Covering the jogging ban in Burundi
BY TAYLOR WYLLIE
Peter Frick-Wright has nearly been in the wrong place at the wrong time on more than one occasion.
A freelance journalist based out of Portland, Oregon, Frick-Wright lived in Bosnia the year Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and left the country the day Serbians attacked U.S. embassies as a warning to Americans. He walked through a city square in Burundi, Africa the day before a shooting took place in the same area, and almost hired the one translator known to be, well, not so good.
But he continues to travel, searching for meaningful stories both domestically and abroad, which he often tells through the lens of an outdoorsman.
Frick-Wright traveled across the world to Burundi in the fall of 2015 for his second article for Outside magazine where he spent 10 days digging into the reasons current President Pierre Nkurunziza banned jogging, an activity that brought Hutus and Tutsis together after decades of bloodshed. He found a story that dates back 25 years, spanned an ethnic civil war and is one of the first signs the country might be on the brink of another.
Frick-Wright was able to tell the story in large part because of a man he met on his second day in Burundi, Ferdinand Nitunga. Nitunga became a stand-in for the joggers of the country who weren’t political, a man who dealt with the difficulties of life through exercise. His sociable personality coupled with his natural athleticism made for a multifaceted, likable character that readers could connect with through all the political complexities of the story.
Frick-Wright talked with Outdoors Unlimited about the difficulties of reporting in a politically unstable environment, how to break down barriers with sources while abroad and the golden standard in journalism. Read the interview below and be sure to read his story at https://www.outsideonline.com/2062806/worlds-most-dangerous-running-club-burundi.
Outdoors Unlimited: How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Peter Frick-Wright: It came about in a sort of backwards way. I was out running with a friend of mine and it was a hot summer day in Portland. We got back to the apartment and were hanging out and we started bouncing around ideas of places we might be able to go.
We were looking at, I think, Wiki Travel, and he pulled up the entry to Burundi and he was like well we could go, but we couldn’t go jogging there. He just read out a sentence that the president of Burundi banned jogging in March 2014 and we laughed about it at the time.
I went home that night and was like “how did this happen?” That was the driving question: what would make the country or the president ban jogging?
OU: How did the story develop from its conception to when you actually sat down and wrote it?
Frick-Wright: I didn’t know I was going to meet Ferdinand going there. Even after I got back, my first draft didn’t have him as such a central character. I knew he was important. He was sort of a stand-in for the rest of the country and these nonmilitant joggers.
My editor [Jonah Ogles] really helped me understand what role he would play in this. He gave me the best single edit I’ve ever gotten, which was helping refine Ferdinand’s place in the story.
OU: Ferdinand is quite the character. How did you know which people to approach, which people would make great characters?
Frick-Wright: Ferdinand, he just thrust himself into the front of my notebook and microphone.
The leader of the club, I was trying to talk to him and he was like, “you should talk to Ferdinand, this kid has a really incredible story.” So how did I know? Someone told me and I believed them.
OU: How were you able to approach and connect with potential sources, especially coming in as an outsider to a country where people are uncomfortable talking to the press?
Frick-Wright: The first day I was there, and there’s this scene in the story, Jean Baptiste my translator said “Oh I know where there will be joggers today.”
I came into that as a straight journalist. I have my notepad out, I’ve got my voice recorder, Jean Baptiste… is trying to get me what I came for and no one will talk to me.
The next morning, going and working out with the group, that just broke down every barrier that could be broken down. Once I spent an hour sweating with these guys everyone wanted to talk to me.
OU: Were you in good enough shape to keep up?
Frick-Wright: I thought I was in good shape until I tried to run with Ferdinand at the equator at 9 in the morning. He’s really a phenomenal athlete.
OU: What was it like working in a politically unstable environment?
Frick-Wright: In some senses, it was a lot harder and more nerve-racking than anywhere I have ever been.
We never were shot at. We never had any real issues personally. We had a lot of people that were nervous to talk to us. When we went to the [Movement for Solidarity and Democracy] MSD headquarters building, the police kept circling it. When I say police, I mean a pickup truck full of guys in the back with guns. Everyone inside got really nervous about talking to us and we had to reschedule that interview.
We rescheduled the interview, but the rescheduling was “we’ll call you at this time” and that phone call was “go to this church and wait for another phone call” and from there it was “drive south on the street that you’re on until you see the place and you’ll know the place.”
OU: How did working with a translator change how you approached reporting?
Frick-Wright: My translator was a very big fan of the main opposition leader that I wrote about. He interrupted some interviewees to talk more about [Alexis] Sinduhije. That became a bit of a liability. He was a really good translator though, he made the story happen for sure, but it became another variable to filter through when you’re trying to get both sides of the story.
OU: After being there for 10 days you had a lot of information to work with. How did you decide what to keep and what to toss?
Frick-Wright: It was really a process of adding movement and a narrative arc in a way that you still got a sense of what the political problems really were without getting into the weeds too much.
We did many, many drafts back and forth on that. Probably 10 to 12 drafts overall just getting it right.
OU: How do you balance a first-person narrative with a more traditional reported piece?
Frick-Wright: There are certain things you need, like you need a character that encounters a problem that gets solved. When you can do that without using first person at all, that’s the gold standard. When you can’t do that and you need the first person in order to make it happen, then you add it in a little bit at a time. That’s how I make it work.
Here’s a story about Burundi and a situation I had gone and seen. I needed it to be accessible for a reader who didn’t care about this, and I needed to hook them in some way. I didn’t think jumping straight into a civil war was going to do it. That’s a familiar story. That’s a story that people know and are tired of.
The reason we used the first person was I felt the strangeness, the novelty of the jogging ban, was the most immediately interesting part of the piece. That was going to be my hook. I could relate to readers by showing how weird I thought the situation was. ♦
— Taylor Wyllie was an OWAA intern and is a student at the University of Montana, studying journalism and environmental studies. She’s worked for the independent student newspaper, The Montana Kaimin and her work has appeared on Montana PBS, Montana Public Radio and in the Missoulian.