Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Evolving Life Of An African Columnist

From typewrite to iPad--What an evolution and journey!

I've been running columns in Zambian national weekly newspapers non-stop since 1990, i.e. for twenty-four years. At one time I was writing three per week. In two of them I have used a pseudonym to hide my identity but in one of them I have used my real name.

As I have thought about this, I have been gripped by the changes that have taken place between 1990 and today. If they had taken place overnight, they would have been shocking but they took place slowly. So, it is the panoramic view that is breathtaking.

The Typewriter
When I began writing for the National Mirror newspaper in 1990, I was using a typewriter. For my younger readers, a typewriter was a machine we once used for producing print-like characters on paper. It has since been buried with the dinosaur.

Apart from the energy one exerted to push the mechanical keys and to push back the paper roller after every line, the challenge was that you could not squeeze in thoughts into your composition that occurred to you afterwards. Often I also had to re-type the whole article because of some errors made while typing.

After typing the article, I used to get on my bicycle and ride across town to take it to the newspaper offices in time for my weekly deadline. At that time I was running two columns concurrently—one in my own name and the other in a pseudonym.

Being an itinerant preacher meant that sometimes I would have to consider the fact that the articles would be needed while I was away. Thankfully, there was the facsimile (shortened to fax) machine. If you are wondering what that is, it was a machine that scanned documents and transmitted them. It has also been buried with the dinosaur.

The fax machine was wonderful if I was travelling to foreign countries that were developed enough to have them. However, often my ministry took me to rural Zambia where they were rare. In such cases, I would write and deliver a number of articles to cover the period of my absence. This really stretched my creative capacity.

When all was done, the final agony was when I would read the article in the newspaper only to find serious typographical errors. This was because in those days the newspaper copy typists had to copy word-for-word and they were not impeccable. Sometimes the sentences would say the exact opposite of what I wanted to say. It was agony, I tell you!

The Personal Computer
Then the personal computer came to Zambia and I bade farewell to the typewriter. What a change this brought to my life! One of our deacons was running a project at the University of Zambia and had some five or six desktop computers in his office. He offered me the use of one at any time I wanted to use it.

This solved the problem of energy lost pushing the mechanical keys and the paper roller. It also solved the problem of failure to squeeze in thoughts and correct errors as I typed. At least now I could print only when the whole job was done.

However, it now meant that each time I needed to work on the columns I would cycle to the office of the deacon, work on my articles, and print them out. Then I would cycle to the newspaper premises to drop off the script before cycling back home. It was an agonizing triangle across town. At least it kept me healthy.

You can well understand how delighted I was when I bought my first personal computer in 1993. Its total hard drive was 24Mb and it cost me an arm and a leg. It took very serious master bedroom negotiations to finally clinch the deal to get a slice from our savings as a family in order to purchase one. Felistas told me afterwards that she thought I was being extravagant. A pastor with a personal computer!

Well, one of the main reasons for my "extravagance" was that I wanted to do my work as a columnist from my own home. So, I was now back to the situation where I could write the articles as soon as I was inspired. Sometimes inspiration came in the middle of the night. Also, now I only needed to cycle one way when delivering the articles.

Thankfully, before long, software for computers became available that enabled one to send a document from the computer using a telephone line and it arrived at its destination through the fax machine. That spelt the end of my cycling to the newspaper offices. I would only call to find out if the article had “arrived”. At that time, I thought that this was a great technological achievement.

The Electronic Mail
The next major blessing was the introduction of the electronic mail (shortened to email) in Zambia. At the touch of a button on my computer, my article could now arrive at the newspaper offices without me even leaving my seat. Although the fax machine did this, this time the sub-editors only needed to “cut and paste” my articles when they arrived in their inbox. That spelt the end of the typographical errors caused by copy typists.

At one time the editor for the newspaper with whom I was writing the two columns said to me, "You should see the difficulties we have in re-writing some of the articles we get from our columnists. But for you, even when I'm going away, I just tell the sub-editors, 'When Pastor Mbewe's articles come, just cut and paste!'"

My itinerant ministry still presented a challenge because up to that point my computer was a desktop. You can well understand my joy when the laptop computer became an option. I did not hesitate to begin bedroom negotiations and before long I had bought my first laptop, which weighed a ton but was at least portable.

Since then, I have worked on reducing the weight of my laptop so that I can carry it around more easily and write my articles at the moment of inspiration. I now carry an iPad with me. My wife—yes, you read it correctly—recently urged me to buy one. It took one year of persuasion before I finally yielded in March 2012. Now, I am very glad I did.

So, as I pause on the eve of a quarter of a century of being a weekly columnist in my country, almost all my initial challenges are behind me. I can now compose my articles anywhere, even while on a queue in the bank. And I can now do it without exerting any physical energy and without re-writing the whole article. I can now send my articles from the comfort of my home or wherever I am on the planet at the touch of a button, and it will be published as it was written. Let’s face it, compared to the early nineties, this is paradise!

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