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Laura Payton’s Travers Reflection

“It’s not hard being a mother. It’s normal.”

Salome Pascale, 26, sits on the step outside her mud hut, her toddler son never more than a few feet away. It’s close to noon and the shelter offers just enough shade to protect the spots where we sit from the full mid-day Tanzanian heat. A translator sits on a plastic lawn chair nearby, but the communication problems we encounter are more than simply a matter of turning English into Swahili. Pascale describes how she and her husband farm in order to feed their two children, working as labourers to fill the gaps between harvests that leave them without sustenance. Her biggest dream is for her children (she’s pregnant with their third) to finish secondary school. She didn’t even get to go to primary.

Despite all of that, Pascale doesn’t feel burdened. Living in rural Tabora, one of the poorest parts of Tanzania, with no education and without a stable income, life isn’t hard. It just is. It’s normal.

I have done some tough interviews in my career on Parliament Hill, trying to pin down politicians or elicit some kind of clear position from a murky statement. But Pascale might be the hardest interview I’ve ever had, simply because I couldn’t come up with the right questions to get me the insight I wanted into her life. Does she fear for her children when they don’t have enough food? What does she desire for them, in her wildest dreams? She wants them to be happy – that most fundamental of parental wishes – but can’t be specific about what that means. Pascale, who can’t count or write her name, likely doesn’t know which options exist for those who face no barriers – those with money, with education, with connections – or even the array of possibilities that would be available hundreds of kilometres away in Dar es Salaam, the modern city of 4 million that serves as the country’s commercial hub. We’re both trying to communicate but there’s more to it than simply speaking the words for the translator. She has a story to tell, but I can’t find the questions to draw it out from her. Trying to get to that story reminded me it’s vital to spend some time seeing the world from my interviewee’s perspective. And to ask as many questions as I need to get it right.

The Travers Fellowship is a rare chance to choose your own reporting adventure. You pick the story and build a project around your goals – not the goals of a central assignment desk. You also get a chance to leave not only your desk, but your country, to see for yourself what’s happening in a place that most likely isn’t getting the coverage it deserves.

On my second day in Tanzania, I interviewed parents at a nutrition group. Their children sit on benches on the other side of a massive tree, eating porridge and nut butter the parents make together, while a local NGO worker talks about how to ensure the kids get enough nutrients from what they eat. After four or five interviews, I suggested I had enough material for my story. The NGO staffer who had set up the visit looked at me.

“This is your chance,” she said.

I continued with the interviews. There were so many stories to be told.