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Philadelphia's Windsor Johnston: News Director at WRTI

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“There was a 14 year-old girl in Kenya. Her name was Grace and I will never forget her. She is an amazing artist. One night I sat with her grace kenya windsor johnstonwatching the sunset aside of Lake Vitoria. Her English was limited, but I had been learning her language. She told me that she would draw pictures and sell them so that she could help her family build a home.”

WRTI news director and morning news anchor, Windsor Johnston, did not read these quotes during one of her broadcasts. She was speaking about her own experience of living in Kenya.

Johnston first joined the station in 1995 and became the afternoon news anchor in 1996, She then joined the station's executive director, Dave Conant, on the morning show in 1999. WRTI is a non-profit, public radio service of Temple University that broadcasts classical and jazz music.  

In December, 2007, Johnston went to Kenya with Village Volunteers. This non-profit organization, based in Seattle, Washington, works in partnerships with rural, non-governmental groups in countries that also include: Belize, Ghana, India, and Nepal. It works to implement sustainable solutions for community survival, education, and growth using a model that empowers local people.

Johnston was part of a group that included people from New Zealand, Australia, and England. Their mission was to help improve water purification in the Kenyan town of Kiminini.

windsor johnstonA couple in Seattle heard Johnston's reports about water purification and were inspired to finance the installation of a system that now provides 5,000 people with clean water.

Shortly after arriving in Kenya, a civil war broke out. Even though that caused Johnston to be separated from her group, she remained in the country and transitioned into a role that was similar to that of a foreign correspondent. In the tradition of CBS' Edward R. Murrow, she filed news reports for NPR as the conflict progressed.

“In 2007 there was a Presidential election. The two candidates were Mawi Kibaki, a member of what would be our Republican party in the United States and Raila Odinga, a member of the ODM (Orange Democratic Movement), which is similar to our Democratic party,” Johnston said.

In 1964, Kenya achieved independence from England after being declared a republic. Since then it has had three Presidents. Kibaki, elected in 2002, has faced backlash for the manner in which he has ruled the country. Odinga, currently Prime Minister, was a candidate who spoke about transforming Kenyan society and improving the lives of the people. It wasn't until last year that both leaders appeared to reconcile their differences, something Vice President Joe Biden praised them for.

“They had an election with paper ballots. I went to a polling place in Western Kenya and observed people voting with their purple-dyed fingerprints. People were getting their pinky fingers cloroxed, so they could vote again.

“They were so serious about voting and it made me think about our own 18-24 population. They don't care about voting. Voting in third world countries means everything to their livelihoods. That is why wars break out,” Johnston said.     

Many people would not want to return to such a harsh environment. The modern world, with all of its comforts, would seem to be a safe, permanent refuge. But Johnston couldn't forget the people she met and how being with them had affected her.

“When I came back to the United States I felt guilty for taking a hot shower. Over there I had to work for my dinner. Get the hoe, pull the potatoes from the ground. Here, you order from a menu.

“I met children in El Salvador and in Kenya who have been brutally assaulted by their own fathers.

I gravitate towards kids who are in need. The first need would be learning how to read. They don't know how to function in everyday society, how to be loved, or how to accept love.

“It was hard to separate the journalist, as opposed to me as a human,” Johnston said.

Most Americans ancestors came to the United States from another country. When emotions about the current immigration debate are removed, facts emerge. And so it was when Johnston spoke about Grace, the 14 year-old artist who she watched the sunset with on the banks of Lake Victoria in Kenya.  

Twice a week there was an art club headed by Edward Arrotto. During one of those sessions, Johnston met Grace and later interviewed her.
Grace said, “I like to draw, to learn, to work hard at school, so that I may come to your country to teach other young children. Last year I got money for my art and used that to help my parents to buy cement to build our house.”   

Johnston helped Grace achieve her dream of coming to the United States. Now living in Seattle, she is learning in school and teaching children about art. She also continues to help her family by selling her art work and sending the money back to Kenya.

“I would give up everything I have to go back and be with those kids. The people I met there are the best that I have met in my life,” Johnston emphasized.

In the months after returning to WRTI, Johnston had not been feeling well. On June 15, 2008, her left leg had turned a grayish-blue color. After feeling like she couldn't breath, she went to Jefferson hospital and learned that she had a massive blood clot that was the result of having developed deep vein thrombosis.

She also learned that she had been born with a genetic disorder, known as May Thurner's syndrome, that had caused the problem. She was told that if she had not received treatment that she would have died that day. She had to regularly take a blood thinner for over a year afterwards and still needs to do so, by injection, whenever she needs to fly.

Johnston's efforts have not been limited to Kenya, as she has worked in El Salvador and plans to travel to Calcutta, India later this year. The city that was most famously occupied by Mother Teresa is home to New Light India. That organization operates an orphanage and helps young women who are in need.

Currently, Johnston is anticipating political unrest in Morocco. She also offered a final comment that reflects the heart and mind of a true journalist.

Currently, the northern tip of Africa is in a state of severe political unrest. I would drop everything  and go there, because there is a story to tell,” Johnston concluded.

To listen to Johnston's reports from Kenya, click on the audio file link below:
http://www.villagevolunteers.org/village_mama_nd/mama_na_dada_in_media.php

To learn more about Village Volunteers, click on the link below:
http://www.villagevolunteers.org/index.php

Contact Sean O'Brien at sobrien@philly2philly.com

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