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Kemo Cham

Editor of Politico Newspaper, Freetown, Sierra Leone

When did you become interested in pursuing science journalism?

My parents wanted me to be a medical doctor, so I studied science in secondary school. But I soon realized I had a flare for writing, so I joined all of the school clubs engaged in some form of literary activity, like the Writers Club. Then, in my second year at the University of The Gambia (studying biology and agriculture), I decided that writing was what I wanted to pursue as a profession. Science journalism was a natural beat given my background.

Which of your stories has made the greatest impact?

I have worked as a journalist in Sierra Leone for a long time. In a country like this, where science/health reporting is almost nonexistent, it's hard to gauge the impact of your work. But I’ll always remember when, in 2016, an official from the World Health Organization’s country office called me up asking if I had recently written a story on tuberculosis. He said the head of a TB campaign group had favourably mentioned my paper, Politico SL, for a piece on the bacterial disease, which they felt served as a morale booster in their advocacy for proper treatment of the disease.

That piece, among others, investigated the virtually nonexistent treatment of the disease in health facilities — causing sufferers to fall prey to the hands of exploitative and sometimes brutal traditional healers.

What is the biggest challenge facing science journalism?

The biggest challenge is that health stories are hardly on the news because editors don't think they sell papers. Whenever they are, they’re mostly relegated to some obscure corner of the pages.

Scientists, government officials, and other relevant authorities see science reporters as time wasters because they do not expect us to know anything about what they do, let alone know what to write. To some extent they are right, unfortunately.

There is also the issue of low literacy levels. This means that we have to go the extra mile to interpret things that hardly mean anything to an ordinary person. And for Sierra Leone, it becomes much more of a problem because of the dominance of political reportage. People tend to think that reports about who wields what political influence is more important than a story about the shortage of malaria drugs or the negative effects of influential traditional healers on vulnerable pregnant women.

What lies ahead for journalism, and more specifically science journalism?

In my view, science journalism is still in its embryonic stage in Africa and particularly so in Sierra Leone. But the challenges we face, from efforts to fix our food insecurity to dealing with threats of epidemics like Ebola, provide an opportunity for us to up our game. We certainly need more than just training. We, very importantly, also need to change mindsets about what journalism means, especially in Sierra Leone.

What lies ahead for you?

I am just starting a new phase in my career — as an editor in the newsroom I am mentoring the next generation of science journalists. I want to take it to another level, and I hope that WCSJ2017 will help.