Controversy highlights the power of words

Last semester I wrote a profile for the Threefold Advocate about John Brown University nursing student Lulu Siamaambo entitled “Zambian student has big plans.” Little did I know that two weeks later, a scalding article in response to this profile would run front page in a Zambian newspaper.

The story I wrote highlighted Siamaambo’s passion for using her nursing education to improve her country’s healthcare. It also exposed poor healthcare in Zambia from Siamaambo’s perspective and provided data to show the huge difference between infant and maternal mortality rates in Zambia and in the U.S.

Within a few days, I found out that the Threefold article had been republished verbatim online in a major Zambian newspaper, Lusaka Voice.

I didn’t understand how they found the story on the internet, but I was happy that Siamaambo’s story was getting publicity in her home country.

However, I soon received five angry Facebook messages from Zambians who were not happy with the story, especially with the way I generalized their nation. Through them I found out that negative articles had been written about my article. I edited one part of the story that was an inappropriate generalization and composed a formal response to these readers.

What I learned:

  1. It is easy to assume that foreigners are experts on their own country’s affairs.

Just because someone knows a lot more about their country than we do does not mean that their opinion will be regarded as expert testimony back home. When writing a profile on Siamaambo, I considered her an expert on the condition of healthcare in her country. While she provided valuable stories based on personal experiences, many Zambians, especially those with radically different life experiences, did not find her descriptions of Zambia’s healthcare accurate for them.

  1. If I am going to expose something, I should do it correctly. The more accurate, precise and error-free my writing is, the more people have to deal with the issue itself instead of their anger towards the reporter.

Readers will hold me accountable for what I write. I’m thankful for this. I’ve learned a lot about journalism because of readers’ feedback.

  1. My words can hurt the people I care about. While Siamaambo is as fired up as ever to change health care in her country, I know that she has been labeled a liar on the front page of a newspaper back home. I’m partially responsible for whatever flack she, her husband or her brother-in-law (all of whom were mentioned in the story) have received.
  2. From this experience I learned to be careful, but more than anything else, I’ve learned that words are powerful. While my words stirred up more controversy than I could have imagined, Siamaambo says that there has been more positive than negative feedback.

When reading through the comments section of the negative re-writes of Siamaambo’s story, I found many people who supported Siamaambo.

“This is no lie,” wrote one commenter on mwebantu.com.

“That is the naked truth which she has told,” wrote another.

Siamaambo said that a member of parliament has contacted her and asked if she would host a talk show in Zambia and openly discuss Zambian health issues. She plans to do so after she completes her education.

Two Zambians contacted Siamaambo via Facebook saying that her story has encouraged them to pursue nursing so they too can improve health care in their country. One is pursuing this education now.

While I was learning to be a better journalist, people were engaging with the issues that Siamaambo’s story brought forth and were considering ways to improve healthcare in their country. Siamaambo’s story made people angry, but it also made people think. Ultimately, it is making a difference. Isn’t that what all journalism seeks to do?


Kuykendall is a junior, majoring in communication. She can be reached at KuykendallA@jbu.edu