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When war broke out in Liberia in 1990, journalist of the month Wade C.L. Williams was nine years old. After losing contact with her family while on a food run, Williams decided to flee. She escaped the conflict and boarded a ship to Sierra Leone, where she stayed with foster families.
“The only way I could stay in touch with Liberia was by listening to the BBC,” Williams said. “My foster grandfather had a radio, and he would always put on BBC’s Focus on Africa. I followed everything throughout the war, and that drew me to storytelling.”
By the time Williams returned to Liberia in 1997 at the age of 16, she was ready to be a journalist. Williams participated in a press club at her local high school, covered the crime beat at a newspaper and eventually started Inside UMU, a media outlet at the United Methodist University where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
Since then, Williams has spent her career telling stories: From political profiles about Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the life of six-year-old Ebola survivor Miatta Urey, Williams continues to inform the public in Liberia and beyond.
As the Ebola crisis spread across Liberia, Williams was one of the first journalists to cover the disease for FrontPageAfrica, where she worked as an investigative journalist. She wrote about the Liberian government’s handling of the disease in an op-ed in The New York Times and went on to cover the epidemic for the Associated Press and other news outlets.
Williams is currently a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland, an opportunity she found on IJNet. She has also been a fellow with New Narratives and the Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists. Below, Williams tells us what it was like to cover the Ebola crisis and offers advice to young journalists in Liberia.
IJNet: Tell us about a difficult story you’ve written.
Wade C.L. Williams: I covered the very first gay rights story in Liberia. I had this idea because the whole gay rights debate started when [former] British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Liberia. He talked about how the U.S. was reforming its gay rights and everywhere around the world was reforming too. A debate started in Liberia, which is not really a country where people accept people who are gay.
I was wondering if I could find people who were gay to talk about how they feel and how society responds to them. At first it seemed impossible, but then I made some contacts. Then a gay rights activist introduced me to two couples.
The story turned out to be about … how they felt being ostracized by their society. I found out that sometimes they were even put out of their homes and exploited because of their sexual orientation. They didn’t feel they were anywhere near emancipation or freedom. We didn’t disclose the identities of the people. The photos were just of their feet and hands. The story made it to the front page, and it was a huge deal.
What was it like to cover the Ebola crisis?
The Ebola crisis — for everyone including the government — wasn’t something we were prepared for. It just came, and you had to sort of step up to the plate. In the Liberian media, we were always listening to the government telling us how many people were infected that day, but we weren’t seeing the people who were actually sick.
There was no footage. No one was seeing where a burial was taking place. People were saying the government was doing this to get money, and that Ebola was a lie. The debate was raging, and the press was playing along with the debate. No one was going out to investigate whether this was real.
I called up Deputy Minister of Health [Tolbert Nyenswah], and I interviewed him about the rise in cases and the way the health sector was coping with it. I told him, “People don’t believe that this real in Liberia. They need to see images. They need to see people who are sick with the disease. Just let me go in and see this.”
At the time, the death rate was 90 percent. Out of 10 people who were sick, nine people died.
He put me in touch with a guy who worked on the burial team. They were doing a burial that day, and I went to see how it was done. The family came. In Liberia if there’s a burial, a lot of people show up. But that day there were only three family members who showed up. You could see they didn’t even want to go close.
I covered the burial and did a story with the family members and the guy who worked on the burial team. I did a multimedia piece: There were pictures, videos and a story. Those were the very first images that came out, and the paper sold out.
For how long was covering the epidemic your daily beat?
It was everyday. It became an obsession at some point. Every day I wanted to do something on the epidemic. If I heard something or someone called me to say something was happening, I would be there.
I slowed down when the epidemic slowed down. When Liberia was first declared Ebola free, then I started to focus on survival stories.
What kind of advice would you give to young reporters in Liberia?
The best thing you can do is to push yourself further and not just sit there and wait for things to come to you. Young reporters have to go out there and make themselves professional. They have to go out for stories and be able to report the truth and the facts. Don’t let anyone buy you. You have to prove your independence.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Main image of Wade C.L. Williams by IJNet.