Americans take a lot for granted. Two months ago, I visited Tanzania in East Africa, part of a delegation of U.S. journalists sponsored by RESULTS, a global health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
During an interview with a high-ranking Tanzanian official, another U.S. journalist asked if Tanzanian classrooms had internet access. “You mean the ones with electricity?” the official said.
Travel is a mind-blowing experience. One of journalism's few perks is getting to places tourists typically don't.
During a 2001 trip to the Middle East, as a Detroit Free Press columnist, I spent a week in Israel and a week on the West Bank. I talked to everyday Israelis and Palestinians. I also interviewed leaders on both sides, including Yasser Arafat, in his heavily guarded compound in the Gaza Strip, and Shimon Peres. Arafat picked us up at the border with a armored car that raced to his compound with sirens blaring. At the compound, Arafat, then almost 80, greeted us and, surrounded by guards carrying machine guns, flirted with some of the younger women in our group of journalists.
Tanzania was another mind-blower. The country is young – average age, 18 – and poor, with an average per capita income of $88 (U.S.) a year. With Mount Kilimanjaro, world-class beaches, and Big Game, Tanzania is a major tourist destination.
Americans could learn a lot from this East African country. Tanzania focuses much of its scarce resources on health and education. (Some immunization rates are actually higher than they are in the United States, but Malaria and AIDs remain major killers.)
Young people in Tanzania are hungry to learn. When one class of 14-year-olds was asked whether they would rather give up food or education, they said food. It's not unusual for children to walk three miles, or more, to school.
Classrooms are crowded. Some schools don't have separate rest rooms for boys and girls, or proper ventilation. Class sizes often run over 100 students – and a few classes exceed 200.Up until recently, four or five students shared a single textbook. Now, each child has his or her own textbooks, thanks partly to USAID (United States Agency for International Development).
Education in Tanzania works as well as it does because students are extremely well-behaved and eager to learn. This nation of 58 million is roughly 55 percent Christian and 35 percent Muslim. People of both faiths get along. Swahili is the national language, uniting a nation of more than 120 tribes.
Violent crime is rare. I talked to one teacher who had been to the United States twice to visit her daughter. She said she liked the states but feared walking around New York City at night. In Tanzania, she lives in Dar es Salaam, a city of nearly 6 million people. There, she walks anywhere without fear.
Whenever I struggle to get my priorities straight, or come to a fork in life's winding road, I do some mental gymnastics. I know this sounds morbid, but I imagine I'm on my deathbed, with minutes to live. Would I feel satisfied with what I've done with my life? And what, of all the things I've done, would now give me the most satisfaction and peace?
Morbid or not, it put puts things in perspective. All the stuff I've bought over the years, my closets full of clothes, wouldn't much matter in the end. The many places I've seen around the world would be nice, but more like a dessert in the dinner of life. My roles as friend, family member, father, husband would rate close to the top. So would whatever I did to make a difference.
I'm fortunate to have a job that's allowed me to do that. A 2014 series on opioid and heroin addiction, for example, triggered numerous changes in local and state policies. In 2006, while writing an editorial-page series on prison healthcare in Michigan, I exposed the death of a 21-year-old mentally ill inmate. Timothy Souders died of heat and thirst, after being strapped down in a hot isolation cell for four days, naked and soaked in his own urine. His mother learned how he died by reading my report in the Detroit Free Press.
That series, which 60 Minutes later reported, led to a complete overhaul of prison healthcare in Michigan. These and many other changes have shown me the media's power to make a difference, even today. It means much more than all the national journalism awards I've won.
Doing the right thing doesn't always make you popular. When journalists expose injustice, corruption, waste, incompetence, or negligence, some people don't like it. Anyone who shakes things up needs a thick skin.
I spent nearly 20 years in Detroit, where I was a reporter, assistant city editor, and then editorial writer and columnist for the Detroit Free Press. In Detroit, I wrote about urban affairs and the prison and criminal justice system. I was also deputy editor of The Toledo Blade for four years. Before that, I was a reporter for USA Today and the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
As a journalist, I've traveled to Europe, South America, the Middle East, Cuba, and, most recently, Tanzania in East Africa. I've interviewed heads of government, including Yasser Arafat, U.S. presidents, senators, governors, mayors, and cabinet members. I've also interviewed hundreds of prisoners, ex-prisoners, addicts, mentally ill, homeless people, and gang members. Personally and professionally, I've seen many sides of life.
On a personal note, I was the first person in my family to attend college, the second to graduate from high school. I received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and music, and a master's degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee.
I got through college by working a lot of hard and dirty jobs, including factory and construction labor. I also played drums in a band for two years Being a drummer was a lot of fun.
As the new editor of Herald-Press, I have a much different role in a much different community. One thing hasn't changed: I'm still trying to make a difference.