My life sounds like a bad TV movie.
In this tragic biopic, the lead character, a distance runner, overcomes some predictable and trite obstacle, runs a marathon, but drops dead of a heart attack 100 yards from the finish line.
This has pretty much been my life lately, except for the dropping dead part. Though I’m currently non-deceased, I did literally come within inches of joining the ranks of the permanently vertically challenged.
Before we get to the almost dead part, however, we have to discuss my marathon, which started eight long months ago. I have been managing and teaching a Peace and Electoral Journalism project in Uganda. Its goal is to prevent media-induced or exacerbated violence during the 2011 presidential elections. The obstacles my team and I have had to overcome to deliver this message to 320 radio journalists and announcers and 100 radio managers are many. They include logistical challenges, cultural differences, corruption, politically motivated media owners, language problems, bad hotels, worse food, and more than 10,000 kilometers spent traversing Uganda’s often abysmal roads.
The finish line for my marathon was Feb. 18, election day for president and parliament. Another six inches or so to the right, and I would’ve ended up like my TV movie’s protagonist—prostrate just a few yards (or in my case a few days) from the finish line.
As you’re now aware, I’m not dead, so unlike my movie hero, I got to taste the fruits of our efforts to prevent media-induced election violence. As election day unfolded, I planted myself in my easy chair, and surrounded myself with every electronic gadget at my disposal. The TV was on constantly, switched back and forth between two local news channels. Meanwhile, one eye was on my laptop’s Internet display.
All the news was the same, and it was glorious: there were no reported incidents of media (particularly radio) induced or exacerbated violence on Feb. 18 or 23, the day of Kampala’s mayoral election. We will be holding follow up meetings with journalists and collecting survey data, but we’re very optimistic that our peace journalism project did indeed make a positive difference in encouraging radio journalists and announcers to avoid using inflammatory speech while framing stories so that violent acts are not sensationalized,. Yes, there were a few scattered incidents of election violence on Feb. 18 and 23. However, none of this sporadic violence has been attributed to the media.
Indeed, it would have been “TV-movie-tragic” if I wouldn’t have been able to witness how responsibly and peacefully radio stations behaved on Feb. 18 and 23. Yet, this was almost the case. A few days before the presidential election, my two project assistants, our driver, and I were traveling on the highway near Kasese in western Uganda. The sun had just set. As we neared our destination, a car in the opposite lane attempted to pass a truck, except that there wasn’t enough space to safely make the pass. For about two seconds, his bright, blinding headlights filled the cabin of our van as his car careened head-on at our vehicle. My eyes were closed when the passing car side-swiped us, scraping the front quarter panel and driver’s side door. The offending car clipped the driver’s side-view mirror, folding it neatly against the side of the car but otherwise leaving it undamaged. The car that hit us sped away into the night, gone in the time it took me to turn around and look for him. Fortunately, no one was injured. I’d estimate that we were going about 55-60 mph, while the other car was much faster, maybe 70 mph. Had we struck head on, we’d all have been killed.
Our driver that evening, Mr. Grim Reaper (not his real name), was a substitute for our usual, cautious driver. Mr. Reaper did not react at all as the passing car barreled down on us—no swerving, no breaking, no nothing. Though this accident wasn’t technically his fault, a one-foot swerve to the left could have left us unscathed. Upon hearing about our ordeal, our usual driver took a bus to Kasese the next day so that he could drive us home.
So, unlike our bad TV movie, my story has a happy ending. Ugandans are celebrating presidential and mayoral elections free of radio-inflamed violence while I celebrate and take stock of my life. Our brush with death has left me shaken. However, I am now unequivocally certain of one thing: I love life, and won’t be ready to ride again with Mr. Reaper for at least another 40 or 50 years.