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NPR Correspondent to Travel with Bush to Africa


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: Australia's new prime minister apologizes to the country's Aboriginal people. We'll ask why he did it and what it means, and the latest from John Sayles. His name is synonymous with independent film. We'll find out what he's been working on. But first, from time to time, we like to catch up with our foreign correspondents about what they're doing and how they are doing. East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins has spent the last year covering the news of the continent and traveling from her base in Nairobi, Kenya to Somalia, Sudan and even South Africa. We're so pleased to have her with us in Studio 4B to check in and share some highlights of her last year, including a very unique trip to Antarctica. And her next adventure, a trip with the president. Gwen, welcome. It's good to see you.

GWEN THOMPKINS: It is great to see you, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Thanks for coming in. You're based in Kenya. We've been following events there, elections at the end of December, which have deteriorated very quickly into sort of a violent situation. At the time, did you have a sense that trouble was brewing?

THOMPKINS: In the reporting that I did before that time, it was clear that somebody was in for a big disappointment. And that's because the vote was so evenly split, it seemed, between the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki and the challenger Raila Odinga. And Kenyans had been so enthusiastic about the vote, in large part because in 2002, they had really seen an election change their lives. You know, the hand-chosen successor to Daniel arap Moi, who was the fellow who had been in power for 24 years, was defeated. That's the election that brought Mwai Kibaki into office and people felt as if, through democracy, they were going to be able to control their lives.

Now there was a lot of nervousness and anxiety in the air because people were afraid that somehow someone was going to try to steal the votes some kind of way. I mean, even if a pencil dropped, someone would say he's trying to vote rig. You know, he's vote rigging. So things sort of turned and turned in a very dramatic and dark way.

MARTIN: I think the consequences for just regular people has just been devastating, and here's a piece that you filed for WEEKEND EDITION in January that describes some of the, some of what people are experiencing.


THOMPKINS: So what's happened is that in the wake of so much, not only violence against people, but also destruction of property, there's been a stop in the food flow, in the water flow to many of these areas. And these areas house hundreds of thousands of people. So, you know, many of the people who've been displaced from these shanty towns have found some relief at parks nearby. There's a report, actually, that two women gave birth last week in the park. You can sort of guess how serious the situation is when people are having to give birth in open air in one of the big capitals of East Africa.

MARTIN: Again, and that was a conversation you were having with Liane Hansen for WEEKEND EDITION in January. When you're trying to convey a situation like that to an American audience, what do you look for to try to help people understand the gravity of it? Because I'm guessing that some people - you know, forgive me - might not understand but that's not an everyday occurrence.

THOMPKINS: That's an excellent point you make Michel. Because when I come back to the United States, it is an extraordinary thing, because when I tell people, oh, I work in East Africa, they immediately you know, put on a sad expression on their faces and say, how can we help those poor people? And this is before the election. This is before there was any trouble in Kenya. But the thing is, people who live outside of Africa are often inundated with messages that Africa is in trouble. People are dying. People are starving. Disease is everywhere.

And I am not going to tell you that these situations don't exist. I mean, yes, people are starving in many parts of Africa and there are children who are suffering. But Africa is a big place. It is rare for someone to give birth in a major park in a major city anywhere. And so what I try to convey to people is that if it's odd for you to see this in your town, then it's odd for people who are on the ground where I am to see this as well.

MARTIN: I do want to point out that your coverage in East Africa isn't all about you know, conflict and misery. You've also had some wonderful pieces that talk about - well, let's just listen to this.

THOMPKINS: If Esmond Bradley Martin has one thing to say to you and me and anyone else who might be listening, it's this:

Mr. ESMOND BRADLEY MARTIN: If I was going to die today, my biggest contribution academically would be to show that except for one small area in India, rhino horn has never been used by Asians for sexual purposes.

MARTIN: And that's for a piece that you did for WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY. Well, thanks for clarifying that, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: It's the least I can do, you know.

MARTIN: I'm glad to know that.

THOMPKINS: I want to earn my paycheck, Michel. I want to earn my paycheck every two weeks. And my God, if that's what I have to do, that's what I'm going to have to do.

MARTIN: Okay, but how did you get on to this subject?

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, I was just trying to do a story about big game poaching in East Africa. And Esmond Bradley Martin, as you probably heard, is an American who's been living in Kenya for more than 30 years. And he is probably the world's foremost authority on big game poaching. So he invited me over on morning to, for all intents and purposes, educate me, because I didn't know a thing about this topic.

And we were sitting around talking and we were talking for a long time. He's very patient. And then finally he just looked at me and he said, you haven't asked me about rhino horns and sex. And, you know…

MARTIN: And you're like yeah, you're right.

THOMPKINS: You know, it's like one of those questions that even Ted Baxter knows how to ask, especially when someone has said, hey you know, you need to ask me this.

MARTIN: And one of the things I think we all appreciate about your reporting, Gwen, is that you help us understand the diversity of not just the continent, but just your region alone. And I was fascinated to hear from one of your pieces for WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY, that despite turmoil in some of these places, there are people who are still immigrating. They are moving there. Let's listen.

THOMPKINS: Empress Baby Eye is 67 years old and plump, the color of root beer candy. She has long, snowy dreadlocks wrapped like crown on top of her head, and nearly a full white beard under chinny chin chin. About seven years ago, she and her husband immigrated from Jamaica to Shashamane, a town nearly 200 miles south of Ethiopia's capital. They are caretakers of the Niabingi Church here. Empress Baby Eye, who would give no other name, says she never expects to see Jamaica again.

Ms. EMPRESS BABY EYE: Ethiopia is our home. We the black people must come home. China for the Chinese. Indian for the India. European for the Europeans. And Africa is for the black people.

MARTIN: Well, Empress Baby Eye sounds like quite a character, Gwen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why Ethiopia, though? They have a spiritual connection with the…

THOMPKINS: Well, yes.

MARTIN: …former Emperor Haile Selassie. Is that it?

THOMPKINS: Absolutely. Haile Selassie traveled quite a lot during his reign, and he was very interested in communicating a message that there is one African people. I should also mention that for Rastafarians, Emperor Haile Selassie is more than the Emperor of Ethiopia, because they have not acknowledged that he has actually died. They believe that Haile Selassie is the Messiah, that he's the black Messiah. And so for them, when the black Messiah comes to the Caribbean and says, if you all want to come back to Africa, you know, please feel free to come back to Ethiopia, they took him up on it.

MARTIN: Interesting. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with NPR's foreign correspondent, Gwen Thompkins about her work in East Africa. On your way back to the U.S. on your brief visit here, you stopped in Antarctica. Why?

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, as you know, National Public Radio has embarked on a year-long series on Climate Connections. It tries to show the connections between people and where they are living or where they are interested in living around the world. They've gone to the Burgundy wine region of France. They've gone to the Far East. And so now they are interested in going to Antarctica. There's aren't a lot of people who live there and the people who do, they live there just for a few months of the year. They're scientists mostly, looking at penguins, and, you know, environmental change. But there are an awful lot of people who are visiting every year. And in the last 10 years, the Antarctic tourism industry as exploded.

Ten years ago, let's say about, let's say 7,000 people went to Antarctica as tourists. This year, 40,000 people are going.

MARTIN: And is it that all that travel is changing the environment, all these folks coming through there is actually having an effect on the environment there?

THOMPKINS: Well, that's a question that many are trying to answer. And it's also a question that the industry itself is trying to mitigate in some kind of way, because what they are really hoping for at best, is for 40,000 Houdinis to come to Antarctica this year. They want people to come, look and leave without a trace.

MARTIN: And finally, this week you're set to travel with President Bush, who's on what will have to be I think, the last trip of his presidency to Africa. He's been previously. Where is he going and why?

THOMPKINS: The President is going to Benin, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana and Liberia on this trip. And he is hoping - I believe it is fair to say - that he is hoping to draw attention to some of the good work that the Bush administration has done on the continent over these past seven years. The administration has devoted an awful lot of resources to combating HIV and malaria on the continent, and this particular administration has also been very interested in figuring out ways, creative ways to push back or camp down corruption, political corruption on the continent.

And at this stage of the president's tenure in office, it appears to be quite important to him and maybe also to the administration to tend to the president's legacy. And this means trips to places that showcase areas where the president's vision has been realized - or partially realized.

MARTIN: Well, we'll look forward to your reporting from there.

THOMPKINS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I'm suspecting that the travel on this trip will be a little different from the way you normally get around on your own. So do remember to bring us back a souvenir from Air Force One, should you get a chance to travel a leg or two on plane.


MARTIN: Some M&M's will be appreciated.

THOMPKINS: I'll do my best. I'll do my — in fact I…

MARTIN: No silverware.

THOMPKINS: I think I have actually, one leg on this trip where I will be on Air Force One, and I'm kind of excited about it. I mean, like any geek, I'm very excited about seeing this plane, because you know, the fanciest plane I think I've been on so far, has been the Lisa Marie, you know, Elvis' plane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it should be — you know, I don't know whether there'll be a lot of parallel between the two, but it should be kind of fun.

MARTIN: Well, do remember that I was the one who asked for the M&M's. So should anyone else you know, request them, you tell them that they're mine. Gwen Thompkins is NPR's East Africa correspondent. She's preparing to travel with President Bush on his Africa tour later this week. Gwen, thanks so much for stopping in.

THOMPKINS: Thank you. Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.
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