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Journalists can change the world

Alphonce Gari inspires social action with touching stories

In Summary

• If every cloud has a silver lining, Alphonce Gari has perfected the art of finding it 

• He hunts for it in the recesses of troubled souls and shakes readers’ hearts with it

When Alphonce Gari went to interview the principal of a school in Kilifi county, little did he know he was about to beam the light of a nation on the gloom of a poor family with an unsung hero.

Speaking on Art of Storytelling, he said he was bombarded with calls after his feature was published.

“It really feels good when you do a story and you see the world shaken or the country shaken or people’s hearts are shaken, seeking to support someone,” he says.

It all started with a conflict between Mamburui Secondary School and the local community. Gari went to cover it as the Star correspondent in Kilifi.

Expecting hostility from the principal, he began the conversation with praise that Mamburui was one of the best-performing schools in the county.

The principal was impressed but wondered why he was coming now, months after the KCSE results were released.

Quickly thinking on his feet, Gari told her it was because students were almost joining Form 1, so that would be the right time to do the interview “because we understand you also have challenges”.

Peter Erastus, the third-born in the family of six, who scored A- at Mamburui Secondary School
Peter Erastus, the third-born in the family of six, who scored A- at Mamburui Secondary School

“In fact,” remembered the principal, “I have a very bright, needy student here who may not join university. He scored an A- but he comes from a very poor background and the family has completely nothing.”

Curious, Gari delved into the story, and she told him all she knew. He then sought out the boy, who had offered to be a cleaner in the school but the principal asked him to help with marking exams instead to avoid discouraging other students. The boy almost wept as he explained how hard it had been just to finish high school.

The next day, Gari went to visit the boy’s home. He found the roof was collapsing, the muddy walls were porous, “the home looked abandoned”.

But the foundation spoke of better days and aborted ambitions. Gari explored the story behind it and found even more layers to an intriguing narrative.

That is how one of the top 10 feature stories of 2021 was born: ‘Family dream built on prime job falls apart after its loss’.

Within a day of its publication, Gari was getting calls from well-wishers far and wide, offering to help. The highlight was a full scholarship to the best private university in Kenya.

“I was in darkness but now, I can see light ahead,” the boy said when Gari followed up.

I may not have been in a position to support this family financially but through the work of my pen, I’m very happy that the family managed to get that support
Alphonce Gari


Gari sees this as a lesson in the power of writing to galvanise society into rallying behind a cause.

“This is not the first time I’m doing such a story and it has an impact,” he says. 

“I may not have been in a position to support this family financially but through the work of my pen, I’m very happy that the family managed to get that support.”

When not shining a spotlight on forgotten people, Gari is passionate about gender-based violence. He also writes extensively on tourism, the lifeblood of his hometown.

You do not have to stumble on such a gem to produce a fascinating story. Gari says human interest stories can be found anywhere, even with a Mama Mboga who has hustled until she raised her children. 

His people skills were evident on a walk around Malindi town. Every other person greeted him and he indulged them in a quick chat despite lugging around a huge tripod.

One man was seated with a copy of the Star opened to the spread with the Big Read. A panoramic image from Gari’s camera graced his story on ecotourism.

“Ahhh, I always read the Star,” the man said when he saw Gari. “Always, always.”

Gari says for a story to stand out, it needs to bring out the little victories in life. While there are many stories on teenage pregnancies, for example, one can opt to highlight a young mother overcoming the odds to finish school.

“Looking out for the successes and mixing with the challenges, it creates a positive impact and even touches the hearts of people,” Gari says.

“Many people do stories but readers don’t feel touched because you are always talking of trouble.”

He also encourages writers to seek the finer details. “Ukitafuta tu juu juu hivi (if you search superficially), it becomes difficult,” he says.

“So you have to be patient and to dig deeper as you interview sources so that they open up. Some issues come from the heart.”

As for the school-community conflict, Gari only revisited it two weeks later. He says this shows the importance of looking for a unique angle because sometimes the story you are pursuing may not be the most interesting.

Next week, Art of Storytelling will be talking to politics and economy reporter Moses Odhiambo.

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