From South Sudan to China: When global events affect fellowship projects

Kennedy Jawoko, who likes to say he came to Stanford from “Toronto via Uganda,” started his Knight Fellowship with an ambitious project: using digital tools to improve the quality of government and human rights reporting in South Sudan.

“South Sudan is the world’s newest country, and the state of reporting is hyper-partisan, and I was hoping to engage in a national dialogue that mitigates conflict,” Jawoko explains.

It would be a challenge — but in December, when the country descended into violence, a challenge became an impossibility.

“The journalists I was working with — their lives were in danger. They were unable to report the way I’d hoped they would, and it became very hard to implement the programs I’d developed because of political instability,” Jawoko says.

During Stanford’s winter break, Jawoko thought about taking his fellowship in a new direction.

“I was saddened by [the conflict], frustrated. I was angry because I’d invested a lot of time and intellectual energy into the project,” he recalls. But then he decided that he needed to find another way to have an impact on reporting in East Africa.

Before long, opportunity emerged in the form of another Knight Fellow, Qian Kejin. Together, Jawoko and Qian began fleshing out the details of their current project: a collaborative investigative news portal designed to illuminate the many economic and political ties between China and Africa.

“Kejin and I believe that this could be a paradigm-shifting project in the way China is covered on the continent of Africa by African and Chinese journalists,” Jawoko says. Mainstream media outlets often oversimplify the Sino-African relationship, he says, casting China as either savior or aggressor to an unsuspecting Africa.

“We believe this collaborative portal we’re creating is going to elevate the conversation that will shed more light on issues that are not being talked about — for instance, the management of public natural resources,” he adds.

Jawoko describes the transition as a “personal journey.”

“Having been born and raised in Africa, and having started my journalistic journey from Uganda, I am always asking myself, ‘Where am I most relevant?’ I believe that bringing my [journalistic] skills to the region…in a way fulfills that question,” he says. “At the same time, I also feel privileged to have this opportunity, and I would like to try to give back. That’s the personal motivation behind this. Intellectually, I think the relationship between China and Africa is one of the most significant relationships in our era, and I want to be one of the journalists creating that narrative.”