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The Producer's Story
Finding Florence
by Jackie Mow

World in the Balance homepage

It was the second to last day of my research trip. I was in Nairobi, capital city of Kenya. I woke up in the night feeling desperate—I hadn't found the right person for a segment I was producing on HIV/AIDS. I had done the research. I knew who and what kind of story I was looking for. For two weeks, day after day, I had trudged through the slums of Nairobi, but I just couldn't find that person. There were plenty of people who had dramatic stories of poverty and sickness, but something was missing. I needed a compelling voice to tell the story of a generation.

I was ready to cut my losses and get back on the plane to Boston and start from scratch, but I had neither the time nor the budget to do that. Not to mention the trouble I would be in if I came back to Boston without a story. How did I get myself into this mess?

For a television producer, every program has its own unique challenges and obstacles. "World in the Balance" was no exception. Some programs I've worked on have been logistical nightmares. I have taken crews to remote places, and then the equipment has failed. I've tried to shoot aerials from a plane, and the weather has been bad for two weeks. And how about this one: I've returned home after a shoot to find that a third of the footage had a serious shake in it due to a screw loose in the camera. Each program is fraught with problems that producers always seem to be able to fix ... in the end.

The first hurdle

"World in the Balance" had challenges of a different nature. My first hurdle was trying to figure out what the story was. When I started, I was told that I would be going to sub-Saharan Africa to find a story about a population trend and reproductive health. I asked myself, "What does a population trend look like? And what does reproductive health have to do with population?" I must admit I was a neophyte in the subject matter—I needed a crash course in population studies 101.

I went to the United Nations Population Fund Web site. And this is what it said:

Each year, half a million women in developing countries die during pregnancy or in childbirth. Investments in reproductive health save and improve lives, slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, and encourage gender equality. These in turn help to stabilize population growth and reduce poverty. Investments in reproductive health extend from the individual to the family, and from the family to the world.

Now I understood the link: if women could control their reproductive health, they could control the number of people on Earth.

I started trawling through articles, Web sites, anything I could get my hands on. My second hurdle—although I had not yet made it over the first one—was to find the right country. There was a lot of territory to cover. Along the way I was handed an article that said Kenya had successfully brought down its fertility rate from eight children to four. Kenya, it seemed, was a model for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, but HIV was creating setbacks. I decided to check it out. [For more on Kenya, see the interview with Pamela Onduso.]

In Africa, it’s difficult to separate reproductive health from the HIV/AIDS story.

I started phoning organizations involved in reproductive health programs and population policy, institutions from the World Bank to local Kenyan churches. I asked them, "What are the most important issues you're working on?" It wasn't long before I started hearing the same answer over and over again. In Africa, it's difficult to separate reproductive health from the HIV/AIDS story. Reproductive health programs could slow the spread of AIDS, and poor young women desperately need services to protect themselves from the epidemic.

Many of these young women find "sugar daddies"—men who give them money in exchange for sexual favors—and end up HIV positive. In Nairobi, where more than half of the inhabitants live in poverty, it was no wonder they have to resort to extreme measures to survive.

In Zippy's hands

Now that I had the story and a place, all I needed to do was find a person to tell that story. I had read articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post about women who found sugar daddies because they had to pay for their school fees or help feed their families. I felt optimistic that I could easily find someone within my budgeted time of two weeks. To do this I solicited the help of health care workers and counselors. They promised to find women for me who would be willing to tell their stories to millions of television viewers. They said it would be no problem, that there are young women all over Nairobi who have sugar daddies.

I hired a university student, Zipporah Wambui, to help me out. She was called "Zippy" for short, and as her name indicated, she was speedy and intelligent. Zippy wrote two or three e-mails a day reassuring me that all the meetings had been set up and the young women were informed that I was coming. "You Americans worry too much," she said. "I understand exactly what you want." I felt confident I would find the right person. Zippy would lead me to her.

I arrived in Nairobi on a Monday at 9:00 a.m., tired from traveling for 17 hours but eager to get going. I had meetings set up in the afternoon with two Kenyan women who were experts in HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. These women would be instrumental in setting up meetings with local organizations. I would also finally meet Zippy.

Zippy turned out to be a nervous 21-year-old—she was always worried that she wasn't doing a good job. She liked to call me "boss," although I told her I'd rather just be called Jackie. Zippy told me she had grown up in a poor family, a child of a single mother. To get through high school, she herself had found a sugar daddy.

Zippy pulled out a beautifully typed schedule. It was jam-packed with meetings she had lined up for me over the next two weeks. I would meet with three organizations a day, and they would provide me with groups of women to talk to. As I looked through my schedule, I thought, this looks promising.

Two weeks in the slums

Nairobi is a sprawling city of 3.5 million people. Half of that population is crammed into a series of slums. The largest is home to more than 500,000 people living in a single square mile. In New York, the densest city in the United States, a mere 70,000 people inhabit a square mile. In Nairobi's slums, many families live in just one room, in corrugated shacks without running water, toilets, or sewage systems. The shacks are surrounded by heaps of trash. This is where Zippy thought I would find my story.

My first day out I was to meet a community worker who supposedly was in touch with three women who had gotten pregnant when they were teenagers. The meeting was to take place in a small, dark office on the edge of the slum. But the community worker never showed up. The three women did. They sat together on a couch silently, not knowing how to answer my questions. I decided to ask them how old they were, because they certainly didn't look like teenagers. One was 35, another wasn't quite sure how old she was but we figured it was about 30, and the third was 17. I asked, "Do any of you have children?" "No," they all said. "Are any of you HIV positive?" Again, they answered "no." I looked at Zippy and said, "Are you sure you told them exactly what we are looking for?" "Yes boss, I swear I told them everything you told me."

The next day, we had a meeting with a counselor who gave courses to schoolchildren about the dangers of HIV. Zippy was confident we would find someone in this group. When we got to the school, we found no one older than 12. Maybe one of them had a sugar daddy, but none of them even admitted she was having sex. Perhaps they were too young. I walked out of the school feeling that my assignment was going to be a little more difficult than I had thought.

I was crazy to think that someone would want to tell intimate details of how she contracted HIV.

Over and over again, organizations promised that they would line up groups of young women who had sugar daddies and were possibly HIV positive. Most people did provide us with groups of teenage girls, but either they were not willing to share their experiences or they just didn't fit the description of the person I was looking for. After nearly two weeks in the slums, I was beginning to wonder if that person really existed. I suppose I was crazy to think that someone would want to tell intimate details of how she contracted HIV and to tell that story to millions of people. I certainly wouldn't have the courage to do that.

The voice of a generation

All this brings me back now to the beginning of my tale and my sleepless night of desperation. The next morning I told Zippy that we were in big trouble if we didn't make any progress. I was losing faith. "Don't worry, boss, I think this group is the one." That day we were meeting with the Kenya Network of Women Living with AIDS.

Again, we drove out to the edge of a slum, and again in a dark, small room a group of women waited silently. I sat in front of the room and said, "I'm here because I would like to tell the story of a young woman who is HIV positive—someone who had or has a sugar daddy. It is important that we get these stories out to people around the world so they can understand the epidemic that is plaguing women like you. Your story will be broadcast to millions of people around the world." It was a speech I had made countless times that by now Zippy expertly translated. I sat, waited, and hoped.

Then, in the back of the room a young woman leapt up and said quickly and in very clear English, "My name is Florence Akinyi, I am 21 years old. My father and mother died of AIDS, and because I am the oldest in my family I have to take care of the other five children. I had three sugar daddies. I'm HIV positive. Today, I sell vegetables. I counsel other women about HIV." I thought to myself, here is a woman of extraordinary courage and dignity.

“I met a man recently, and we will be married soon. And oh yes, I’m happy to be alive.”

After Florence finished speaking, the 15 other young women got up to tell their stories. Each was a tale of human drama and sadness. Most of the women spoke in Swahili or their local dialect. Some told of being seduced by their teachers, others of being picked up by men in the streets or in discotheques. They told of abortions and sexual abuse. The sugar daddies always promised to take care of them, but most of the women ended up alone with young babies to care for. All the women were HIV positive, all were under the age of 21, and many continued to work in the sex trade to make ends meet.

When the last woman had finished her story, I felt completely exhausted. I think Zippy and I were feeling the weight of it all, and we didn't react immediately. Then, breaking the silence, Florence jumped up again and said, "I met a man recently, and we will be married soon. And oh yes, I'm happy to be alive." She gave everyone a big smile, and they smiled back.

A month later, I was back with a camera crew crammed inside Florence's one-bedroom corrugated shack in the heart of Nairobi's second-largest slum. There were nine of us inside that tiny room—three production members, Florence, her four younger siblings, and her three-year-old orphaned nephew. As we started to set up the camera for Florence's interview, I began to have producer's panic—what if Florence was not the one? But as she began to tell the dramatic tale of her young life without remorse or self-pity, I knew she would be the voice of a generation.

Read more Producer's Stories

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Mow and teenage boys

Jackie Mow (above, right) met with hundreds of young Kenyans to find the voice of a generation at risk.

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Woman with baby

While fertility rates have dropped in Kenya, many women still lack the means to plan their family size.

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Mow and Zippy

With Zipporah Wambui, a.k.a. "Zippy," to guide her, Jackie Mow makes her way through the Kibera slum of Nairobi.

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Kibera slum

In the Kibera slum, more than 500,000 people live within one square mile.

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Florence and Zippy

Florence Akinyi (in blue shirt) in front of her home with Zippy (left), a friend, and two of the five children Florence supports.

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Florence and crew

Cameraman Bob Poole filming Florence Akinyi and her family inside their one-room corrugated shack.

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World in the Balance

Back to the World in the Balance homepage for more articles, interviews, interactives, and slide shows.

Jackie Mow produced and directed the Kenya segment of "World in the Balance: The People Paradox." In her work for NOVA, Mow has covered a wide range of subjects, including early aviation, so-called "safe" cigarettes, and high altitude mountain rescues. She is currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.

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