firewood. “They wake up 4 hours before then men, they walk ten kilometres searching for firewood,” he explains.
“Because of the heavy reliance on firewood, the trees are vanishing, and the women have to walk longer distances, and then they will find themselves search for firewood for eight hours. Then, after they walk back, they cook with firewood, with smoke, with soot, and they are coughing and sneezing from the air pollution. They are suffering from diseases such as pneumonia and they are dying.”
“It is an everyday crisis, a woman who can die because she is cooking for her family.” According to James, 97% of Malawians still rely on firewood and charcoal.
As a result, they had the highest deforestation rate in Africa, which is exposing rivers, and drying them. Most of the time, governments are trying to expand the power grid. But in a country where 95% of electricity is generated from the river, James explains, “we won’t even get to the point where power can be expanded.”
“To every home you go, you find a woman cooking, a fireplace filled with smoke, the woman is coughing, their eyes are red, they are dying slowly because of the infections, the air pollution from the smoke, we grow up and we see it and we think it’s normal.
There are times when I ask myself, are we failing to do something, because it’s women that are dying? If it’s men who are cooking, wouldn’t we have done something about this?”
But his article also celebrates the simple technology of a clean cookstove. With the introduction of a clean cookstove in some homes, the air in a kitchen becomes fresh. Women can now use they time they spent collecting firewood to earn money through small businesses.
“If people have access to clean energy options, they can save on time, they can save the environment, and they can earn money for the household,” James says. When he was sent to the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Lisbon in May, he spoke about this issue to delegates, civil society, the media, international agencies, and people who were financing clean energy solutions around the globe.
He tells me that a woman from West Africa cried after listening to him speak. “She asked the other delegates, how long are women going to suffer like this? Why are we reluctant to adopt the solutions that we have around us? What we lack now is not technology.
I think it is will. It’s not just political will, but also household will.”
“Are we failing to do something, because it’s women that are dying? If it’s men who are cooking, wouldn’t we have done something about this?”
“The most exciting thing that happened in my life, was actually the training that Climate Tracker and Hivos Southern Africa delivered last year to about 30 young journalists in Malawi.”
James says the biggest thing he learned from the training was to not to report on climate change as a scientific issue.
“[Reporters] think it is a science, that it is a boring topic. But good energy reporting is not about energy. Good climate change reporting is not about the climate. It’s about jobs, livelihoods, health. When you start putting human faces, the gravity of the issue, and [possibilities of] the technology for people to overcome this situation, you will see that this is a story that is exciting.”
The training influenced James’ work moving forward. He says he wants to write about climate change in a language that people will understand, and in a way that connects the issue to the people.
“I started asking myself very difficult questions – how are reporters covering energy issues in Malawi? I discovered that most of them report in a way that they are trying to show that they understand the science – they want to compete with the scientists, with the experts, and using the experts language.”
“I chose first and foremost that if I tell these stories, I will tell them in a simple language, people who are going through impacts of energy and climate change, then I also chose that for every story I tell about climate change and energy, it is told form the perspective of the people that are going through it.”
A Call to Young Journalists
“We need to create a group of young journalists who create a better world for themselves and the next generation.”
“If they want to make meaningful impact in their lives, they should go into this area, and start doing something about it. That’s how they can distinguish themselves, how they can use their power, and the power of the pen to change the world.”
“The world is sick and overwhelmed with emissions. We need to look at ourselves eye to eye and start saying, we are not living sustainably and there is something we can do. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and to put that message out there.”
James urges young journalists not to be discouraged, especially if they are writing in countries where their work is dangerous or underappreciated. “In Malawi journalists are not well paid. We don’t have much to show for all we do.
But when I went to New York last month, at the UN headquarters, I was passing through the corridors and I found a portrait of myself, and some of the stories I have done. I was listed as a reporter that was doing something about the Sustainable Development Goals.
…I didn’t think I deserved this, until I saw myself there. I went to a few sessions where people were talking about my stories. It was overwhelming – but these are the things that sometimes flatter you and give you the energy to do more.”
“That’s how they can distinguish themselves, how they can use their power, and the power of the pen to change the world.”
James Chavula is an award-winning journalist in Malawi, currently with Nation Publications Limited. James recently won the United Nations Voice of a Brighter Future award. Since attending a Climate Tracker training, he’s diversified his areas of coverage to environmental journalism, energy, climate change, and how they profoundly impact the lives of the average Malawian. Read more of James Chavula’s work at the Nation here, like him on Facebook, or follow him Twitter.