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CNN and the promotion of African journalism (1995 – 2011) Hip, Hip Hurray. By Lambert Mbom.

It was veteran Cameroonian journalist, Charly Ndichia who cast a damper on my thirst and taste for news spewed by government run Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV) when in one of the usual intros to the newscast, he boldly proclaimed: and now lies from CRTV.

When Nigerian movies made their debut, they became an instant hit and safe for the fact that CRTV is funded by taxes, it should have been something of the past now outclassed by competition.

News junkies heaved a great sigh of relief when with the liberalization of media, vistas to the outside world were opened and CNN became a luxury many guarded jealously and consumed lavishly.

Thanks to CNN, I had the rare privilege of staying up late to watch “Operation Desert Storm” commissioned by President George W. H. Bush. One lived the grim events of September 11, 2001 vividly from far away Cameroon thanks to the live feed on CNN. I will never forget how I pulled an all-nighter just to watch live President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address live. Again, thanks to CNN. One would not be exaggerating to say that CNN is the most watched American channel in Africa.

My first cultural shock then came when I got to the US and discovered that CNN is not that global media juggernaut or enfant cheri of the American population. Yet, I was consoled by the fact that of all major TV networks in the US, CNN is the only network that since 1995 has sought to groom African talent in this elite profession of journalism through its African journalist of the year award.

It would be interesting to conduct a survey on which is the most popular cable TV network among African immigrants in the US. Given that many African immigrants lean towards the Democrats, MSNBC will surely win. This is even more so with an African in the White House and FOX News is often seen wrongfully albeit to be spinning an anti-Obama rhetoric. In this “feud” between MSNBC and FOX, CNN seems to enjoy a comfortable middle ground.

Within the last 16 years, CNN has been in the frontlines grooming African journalists through its African journalist of the year award. Alarmed by the lack of respect for African journalists, Edward Boateng, then regional director of Turner Broadcasting (CNN’s parent company) launched this prestigious award “to try and help them gain recognition for their hard work and commitment.” The competition also aims at “reinforcing the importance of attaining and maintaining high quality journalism while rewarding, recognizing and encouraging journalistic talent across all media disciplines in Africa.

The competition’s history reveals that Kenya and South Africa are the power houses of journalism in Africa having produced six winners each. Kenyan Fatuma Noor last June 25th was named CNN MultiChoice African journalist for the year 2011. With Kenya as the silicon valley of Africa and South Africa’s famous South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) such spectacular feats could not be otherwise. South Africa has produced 49 finalists and Kenya 19 while in the individual categories, South Africa still leads with 24 winners, Kenya 21, Nigeria 3, Zimbabwe 2 and Ghana 1.

One cannot resist the urge to ask where Cameroonian journalists are especially given the fact that one of the reasons often touted to support the union between Southern Cameroons and East Cameroon is the fact that Cameroon was meant to be an epitome of bilingualism in Africa. This is yet another proof of the systemic failure of this experiment.

If this competition is the barometer of journalism in Africa,, then one cannot but lament the fact that Cameroon continues to lag behind. Even though one may argue that it is myopic to measure the true state of journalism in Cameroon by one competition, yet the fact that just two Cameroonian journalists of French extraction have won in the individual category in this competition is a grave call for concern. Originally limited to the English entries, later expanded to Francophone Africa in 2002 and to Portuguese speaking category in 2005, it is shocking to find that Cameroon with Portuguese roots and English and French as national languages has not featured prominently in this competition.

And back to CNN, it is worth noting that this is also the only network with an African – a Sierra Leonean of British background with a mellifluous British accent who appears on cable TV. Isha Sessay who anchors on AC360 and hosts Inside Africa was just the right person to emcee the 2011 CNN MultiChoice award.

While the NAACP last July 6 critiqued CNN for failing to include any African American journalists in primetime news, it would be disingenuous for one not to laud the network for programs like Inside Africa, Marketplace Africa, African Voices that it broadcasts to Africa.

Even though one would have loved to see African faces and hear African voices within the elite division of CNN, CNN must be commended for eschewing the temptation of depriving Africa of its rich talent. CNN could have used this competition to feed itself but rather has sought to groom for local consumption and spared Africa from brain-drain. It is fitting to say congratulations CNN and thank you.

A Synopsis of International Relief and Development’s Recruitment and Professional Networking Event. By Lambert Mbom.

With a staggering unemployment rate and the search for jobs (fulltime employment for many), Virginia-based International Relief and Development (IRD) decided to contribute to the recovery effort and relieve some distressing citizens. It organized a networking event, a job fair of some sorts on Tuesday January 11, 2011.

The conviviality and camaraderie evident in the exquisite Palomar Hotel Conference Center in Rosslyn, Virginia generated more than enough heat to beat the wintry snow gathering outside and even more sooth the unemployment stupor.

A reception desk staffed by four of IRD’s corps served as initial point of contact. Each guest received upon arrival a sign-in sheet for data collection; upon completion, one had the opportunity to present one’s resume and to receive literature on IRD’s mission and activities. This arrangement was simply classy and helped a lot to ease traffic in the Vivace Room.

Just at first contact, one could decipher the true hallmarks of IRD. Rooted in its DNA is the desire to help and to be of help. This was amply borne out by staff that showed they had imbibed IRD’s philosophy.

Looking rather perplexed, as I waddled through the crowd, a young woman walked up to me and inquired if I needed help. I was too shy to say so; she left me, not without describing to me where the different sectors of IRD were located in the hall.

Each guest received a “cheat sheet” at the entrance entitled “recruitment outlook.” It was a panoramic view of the job opportunities available at IRD. I quickly scanned through in search of what even remotely resembles my sphere of competence. True to the advert for this event, IRD ‘s eyes were on “business development professionals and seasoned chiefs of party, engineers, program and finance professionals with 10 years or more of experience.” There were opportunities in business development, infrastructure, security, health, community stabilization, democracy and governance and finance.

My face fell for my initial inspiration for this event was an opening in the communications department – communications associate to be specific, listed on IRD’s website. As I fidgeted with the list, my heart throbbed for some strange reasons and I could feel a cold rush of sweat down my spine. It was just devastating when I did not find anything on communication.

Not wanting to feel disappointed, I tried hard to convince myself that may be security could be a good alternative. This too did not fare well as the available positions had to do with security risks an area I have neither expertise nor experience. I was counting on the fact that security jobs are common among African immigrants in the US.

Then I said let me try healthcare, another popular employment source; after all, with the avalanche of experience working in a group home and as a residential counsellor could be relevant. This self-brainwashing or consolation was short-lived as I discovered the positions available were mainly senior level management in nature.

I turned next to Community stabilization and the sheer number of aspirants lined up to present themselves made it evident that mine was going to be a very long shot in deed.

Having learnt to always be upbeat, positive and make the best out of every situation, I decided I was going to write a story on the event. While I made up my mind on this self-assigned task, yet another lady approached me. She quickly asked my country of origin and I said Cameroon. She joyfully indicated she too is Cameroonian. Then she inquired to know what my interests are. Imagining she was also job-hunting, I paid scan attention to her, reluctantly telling her I am a freelance journalist. As would be imagined, I was too ashamed to let her know that in fact, I had no place in this event. The cynicism of a disgruntled job seeker was in display.

By some stroke of luck, I met the IRD’s Communications guru Jeffrey Grieco fondly called Jeff. I waited in line to introduce myself to him. He seemed to have been the most popular person everybody wanted to chat with or get his attention. I clinched a spot and asked him a few questions.

As to the raison d’etre of the event, Jeff quickly pointed out that such events were normal within the DC metro area and given too that IRD has new interests and new contracts, the event was necessary. IRD deployed its entire ‘etat-major’ with the different sector leaders cheerleading the event. He also indicated that the event provided an opportunity for IRD to fill its resume bank from where it shall pick out qualified candidates to staff various missions abroad and IRD’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

In answer to whether the event had lived up to expectations, it was a resounding yes. Even though intended for mid-level and senior level, many of whom had come in earlier on in the evening, Jeff noted that this was a home run far above expectations. More than 250 persons showed up, he revealed, majority of whom were below the mid-level, yet relevant to IRD’s mission.

In terms of IRD’s priorities, Jeff jocularly harped on building infrastructure, community stabilization programs around the world especially in conflict and post conflict countries like Yemen, Pakistan Iraq, Afghanistan etc he added it is also IRD’s business to provide healthcare; and one crucial area for IRD is working for democracy and good governance.

Jeff was quite confident that in spite of the Republican controlled house and the party’s agenda of fiscal responsibility bent on cutting spending, US international development effort and agenda would neither be thwarted nor affected.

The high point of this event came in when I met with IRD’s President and CEO Dr Arthur B Keys Jr. He is the brain behind IRD’s success story. He defined IRD’s mission as one intent on helping people honourably attain self-sufficiency. IRD accomplishes this through its multi-sectoral engagement of development. Essential to the distinctness of IRD’s work, he opined, is the fact that IRD seeks to go to where everybody else has not been or would rather not go.

On the challenges besetting the organization, Dr Keys pointed to the fact that given the exponential growth of IRD within 12 years of its birth, maintaining this robust growth and being able to remain creative and on the cutting edge of international development was central to him.

To Dr Keys, this event is comparable to a funnel through which individuals whose skills and experience match the demands of IRD would be “drafted” and sent to the fields.

Stranded on the floor, looking somewhat dazed and in search of some “occupational distraction”, Dan Puls IRD’s Chief Advancement Officer quickly came to my rescue. Once again, in characteristic IRD style, he engaged me in a discussion. Noticing my passion for communication, he introduced me to IRD’s social media pilot program namely: voices.ird.org. His passion for Africa especially for Sudan was breathtaking as he recounted different events organized for Sudan. In the spirit of the evening, he generously offered to “hook me up” with a pal of his that had links with the African media outlet – AllAfrica.com

As the evening wound down, I got to meet Jim Lanning through Dan. Jim is a man of many worlds, in fact a polyvalent. He saved my evening. Hearing I am from Cameroon, he asked if I had met one of IRD’s cadres of Cameroonian descent, Elsie Tama. Nego, I retorted. He darted across the hall in a bid to connect us. Much to his dismay, Tama said she had already spoken to me. She turned out to be the same person I had snobbishly put away under the mistaken assumption that she too was prospecting for a job. I was lucky she gracefully agreed to an interview.

Having been there from the genesis of the IRD project, she spoke with ease on the mission of the IRD as a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to work for the poor and vulnerable. Again, she proudly noted that IRD would go where no other NGO would go. IRD would do whatever it takes to get to the most difficult of places to provide requisite services.

Elsie intimated that one of IRD’s greatest challenges was the lack of enough money to accomplish the great feats IRD would love to undertake.

It was quite heart-warming to learn of IRD’s presence in Cameroon among its worldwide locations. There, she was resettling refugees from Central African Republic and Elsie noted that plans were afoot to expand programs in Cameroon to include agriculture.

When pressed on the issue of good governance as a precondition for development, Elsie was quick to point out that IRD does not let governance issues get in its way or let political issues deter it from accomplishing its mission.

I transitioned then to getting feedback from some participants. For Ivoirian born Kader Cisse a freelance consultant in DC, it was quite a very positive event with great people, good discussions, good networking.

Cameroonian born Patrick Elat, a consultant within regulatory environment and finance, described the evening as wonderful and very interesting. He noted that IRD’s personnel were very available and ready to help. The event proffered him an avalanche of very useful pieces of information. He rated it as 4 on an ascending scale with 5 as excellent. This initial stage had been very successful and he hoped the efforts would bear fruits in follow up. He stressed that follow up was critical for him.

Luna Liu, Graduate Assistant, Executive Master of Public Management Program of the University of Maryland thought it was a good event. She however left quite discouraged albeit. She did not get the chance to talk to senior level management. She was forthright on the fact that IRD did not care about junior professionals like herself and found much to her dismay and discontent that there were few to no opportunities for international students.

I might not have gotten a job offer but in its essence this event expanded my network or circle of friends. One thing is certain – it was a golden opportunity to think outside my regular box and surely if something comes up, I can count on these folks. Thanks to IRD and kudos for the event. Its level of professionalism can only be described in the superlative and this is indicative of the calibre of work IRD accomplishes in the field.

IRD desribes itself as ” a non-profit humanitarian and development organization dedicated to improving the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people. IRD specializes in conflict and post-conflict environments and works in more than 40 countries. With the help of local groups and donors, IRD builds sustainable, community-based programs that address relief, stabilization and development needs in the areas of health, agriculture, infrastructure, emergency response, and governance. For more information on IRD, visit http://www.ird.org.

Bernard Nsokika Fonlon: Epitome of the Ex Major Seminarian

The reality of ex seminarianhood is one that is becoming quite common in the local Church Province of Bamenda. When in the summer of 1999, Archbishop emeritus Paul Verdzekov of blessed memory gave me six months’ leave twice every year from my labyrinthine pilgrimage to the Catholic priesthood, he put before me the Pro life maestro – George Yenika as the example to emulate. This was surely a gentle reminder that before me there have been many who have stood the buffets of such capricious times with equanimity and like they say I should not feel being neither the first nor the last. I cannot remember whether he mentioned something of Bernard Fonlon but would be pleasantly surprised if he did not, knowing the enthralling admiration and unparalleled influence of Bernard on Msgr. Verdzekov.

George Yenika in his immediate post seminary years spent a year or two teaching at the minor seminary after which he launched into a banking career rising to the enviable ranks of a Bank Manager and winding up as an illustrious business pro. Yet, I can swear he remained a true disciple and ardent advocate of the Gospel of life even till date. He carved out the Pro life ministry as his sacred niche and became a Plenipotentiary for Human Life International. It is not George’s life I intend to celebrate here but rather that of one who would have been fifty-seven years old an ex seminarian this year. Fonlon was a man of many hats but unlike Jack was a master of his many trades. Yet, it is not his brilliant political career, exquisite academic credentials or chivalrous teaching records that I seek to celebrate here. Rather the task I have so delightfully embraced is to piece the thread that undergirds Fonlon’s superlative biography. In seeking to paint a picture of Fonlon’s modus vivendi, I propose to delineate in broad strokes albeit, the esprit de corps that should define the noble class of gentlemen who fell short of the altar. Yet I must hasten to confess that I am no expert in anything Fonlon. My epistle draws entirely on what I have read having not been part of the select few who had any personal encounters with Fonlon. Twenty four years since his premature exit at 62(three scores and ten is what the bible prescribes for the strong), what could I add to the pedigree of this exalted man of letters that would not instead be a subtraction?

G. K. Chesterton gives me very strong reasons to embark on this mission when he says of the saint: “The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. In deed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.” (Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Doubleday, 1956, p. 5) Fonlon is not what we want but who we need.

Many will contend that Fonlon was able to attain such heights because of the benefit of seminary formation. His personality and actions seemed to be a direct function or so many thought of the rare formation he had received to the priesthood that was never to be his. The reverse seems to be the case for some of us; whereby many look at some of us and toss their heads in surprise – but are you not an ex seminarian – the courageous bellow or the more conciliatory mutter, both in shock? There is no shortage of ex seminarians today and chances are you have had a trough of experiences with this class dominated by a strange mixture of the bad and the ugly with spontaneous sprinkling of the good. On the occasion of the twenty-fourth anniversary of Dr. Bernard Fonlon’s death, it seems fitting to reflect on the enduring example of an ex major seminarian of all times. If for nothing at least it is my hope that this would inject some freshness into the rather sour pudding some of us have fed the public with; but above all else a reminder first to myself and then my brotherhood that we have in Fonlon a pace setter. Fonlon is a mirror for every ex major seminarian.

The singular endearing fiber defining Bernard Fonlon in my humble estimation is the indubitable fact that he remained a Christian. When he left the seminary, he did not check his values’ chest at the gate of the seminary. He remained in the world but fought vigorously not to be of the world. One would have thought that Fonlon’s dismissal from the seminary would have left him very bitter and acrimonious. Yet, he never seemed to have lost his poise as he is even said to have played the organ on the day of the ordination of his classmates, for example. Ben remained in the Church as a Christian living out the priesthood of the laity whole hog. When he moved out of the seminary, he did not move out of the Church but rather moved on and not in any small way but as a torch-bearer.

Given that we do not have the luxury of having Fonlon give us an account of why this was the case, one could only infer that this was in a large part because Fonlon quickly came to terms with his dismissal from the seminary. He eschewed the complacency of the blame game, omnipresent enticing and conscience massaging finger-pointing or the loathsome self-pity which are excellent recipes for frustrations most of us are adroit in. The Sartrean paradigm – hell is others is a path Fonlon rejected out rightly. Even more is the fact Fonlon avoided the self deprecatory model of guilt with the common experience of slipping into a depression for failing to achieve. The question for Fonlon was not so much who caused it or why did this happen but rather where do I go to from here with what I have?

One cannot deny the fact there is a strong temptation for the ex seminarian to be very angry with the Church which many see incarnated in the authorities of the Bishops and Priests so much so that to continue worshipping within this same institution ostensibly becomes more of an encumbrance. The Church could easily become the scapegoat for the ex seminarian’s frustrations. But like St Paul asked: were you baptized in the name of X, Y, Z? Fonlon knew he was not baptized in the name of this priest or that bishop and so beyond the seminary still sought the Father through the Son in the Spirit. He never lost sight of the fact that at Baptism, he was made king, priest and prophet. Like his master, Fonlon’s kingship was not that which sought palatial honors or regal authority…came to serve and not to be served and his public service record bears eloquent testimony to this; His prophetic mission is greatly accomplished in his panoply of writings, his candor and forthrightness in selfless pursuit of justice and peace; many will rush to quote Fonlon’s abstemiousness and lifelong dedication and commitment to celibacy as classical fulfillment of Fonlon’s priestly mission. Impressive as these in their own rights are, Fonlon also sanctified most of those who were privileged to come in contact with him by his alluring simplicity. And to crown it all, it is in the extraordinary role he played in shaping the destiny of St. Thomas Aquinas’ major seminary Bambui, a so highly prized jewel of the Bamenda Church province, that he truly fulfilled his vocation. There is no denying it that Fonlon espoused one of the best pieces of advice I received from a priest classmate of mine namely: “leaving the seminary could be a knockout but never a blackout and even if it is a blackout it is just intermittent.” I love these lines, a friend uses in signing off his email: if God gives you lemon, then make lemonade with it.

One other epic lesson worth remarking is that Fonlon had the brains and did not let them lie fallow. He exploited the opportunity and grew his brains. There seems to be a cascading consensus in the local church province that teaching is the best if not the only option for today’s ex seminarian. Fonlon was not contented with the barest minimum. The sky was his limit. He sought the silent groves of the academy. In fact, like Chesterton says of St Thomas Aquinas so too can we say of Fonlon that “he loved books and lived on books; that he lived the very life of the clerk or scholar in The Canterbury Tales, who would rather have a hundred books of Aristotle and his philosophy than any wealth the world could give him.” (P.3)

It would be too much of a stretch for me to surmise that every ex seminarian should therefore become a bookworm drudge like Fonlon. The bigger point is rather that Fonlon discovered quite quickly his gifts, talents and potential and explored these to the full. He was destined for a higher mission which he embraced so graciously and worked so tenaciously to accomplish. There is no denying that many ex seminarians today are operating at less than minimum of their full potentials. Most of us have remained so beholden to the Church that we think “outside its walls” we cannot survive. “Thinking outside the box” like Fonlon who instead of pursuing degrees in Philosophy and Theology, disciplines he was already comfortable with, rather he broadened his scope and scaled the horizon. Nothing wrong with studying philosophy and theology but in today’s global world, diversification is central. Today’s ex seminarian should be able to think outside the box and not be glued to the Church’s apron strings like a desperate pauper. We must break the dependency cycle and crack out the cocoon of the ostrich policy.

I have also been fascinated by the fact that Fonlon never became a priest even after he left Bigard memorial major seminary. In spite of the many opportunities that laid before him, he abandoned this path in sure certainty that he could be a “priest without the priesthood.” There is no doubt that given the delicate nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders administered to those called to the priesthood, mistakes have been made in discernment and there is no harm in trying elsewhere. There are many who when shown the door one way found a little window of opportunity and their conviction drove them through and they succeeded. Yet one cannot help but ask the question: Why did Fonlon not become a priest while in Ireland or in England or in France where he studied? Even more intriguing to me is the fact that when his student Paul Verdzekov became Bishop and could pull the shots, Fonlon did not see this as a window of opportunity to exploit. It would have been neat if Fonlon were ordained by one he inspired. This mystery is one that will haunt us for a while yet the endearing lesson of Fonlon’s decision is the fact that there are many “priests” who never get ordained and there is salvation beyond the walls of the priesthood. We can still serve God and the Church without being priests. Often only a notional assent is given to this and some of us behave as though, the priesthood is all we were cut out for. Becoming a priest at all cost is a terribly enslaving mindset to harbor. There is no denying it that many of us spend our energies on the wrong things or to put it in the words of a former Rector, we spend time singing beautifully outside the choir.

The cardinal axis of Fonlon’s life rotated on his integrity. Integrity has the same root as integer which in mathematical jargon encompasses whole numbers. Fonlon was wholesome and a man of great honor. If there is one thing today’s world so desperately needs, it is undeniably integrity. The world yearns badly for men of honor, men imbued with the sense of shame. In a world starving for people of character, the challenge then to the ex seminarian is to be a salt to the earth and light to the world. When I look back, there is an unmistakable indication that I have personally been counter-productive; in fact, to put it mildly, a scandal. Without judging any others, I wish I were alone. A cursory reality check unfortunately will prove me wrong and there are many genuine excuses for this state of affairs which I will address among others in a forth coming book. Fonlon might have enjoyed many supervening graces than most of us have been able to and thus became a man proven and not one yet to be proven. Even though the world generally takes delight in the negative, as we celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of the death of Fonlon, it seems relevant to draw inspiration from his stewardship and daily strive to enter like Fonlon into the hall of fame. Come to think of it, the ex seminarian’s average classmates and age mates do not have the benefit of the kind of formation the ex seminarian has received.

Fonlon spent 32 years building a legacy that 24 years later continues to reverberate. We do not need to become another Fonlon but can strive not only to resemble him but even be better than him. Don’t they say if you cannot beat him, join him? It is on this 24th anniversary that I learnt that Fonlon actually died on the birthday of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who would have been celebrating her centennial birthday this year. I would leave the parallels to a different paper. What a happy coincidence and given we do not have the material wherewithal to follow through with his canonization, what better way to canonize him than by emulating his example and leaving our own legacy too. May the life of Shiyla – which means shepherd (as Fonlon’s mother fondly called him as per Gwei Fonlon) shepherd us on this journey through this ‘vale of tears’ May we drink of this Pierian Spring who lived to answer the question of his middle name: Nsokika – what do the Nso people know – by the depth of writings he left. To paraphrase the lyrics of a popular tune: Fonlon you are gone but your spirit lives on. May Fonlon intercede for us.

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