The 620-mile Tana River is Kenya’s longest and most important waterway. It provides half of the country’s electricity through hydroelectric power and 80 percent of the water for the nation’s capital, Nairobi. It is also a hub for major economic activities such as livestock farming, fishing, and agriculture. The subsistence of an estimated 240,000 Kenyans—mostly belonging to Pokomo, Orma, and Wardei communities, who live in the Tana River Delta—is linked to the availability of water in the delta wetland. The Tana is also home to a variety of colorful birds, such as the African fish eagle, the yellow-billed stork (also called the wood stork), the gray heron, and the Hadada ibis, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa. And the delta provides an important habitat for megafauna such as elephants and buffalo, who find refuge from poachers there.
With its rich diversity of flora and fauna, the Tana River Delta could “easily pass for anybody’s idea of paradise on earth,” writes freelance science journalist Geoffrey Kamadi in his award-winning investigative story for Science Africa, “Tana River Basin under Threat,” published in September 2019. “But looks might be deceiving,” he adds.
“As a matter of fact, all indications suggest that this almost fantastic, even story-book portrayal of nature in its largely intact and unperturbed splendor, belies an ecological tragedy that is gradually unfolding,” he writes, describing ambitious infrastructure projects planned for the river basin, including the proposed High Grand Falls Dam. Such projects, backed by the government, promise economic growth and development, but also threaten the ecological integrity of the basin.
Kamadi traveled to the Tana River Delta, a five-hour drive north of the port city of Mombasa, to report his story. The feature explores how aggressive logging practices and damming projects undertaken in the past several years have effectively caused the ocean to encroach on freshwater wetlands and have affected the river basin’s biodiversity and the communities dependent on it. He describes the reduced outflow of freshwater into the Indian Ocean, which allows salty sea water to flow increasingly further up the river channel during high tide. He meets the local farmers whose livelihoods have been greatly damaged, listening to their stories of yellowing banana plants and reduced rice production.
As Kamadi describes, the changes have also affected the breeding grounds of freshwater fish, harming fish-eating birds as well as people who rely on fishing. Local fishermen noticed that birds accustomed to eating freshwater fish, whose numbers have decreased, have developed a taste for the smoked, salted fish conveniently left by locals to dry in the sun.
Fields in the delta have also become overgrown with salt-loving elephant grass. Cows are unable to graze on this plant, so cattle herders have to trek dozens of miles in search of pasture and water.
In December 2020, Kamadi’s story won the gold award in the small-outlet category of the 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
Here, he speaks with Abdullahi Tsanni about the project, including how he got access to the communities affected by the changes to the Tana River Basin and the precautions he needed to take to stay safe while reporting from an unfamiliar area. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did the idea for this story come about?
The Tana River Basin issue has been around for quite some time. But I wanted to bring out the story, meeting the people who have been affected: the farmers, the livestock keepers. There are always organizations that work with communities on the ground [and] in my case [it] was Nature Kenya, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the study and conservation of nature and is very active all over East Africa. The people who work with Nature Kenya in that particular region then connected me to the farmers.
You use extremely evocative and descriptive language of the sights and sounds of the basin. How did you make the story resonate emotionally?
Humans are emotional beings. So, I made a conscious effort to take the reader by the hand wherever I went, never leaving them behind. I started the story by describing the sights and sounds of the Tana River Basin. My intention was to pull the reader to walk with me as I unpack the issues behind this seemingly beautiful place. To do so, I painted a picture of what I saw in words, so that the reader can see himself in that environment: They can see what I saw, hear what I heard, and feel what I felt. I tried to bring out all five senses—sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste—in words.
For example, when I talked to [a] villager there, I described how he was talking, including the emotion in his voice and his facial expression. I like to look at the story metaphorically as a surfer riding the waves in an ocean. I see myself as the waves gently riding the surfer up to the shore. I love storytelling and writing long-form stories, and I enjoy reading publications such as The Atlantic. They have a unique way of writing long-form stories and when you read those kinds of stories, you will learn a lot—and [will] want to write like the journalists.
You include yourself in the story at various points. How and why did you do this? How did you decide when enough “you” was enough?
I had debated with myself whether or not to include myself in the story. After all, very few stories that I have read, did I find the writer insert themselves into the story. However, I decided to include myself because I thought this was the best way I would arrest the reader’s attention. Putting myself into the story makes it credible and more believable—the reader can see that I was there and relate with my experience on the ground. You will notice that I included myself only when I was on the ground with the villagers, either talking to them or experiencing what they were experiencing.
You use both the Latin and local names of the flora and fauna in the introduction. What were you hoping to achieve?
[With this story], I was targeting the layperson on the street as much as the expert or scientist. So, I thought it would be fun to name the plants and animals in their scientific names as well as in local dialect—to bring the reader closer, to hear the voices of the people on ground where I was reporting from. I also find it very interesting and entertaining to include local dialects in stories.
You ended your story with one of the rice farmers in the Tana River Delta, who planted the salt-resistant rice variety donated by Nature Kenya. How did you decide to end it this way?
The story has three parts: the beginning, which sets the scene and pulls the reader deeper into the story, the body, where the meat of the story lies, and the ending.
It is just like stitching a piece of fabric. You [may] have managed successfully to stitch the fabric (the introduction and the body of the story), but in order for the fabric to hold firmly together, the last stitch is important, so that it does not end up unravelling and all your effort comes to naught. So, I did not want to leave my readers hanging. I tried as much as possible not only to bring the story to a logical conclusion, but to leave the reader thinking. So, in approaching the ending, I tried to highlight the problems faced by the communities. Even though there are organizations like Nature Kenya helping to cope with the situation, the communities continue to suffer.
In your piece, you paint a picture of the real threat to nature as well as the benefits, for the people of Kenya, of the proposed dam and other projects. How did you balance these different sides? And what did you want readers to take away from the story?
In any planned project anywhere, there always will be pros and cons. The question is: Which outweighs the other? And based on [this], are such projects therefore worth investing in and implementing?
My aim was to present the facts, which were informed by my research on the ground and by talking to experts and scientists. I wanted readers to see both perspectives of the argument. How sustainable would these projects turn out to be in the long run? There is no way I could have reported only on the positive or negative sides of the project. If I report on only one aspect of the project, I will abdicate my duty as a journalist, which is to present both sides of the issue. As a journalist, you’re like a referee on the pitch—you’re not supposed to be one-sided in your story. My goal was to present the facts to the readers so that they can decide whether this is a good project or not.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered in reporting this story, and how did you deal with those challenges?
Funding is a big challenge, especially when it involves a reporting project that requires spending a number of days in the field. Another challenge that I experienced was a lack of time, which meant that not all interviews were possible in the field. I had to complete my video interview with a technical person of Nature Kenya here in Nairobi. Ideally, I wanted to film all interviews in the field.
In addition, sections of the region I went [to] for the story are known to be very insecure. Banditry is a big problem in the region. So, a curfew is imposed at a certain section of the road, meaning one was not allowed past this point after 6:00 p.m., you had to turn back. Yet, we had to get past this section in order to get back to our hotel. [Fortunately] my guide, who was also the driver, was very familiar with the region, so there was no incident.
What was it like to be the first Kenyan to win a AAAS Kavli award? How did people react?
It was such a humbling feeling—and mind blowing! I didn’t even know I was the first Kenyan to win the award at the time. What I felt was what I imagined our famed long-distance runners feel when they win races all over the world. It was like the weight of the whole country was suddenly on my shoulders! This was even more true when one of my editors wrote a small piece about me winning the award saying, “Kenya must be very proud!” So, yes, it is a very big deal. I received congratulatory messages from my editors all over the world.
What do you think made your story award-worthy?
Dedication to detail, which takes time, so patience is key. Also making sure that all sides of the issue were represented. But above all, transporting the reader, making sure that they saw what I saw, they heard what I heard, they could feel what I felt. In other worlds, I tried to paint a vivid picture for my readers so that they were on the scene just as I was.
What advice do you have for young journalists?
Always talk to the people in communities [affected]. That’s where the real story is. Not in conference rooms, where experts speak and give out lectures. So talk to people daily. That’s the greatest lesson I’ve learned.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria, and is currently a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has reported on science, health, agriculture, and biotechnology issues in Nigeria for publications including Nature, The British Medical Journal (BMJ), Nigeria Health Watch, and African Newspage, among others. He works as a volunteer with Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network, and has a degree in biochemistry. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni.