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The heroes behind the scenes

The unsung heroes of many a work trip are the local members of the team.
Last modified: 19 Jun 2012 21:19

The unsung heroes of many a work trip are the local members of the team.

Sometimes they are hired on someone else's recommendation, but often they're people you've never met and have to spend 18 hours a day with in pretty trying circumstances.

Anyone who's worked in television has their share of local hire horror stories.

I had a driver in Papua New Guinea who turned up in the morning swigging a bottle of beer, unable to keep his eyes open, let alone on the road.

A fixer, too, in Vietnam, who thought the work was overly strenuous and in the middle of a shoot said he was going to meet his family for dinner, never to be seen again.

But in Burkina Faso, we've struck lucky.

Old hand

Mathieu is our fixer – an old hand who's been in the journalism business for many years.

He tells stories of travelling with Burkina's former President Thomas Sankara and arriving in Russia in the middle of winter wearing only thin cotton shirts, much to the horror of the hosts who rushed to wrap them in fur coats.

Mathieu knows everyone. He can get an interview with a minister as easily as he can find a farmer in the middle of the Sahel whose suffering from the drought.

And then there's Sylvain.

On paper he is our driver and an excellent one at that – always ready for the off, fastidious in his use of indicators even on empty rutted roads, also quick to stop and remonstrate with careless drivers, such as the tractor driver who knocked a kid off his donkey with a piece of metal jutting out the back.

Tapping out a beat on his steering wheel, his jaw working a piece of strawberry chewing gum, Sylvain is also a morale booster.

Sylvain has become indispensible to us all – carrying kit, shooing boisterous children out of shot, translating local languages, picking up my notebook, when I leave it lying in the dirt or in a shop.

Mathieu and Sylvain are both city people.

Mathieu has struggled with the food. Being diabetic and with a sensitive stomach, he quickly boycotted the only restaurant in the Sahelian town of Dori available to us.

It had a mud floor, flickering fluorescent lights and limited food options beyond potato and sauce. There night after night we would see all of Dori's NGO contingent and it is here where we met Issiaka from the Red Cross.

We joined him distributing food rations to babies in villages far removed from the main road. His arrival was a source of great excitement for the women who have on average six children each.

He was great talent for the camera - enthusiastic, endlessly patient driving back and forth along the road so we could get a nice sequence and remarkably jovial amid such difficult work.

Dignity amid suffering

I have been frequently struck by, at least on the surface, how cheerful everyone is and the matter-of-fact manner with which they tell tales of tremendous suffering.

Issiaka tells us 23-year old Aguitou  that her only daughter is severely malnourished and that she needed to go to the health clinic immediately. We interviewed her afterwards and discovered that her only other child had died in 2005 - also malnourished in the last drought.

Nothing in her easy smile would have given that away.

We later spoke to a farmer who had lost most of his livestock.

He immediately showed us where their rotting carcasses were being attacked by vultures, but it was only half way through the interview when I ventured to ask whether any of his family had suffered, that he told us his sister-in-law and her baby and died earlier in the year. He did not labour the point.

Sylvain says it pains him to hear these stories. As a driver, he travels mainly between big towns. Now he says, his eyes have been opened to what is going on when before he did not necessarily think about such things.

We come in these countries and put up with harsh conditions for a couple of weeks. We film people who are much worse off than us and then we go home with tales of hardship, but also adventure.

And we leave behind the team members for whom the story is a lot closer to home.

Sometimes, back in Doha, I'll get an email with a small development on the story which, with the international news moving on, no longer warrants a mention in our bulletins.

And it is hard telling that to someone you have worked with so closely, but by the nature of this work, can slip out of your life just as suddenly as they came in.