I carry their sacrifices with every story

Writer: 
August 6, 2018

The election commissioner had gone missing a few days earlier, but we hadn’t thought much of it. A misunderstanding, a reclusive tendency, or perhaps a midnight tryst. Then the news came over the television: Chris Msando had been murdered, his body found on the side of a highway outside Nairobi. My editor dispatched me and a cameraman to the mortuary in the company car.

“Call me the second you see the body,” she told me.

I generally enjoy the languor of Nairobi traffic, using the time to steep in my own thoughts. But it’s something of a double-edged sword when covering spot news. I spent the ride doing my best to stifle my anxieties about reporting breaking events but succeeded only in sweating through my shirt and not throwing up.

We finally arrived at the mortuary compound, minutes after Chris’ body did. The screams of a family that had just received the brutalized body of their son, their brother, their nephew, pierced the stuffy courtyard. Chris lay on a cold steel table, his body covered with a crisp white sheet, his face exposed and tilted right, directly at me, standing outside the double doors. In that moment, all my anxieties, my reporting instincts, my editor’s clear instructions, vanished. I stared at Chris’ face, each cry from his family plunging into my chest.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a body. On previous trips to South Sudan, I’d reported from cities under siege, from hospitals treating battle casualties, and from impromptu churchyard funerals where parents buried their children. But I’d navigated those experiences somewhat stoically, viewed it through the “objective” lens—the luxury of journalists—never allowing myself to dwell on those moments.

But that afternoon, those walls collapsed and that distance between subject and reporter disappeared. I’m not sure why; I had never met Chris. In the mortuary, I was bathed in his death, in its reverberations, in the sorrow and the pointed grief left in its wake.

His family was weeping and his colleagues feared for their lives. Rumors swelled about a political conspiracy to cow the commission into rigging the polls. Chris had been in charge of preparing and securing the electronic voting machines that had been at the heart of several scandals in the run-up to elections. He’d studied computer science in college and worked for years as an IT assistant and Web designer before being launched into the spotlight with a post on the controversial commission.

“He was just a nerd,” became my refrain, pregnant with despair and clawing for answers I knew would never come or would never satisfy me. In that moment, all the death I’d witnessed crashed down at once. All the sheer sadness and human toll I’d kept at arm’s length for years paralyzed me. I called my mom that night and wept. I’d heard the cries of a mother holding her dead son, a “nerd” caught in forces larger than he could fight, and I understood at once the hell I put my own mother through when I traveled to South Sudan at the height of its war, swinging at windmills. It was the ultimate power and love of a parent, distilled. I came closer to understanding what every mother, father, brother, and sister I met in refugee and protection camps across East Africa might have felt, their loved ones stolen from them for a cause manmade yet beyond their control, “If only...” ringing in their heads.

In that moment, the sacrifices made by the people around me for the sake of my career became tangible, and I have carried them with me ever since. They have steeled my sense of duty to work as respectfully and boldly as I can at every moment. Yet that responsibility comes with a fear of failing all those who have invested in me, of betraying all those who have trusted in me. To tell Chris’ story was a privilege, and I feared not doing him justice. It’s a fear that seizes my hand every time I sit down to write: that perhaps writing something might end up doing more harm than not writing anything at all.

Golla ’17 is a freelance journalist based in East Africa. He has reported for Reuters, Vice, Roads & Kingdoms, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.