Many students take summer internships, but traveling halfway around the world may not be on their radar.
For Hailey Wettlaufer and Rebecca Asselstine, it was different. These master’s students are working among a community in northern Tanzania to educate and encourage aspiring young female journalists.
“When I decided to pursue a career in journalism, I knew I wanted to do it on an international level,” said Wettlaufer, speaking to Western News from Mwanza, Tanzania, where she and Asselstine will be living for three months.
“After talking with the MMJC [Master of Media in Journalism and Communications] program chair, I learned about this opportunity to be involved in journalism here,” she said.
The students are interning with MikonoYetu, a non-profit organization whose name translates to “joining our hands” in Kiswahili, one of Tanzania’s official languages. MikonoYetu works for women’s empowerment.
The internship is through Western Heads East, a collaboration between Western staff, students, faculty and African partners which connects students with East African partners in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania to contribute to health and sustainable development through probiotic foods and social enterprise. In the past 20 years, 182 interns have participated in the initiative, working with local women to establish their own businesses and to further empower themselves while bringing health to their communities.
Over 450 women in the three East African countries have been trained in entrepreneurship and social enterprise health through Western Heads East, and they now own and operate probiotic food and social enterprises.
In 2002, Western Heads East launched a collaboration with African partners to create their first probiotic yogurt, now called ‘Fiti,’ which translates to “fit and healthy” in Kiswahili. Now, there are now more than 300 community kitchens providing probiotic yogurt to more than 280,000 people in East Africa.
Amplifying women’s voices
“I’m excited to be working with an organization that seeks to amplify women’s voices in journalism,” said Wettlaufer. “Not only because it aligns with my own values, but because it supports the democratic function that news is supposed to serve.”
In an interview with Western Heads East, Maimuna Kanyamala, the founder of MikonoYetu, said she created the organization to help economically empower women and younger girls to allow them to leave violent situations and provide for themselves. Girls’ empowerment programs through MikonoYetu help build confidence among girls aged 10 to 19 years.
“Right now we’re mostly assisting the women in our class with producing photo, video and written content about the Msichana Tai initiative,” said Wettlaufer. “Leading up to this we held classes on journalism basics and now they’re putting to work what they’ve learned, which is fun for them and exciting for us to see.”
Msichana Tai TV is a branch of MikonoYetu created to give adolescent girls a public platform to challenge oppressive traditions and customs, while also providing vocational training for the newsroom. Founded in 2021, the TV channel is run by 15 adolescent girls who dream of becoming journalists, and they already have an audience of around 50,000 people.
“This was a good opportunity to explore what journalism looks like beyond the western world,” said Wettlaufer. “A lot of the time when reporters cover issues outside of the West, they still tell these stories with a western bias.”
The impact of MikonoYetu has been substantial. The average Tanzanian woman makes less than the Canadian equivalent of $1.25 a day. Opportunities like this provide them with a means of generating income. Women involved with it can now afford to send their children to university and buy their own properties.
“They want women to be involved in every aspect of journalism, whether it’s writing, production or broadcast,” said Wettlaufer.
This public education on important social issues provides both African women and interns like Wettlaufer and Asselstine with experiential learning and leadership opportunities.
A less biased perspective
“By having the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in Mwanza, I’m learning to tell international stories with a less biased perspective,” said Wettlaufer. “When Rebecca and I tell people here that we’re journalists they’re often skeptical, and rightfully so. The stories told about African nations are so often negative or present the continent as homogenous.”
Journalism is intended to be an unbiased and objective field, but this is often not the case. International opportunities like MikonoYetu are essential in preserving journalistic objectivity in western articles, feel the students.
“Having grown up in the Middle East before moving to Canada, I’ve seen first-hand how media narratives can distort public perception of a region,” said Asselstine. “In the western media, African nations are lumped together or often reported solely in a negative light.”
Opportunities like this allow for the women and girls taking part in the initiatives to share their stories in an unbiased and complete way to represent their country, the students said.
“It’s really important to me that the jobs I take and pieces I work on reflect my interests and personal beliefs,” said Asselstine. “So, I hoped that by taking this internship I could create journalistic pieces that presented the distinct culture and value of Tanzania.”