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Intentions & Serendipity: From Growing Up in Cairo to Broadcasting in Kenya


When Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee passed away, Cairo native Rachel Jones wrote a remembrance about his recruiting her. Jones has worked for NPR, the former Knight Ridder news service, Detroit Free Press and St. Petersburg Times. She's also served as Project Director for the Internews Network's Gulu, Uganda Radio Training Center. She's lived in Kenya since 2008, working for Voice of America. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte reached her by phone to learn more about her career.

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Growing up in Cairo

Rachel Jones was the ninth of ten kids. She is the daughter of the late Eloise and Louis Jones of Cairo, Illinois. Her father loaded bags of grain onto barges at the Ohio River Levee for Interstate Mill and her mother worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family across Main Street. Jones says her mother was very supportive of education and though her life dreams were restricted, she wanted her children to see the world beyond Cairo. Born in 1961, Cairo had already been on the decline in her early years. She recalls a population around 10,000, whereas now it's under 3,000. Her parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, so she experienced a lot of 'separateness' growing up in that time period.

The Civil Rights Movement was also going strong in her childhood years, and Cairo was something of a focal spot - Martin Luther King Jr. famously described Cairo as the 'Birmingham of the North.' She says many of her siblings faced segregation first hand. She recalls the "white hats" in Cairo - a version of the KKK, riding through neighborhoods shooting and scaring families. She says her parents had a large claw-foot bathtub and were told to hid in it for safety if they heard shooting. Ironically, these early experiences fueled Jones' desire to write about and help people understand issues of race and poverty.

Intentions and Serendipity

Jones attributes much of her life's journey to a combination of intentions and serendipity. In her tribute on Ben Bradlee, she mentions that she left Cairo and entered Northwestern University in 1979 for one year before returning to Southern Illinois to attend Southern Illinois University Carbondale. There, she wrote a paper on "Black English" where she makes a case that while she embraced black slang as part of her identity, she believed one needs a mastery of standard English to succeed. Her instructor told her to publish the paper, so she sent it off to Newsweek. It was published a week later. As a result, Ben Bradlee offered her an internship at Washington Post. For which, she recently wrote a remembrance after his passing.

On her remembrance of Ben Bradlee, Jones says 90% of the feedback was positive and 10% were from people who didn't read past the headline "How Ben Bradlee's Outrageous Use of White Privilege Changed My Life." She says, "I think those who were offended saw the word "white" in the headline and saw that my skin was brown and automatically shut down. And assumed that it was a negative piece and that it was 'another minority whining about not having access or not getting something' when it was truly... a tool... to get people to read it."

On The Ebola Scare

Jones recalls an infographic circulating social media of the three countries in west Africa primarily affected by Ebola (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia) and the rest of the continent labeled "Not Ebola." She says Ebola is probably less of an issue in Kenya than it is in America because there are currently no known cases of Ebola in eastern or southern Africa. To many Africans, the issue has laid bare some of the failings to fund healthcare, infrastructure and education. It's something on people's mind on a certain level, but the level of fear is comparatively minimal to America, since Kenya has had no instances, where America has had a few.

Living in Kenya

Jones came to Kenya in 2008 on a grant from the Gates Foundation to mentor and train journalists who wanted to cover health and healthcare issues. Now, her scope has expanded to include agriculture, security, sanitation, etc. She is also works for the Voice of America as an editor of a program on South Sudan issues.

On living in Kenya, Jones says what she likes best is the mix of people in Nairobi. She has made and lost many close friendships. People from all around the world come and go on two or three year stints. But she's met people with a wide range of different lifestyles. "Things a little girl from Cairo, Illinois would not have been able to conceive all those years ago, I'm getting to live that," she says.

Recently, she's been thinking about coming back home. She missed living in America during the time when an African American made it into the White House. She says she hopes to live in America with a female president. Her interim plans are to head back within a few years and hopes to visit WKMS when she comes home.

International journalist Rachel Jones, currently with the Voice of America, speaks with Kate Lochte from Nairobi, Kenya.

More about Rachel Jones on About.Me

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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