Using what they've learned spreading awareness of how diabetes plagues Appalachia, a team of Kentuckians is helping Zambian journalists broaden their coverage of the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic in southern Africa.
This unlikely international coupling is the result of a burgeoning relationship between the University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications and ZAMCOM, a non-profit training center for journalists in Zambia's capital city, Lusaka.
Never miss a local story.
It has led to a half-dozen visits between folks in Lexington and Lusaka in the last year and a forging of ties that transcends professional training.
"I really think it's the most meaningful thing I've ever been involved in," said Beth E. Barnes, director of UK's journalism school, who has made two visits to Zambia so far. "What we're doing there is not really that different from what we're doing here. But we're doing it in an environment where you can immediately see what the benefits are going to be."
The most pressing need in Zambia, like other southern African nations, remains prevention of HIV/AIDS, which has infected about 15 percent of adults in the country, according to the World Health Organization's October 2008 report. As many as 66,000 of Zambia's 11.9 million people died of AIDS in 2007, the report said.
Part of the challenge is to reinvigorate journalists who have covered the epidemic and encourage them to move beyond a reliance on government sources, Barnes said.
"From what they've been telling us, the story's been around for so long that there's kind of been some burnout on the journalism side," she said. "But it's not going away, obviously."
At the same time, rural residents in Zambia rely mostly on small community news outlets — specifically radio stations — many of which broadcast in native languages rather than the country's official language, English.
So bolstering those smaller stations' abilities has emerged as a top priority "to make sure the voices of the community are being reflected ... in the area of HIV/AIDS," said Chike Anyaegbunam, associate professor in UK's integrated strategic communication program. "It's a kind of bottom-up approach."
That's where the Kentucky team comes in.
In January, Anyaegbunam, a native of Nigeria, will make his second trip to Zambia as part of the program and is bringing with him UK broadcast professor Mel Coffee and Mia Frederick, the Community Correspondence Corps project manager at the Whitesburg-based Appalshop, the region's multicultural and education hub.
The correspondence corps trains and encourages area residents to produce radio news and feature programs.
Starting in 2002, Anyaegbunam worked with Appalshop on a project to collect stories from Appalachian natives who have diabetes.
Southeastern Kentucky is saddled with the state's highest percentage of adults living with diabetes — between 12.5 percent and 16.4 percent, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2007.
The "Living with a Killer" radio series chronicled the struggles and successes of people coping with disease, such as how they handle going to restaurants when healthful foods aren't on the menu and what types of slip-ups they'd had, things they hadn't even told their physicians, Anyaegbunam said.
"We're struggling with roughly the same issues of economics and health," said Frederick, of Appalshop, who spoke briefly to ZAMCOM officials when they visited Kentucky in June. "We seem to get isolated and stereotyped into our niches. And so I'm interested in helping to break down those barriers."
That's actually a far cry from the original charge of the UK team, which hooked up with ZAMCOM a year ago through the American International Health Alliance and the U.S. Embassy in Zambia, which were looking for American institutions to help set up a conference on better covering HIV/AIDS.
It has become so much more, said Barnes.
After visiting ZAMCOM in May and September, Barnes said she established a friendship with ZAMCOM director Daniel Nkalamo.
They have offered each other windows to different cultures. Nkalamo invited Barnes as a guest to his home for dinner in Zambia. And Barnes helped Nkalamo find a wedding dress for his wife at David's Bridal in Lexington during a June visit.
Barnes keeps Nkalamo's wedding photo on her desk.
Barnes said both she and Nkalamo have been struck by the similarities between Kentucky and Zambia. For instance, as they drove to Whitesburg in June, Nkalamo kept pointing out familiar landscapes.
"Daniel was saying, 'This looks like we're going to Tanzania,' or 'This looks like we're going to Victoria Falls,'" Barnes said. "Even the terrain was looking somewhat similar to things in their part of the world."
She said she hopes the partnership will continue even after current funding for their collaboration dries up this spring. After all, it's been educational for everyone involved, she said.
"We're so much more alike," Barnes said, "than we are different."