How the AP's Rukmini Callimachi battles the 'apathy factor' when writing about Africa

AP West Africa bureau chief Rukmini Callimachi faced an unusual problem when reporting on hunger in Chad: A village chief kept trying to give her chickens.

"The translator said to me, 'Rukmini you have to take this,'" Callimachi said about the first time Abakar Adou, the chief of Louri, tried to give her a chicken to take home. She packed the bird in their car and gave it to a veterinarian in the town they were staying in. The next night, Adou presented her with another chicken. "I said, 'Sir, I’m gonna be here every single day,'" Callimachi said by phone from Dakar, Senegal. "You're going to run out of chickens."

He stopped pressing the issue, but on her last day in Louri, Adou presented photographer Rebecca Blackwell with an egg.

Callimachi (photo courtesy Associated Press)

Probably because that anecdote was about Callimachi's work, it was the rare piece of color that escaped one of her stories. Her series on hunger won an ASNE award earlier this month, and the articles that make it up are not written in the style you might expect from an account of the effects of famine.

"The mistake a lot of foreign correspondents make is they get wrapped up in reporting what they think sounds important rather than what interests people," she said. So her story on how famine contributes to stunting in children opens with a six-paragraph account of a 7-year-old girl learning to draw a circle, a "developmental marker" that most children achieve by age 3.

The effects of hunger "cannot be reversed," Callimachi says at the end of the piece, telling the story of another girl learning to write the answer to an equation.

The lanky girl walks to the front of the class and takes the chalk from her teacher's hand.

"Sir," she says. "The answer is one plus one. That equals two." She carefully writes the number two on the board.

"Correct," says Guidigui.

The only problem is, Fatme isn't 7. Fatme is 15 years old.

"There's just an apathy factor when you're talking about hunger in Africa," Callimachi said. "Sadly, it's the thing that people expect when you're reporting from Africa."

While reporting on hunger, she's conscious of not creating “famine porn." "The larger question is what does this do to a community these days," she said. "People don’t die from starvation the way they used to." She was more interested, then, in the effects famine has on its victims over long periods of time.

So she took what she called "angled approaches" to the stories in the series, writing one about the increase in child marriages that results from famine, for example, and another about a Tuareg nomad who had to sell his last camel to buy food.

"We’re always being asked why is it that this continent remains a continent riddled with problems," she said. "And when I started researching stunting and what it does to the brain, it sort of lifted a veil for me." An entire generation, she says, won't be able to reach its potential.

Callimachi was born in Romania and emigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 9. She lived in Ojai, Calif., then went to Dartmouth College, where she graduated in 1995, and Oxford, where she got a master's in 1999. She got hired by the (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald in 2001 and joined the Associated Press in 2003. Callimachi covered New Orleans after Katrina and salmon, among other subjects, in the Pacific Northwest before moving to Africa in 2006.

There, she's written about how trade tensions affect tourism in Senegal, about a Congolese general who's recruited children and about the Algerian who planned the kidnapping of foreigners at a gas plant earlier this year.

Much of her recent work has entailed reporting on the Islamist incursion into, then the French intervention in, Mali.

After what she said was much effort, Callimachi got to Timbuktu after the French liberated it in January. She was staying in the same hotel as Jenan Moussa, the Lebanese reporter who discovered revealing documents left behind after a terrorist attack on a U.S. temporary office in Benghazi, Libya. While talking at their hotel, Callimachi said, Moussa "pulled out this letter that she had found in one of the buildings I had searched that very day." It was signed by Abdul Hamid Abu Zayd, a leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Callimachi and AP's Bamako correspondent Baba Ahmed bought garbage bags and rubber gloves, then went through government buildings picking up documents and writing the name of each building on a piece of paper they put at the top of the bag. In the Ministry of Finance's Regional Audit Department they found a nine-page document that Moussa translated for them. It was a letter by Abdelmalek Droukdel, a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, senior commander of al-Qaida's African outfit, a rare internal al-Qaida document. "I got goosebumps," said Callimachi, who spoke earlier in our conversation about how she likes to report stories in person.

"I don’t do very well reporting stories on the phone," she said when talking about her hunger reporting. "All of the things that I do to make my stories readable is the color that I put in, and it's very, very hard to get that on the phone."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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