The Ups and Downs in the Life of a JHR Trainer

By: Grant McDonald

I have a secret. I am an imposter. I am an evening person masquerading as a spunky morning person.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the productive early mornings I often have in Juba, South Sudan; but the summoning sound of my morning alarm or the very early phone calls I often receive from journalists I’ve worked with here just to say “hello,” leads to a premature requiem for my dreams.

I don’t check the forecast in the morning, it’s either going to be hot, very hot or raining. I do however scroll through numerous tweets, press releases and articles about South Sudan to get an idea of what the day might hold.

A small community just outside of the main city centre. (Photo: Robin Pierro JHR)

A small community just outside of the main city centre. (Photo Credit: Robin Pierro JHR)

The ongoing civil war has led to near economic collapse, severe malnutrition and severe hunger across the country. The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis reveals about 4.6 million people, or 40 per cent of South Sudan’s estimated population, face acute hunger in the next three months. This knowledge doesn’t just ground me, it smacks me in the face and calls me a coward. Alarm clock complaints? Please.

I head to the office of one of my local partners (Agency for Independent Media) which is a 10 minute walk from where I live, passing small tea huts and makeshift homes on the way. Although dry and dusty, there are splendid trees hurling shade towards me, as if questioning my decision to walk under the sun.

My days are never identical. My time here is typically split three-fold. Designing and hosting workshops for professional local journalists in the country, following up with trained journalists to help with their stories and designing journalism curriculum for The University of Juba.

We have a large task ahead of us in the coming days. We’re planning a multi-day workshop followed by a certificate ceremony for journalists who previously took part in Journalists for Human Rights training.

Putting Fires Out

There is one guarantee in South Sudan, the guarantee that at least one aspect of your well thought out plan will go awry.

The upcoming workshop was being held for journalism students who are part of The Student Press Club instead of working journalists.

Two days prior to the aforementioned workshop, I was told – over a spotty phone connection by Dr. Michael Joz — the Secretary General of the Press Club – that his members wouldn’t be participating due to travel budget restrictions. The entire club! Meaning as it currently stood, not a single soul was planning on coming to my workshop.

As the phone line goes silent at the end of the conversation, I stare at my outdated, scuffed-up navy blue cell phone screen which sarcastically flashes 0930hrs…I have less than 48 hours to remedy this situation.

I sort through the beige file folders precariously stacked on top of the office filing cabinets and buzz through the budget. We have money to cover travel for participants! A quick phone call to Dr. Joz and we’re back in business.

Next up, ensuring journalists show up to the certificate ceremony. Timing is everything, something I call the Goldilocks-syndrome. Give people too much notice, they’ll forget. Too little, they can’t make it. I’m looking for the perfect bowl of porridge.

I’m not a religious person, but the Regional Media Trainer I hired can only be described as a God-Send. Onen Walter Solomon took control of this task a few days prior, meticulously calling every journalist in our database (over 100) to let them know of the event. Now, he was calling to confirm.

from left... onen walter solomon, grant mcdonald and david de dau

From Left: Onen Walter Solomon, Grant McDonald and David De Dau. Outside of Agency for Independent Media Office in Juba.

Power Struggle

There are different types of power struggles happening in South Sudan. Some political, others personal…mine is more literal.

We’re in the middle of a fuel shortage (common in Juba). There’s no fuel. What does that mean? It means the generator which gives life to the venue I have booked is bone dry and unable to perform its all important job: generating power!

One suggestion is that we “simply” change the location of both the workshop and ceremony.

I now have less than 24 hours before participants arrive and I don’t plan on teaching in the dark. Walter has also just spent the last several days calling over 100 people to tell them where and when to come for the ceremony as well as inviting local Ministers to be in attendance.

However, just as the sun rises each morning over Africa, things like this have a funny way of always working out here. A jerry-can of fuel has been located which will get us through at least the first day (don’t ask me how one was “suddenly” found, because I just don’t know). We’ll deal with day two when we get there.


I arrive half an hour before the start of the workshop in order to get everything ready. Some participants are already awaiting my arrival. Together, we wait to hear the sound of the generator roaring to life.

That glorious sound eventually reverberates through the room at 0904hrs followed by the flickering of lights!

Day one goes well, 15 participants with about 1/3 being female take part. My favourite moments within the workshops tend to occur near the beginning when I get to hear a little bit about each person there. I get to understand why they want to enter this chaotic world of journalism. Their drive inspires me daily.

During a mid-day break, I get word from the venue managers that there will be fuel for tomorrow. A wave of relief comes over me, this also means I can still host the certificate ceremony.

The second day goes smooth as well with a great amount of participation and sharing of ideas. Near the end we discuss the world the way it is, and the way it should be. How as journalists, there is an obligation to help shape this world by delivering the voices of countless individuals to the ears of those in power; and demand accountability.

Discussion of human rights during a JHR workshop

Discussion of human rights during a JHR workshop

The workshop closes at 1500hrs and I have one hour to create a more “ceremonial” feel in the room next door for the handing over of certificates which gets going at 1600hrs.

The generator usually switches off at 1700hrs sharp, so we have to squeeze introductions, speeches and hand over a lot of certificates within the hour. Not a small feat when you’re running on “South Sudan Time,” which can be a bit relaxed.

Through some heavy lifting and sweat we get the room set and the journalists begin arriving along with the ministers and other government representatives.

I’m a bit overwhelmed to see so many familiar faces. After being greeted wonderfully by each of them I have a moment to reflect and in that moment an indescribable feeling of privilege (I suppose it can be called) pushed up from my body and settled in the form of a lump in my throat.

I am so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with so many inspiring journalists. Young, old, rich and poor – we are all equals in the field of journalism; fighting for something so much larger than ourselves.

Congratulating a JHR-trained journalist receiving his certificate

Congratulating a JHR-trained journalist receiving his certificate

I say a few words to the journalists seated in front me. The focus being that the certificate is simply a piece of paper. A piece of paper which will hopefully act as a reminder to continue to fight – through journalism – against human rights violations and a reminder that they can help shape their nation by being a voice for those who have silently faced injustice.

The ceremony comes to an end and just like that, the journalists I have shared ideas, hopes and dreams with are gone. Back out into the world; a world which often views them as the enemy.

I pack my bag and my trusty projector which has – for the last couple days – hummed away as it lit up a small portion of an off-white wall full of chipped paint. The intention of what is being projected is to give a stronger understanding of journalism, human rights and the role the media can play in this ever changing environment.

jhr trainees

Group shot of journalists with JHR certificates

The generator goes silent, and the lights sleep; for another day has come to a close.

As the sun retreats to the safety of the horizon, I will replay the previous days in my mind as I wander home. The tea shops are now closed, the trees no longer cast any shade and the dust has settled.

If rising early means I am able to continue to have the privilege of knowing that the day will bring new challenges, new opportunities and more ways to be inspired…I’ll keep telling people I’m a morning person.

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About Grant Mcdonald

Media has always been my area of expertise working as a news anchor/reporter in Toronto for most of my career but in 2014 I will take my media experience and head back to Africa. This time to South Sudan to implement journalism training. From 2012--2014 I anchored the mid-day slot for Talk Radio AM640. During my time with AM640, I took time off to live in West Africa for a part of 2013 to work with Journalists for Human Rights in Liberia as a media trainer. From 2010-2012 I worked in Communications for Metrolinx. From 2007-2010 I worked as a News Anchor at Talk Radio AM640 in various time slots. Away from my regular work I always enjoy being involved in the community so I ensure I have time to work with United Way Toronto, The Peer Project and University in the Community.

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