Fifty-three-year-old Bertie Howard relaxes on the floor of her Chapel Hill apartment recounting stories from her much-traveled past. The surrounding walls are adorned with a variety of African mementos, including several hand-carved masks from Nigeria, a zambiacloth tapestry from Zimbabwe and a Nelson Mandela campaign button from the 1994 South African presidential elections.
"If you ever want a real example of true Christian love, just look to black South Africa," says the South Carolina native and graduate of Duke University. Six years ago, Howard was part of the United Nations delegation sent to that nation to monitor its historic elections. She was assigned to a small rural township in the southern part of the country.
"I met a woman with five children whose husband had been assassinated by South African police," says Howard, shaking her head empathetically. "His body had been mutilated." She says that she was shocked to later see the same woman--who was a longtime organizer for the major opposition party, Mandela's African National Congress--sitting beside, chatting and joking with the town's chief of police at a pre-election function.
"I pulled her aside and told her that I couldn't understand how she could joke with a man who likely had something to do with the death of her husband," says Howard. The woman, she continues, looked her in the eye and responded, "I have no time to be bitter. I have a new South Africa to build."
As head of the Durham-based Africa News Service, Howard has played a large role in bringing such stories from the African continent to the United States and the world. Since joining the news agency as an administrator in 1988, she has devoted much of her life to informing and educating others about the world's second-largest continent.
"It's painful to me that people can't appreciate what a wonderful continent Africa is," says Howard, noting the unfortunate stereotypes and troubling images that commonly taint the public's and the media's perceptions. While acknowledging its share of problems, she points out how much Africa has to offer in terms of culture, resources and information, and how mainstream media coverage commonly lacks this type of balance. "If I could do only one thing, it would be to move the perception of Africans away from being an exotic, troubled and helpless people who have no control over their own destiny," says Howard.
In many ways, Africa News Service is accomplishing just that. The organization provides timely news services to an online global audience through partnerships with more than 60 African media entities and via its own correspondents. In addition, it offers news and media consulting to such current and past clients as National Public Radio, the Today Show, the British Broadcasting Company and CNN. Along with the Washington, D.C.-based AllAfrica Global Media--an online spin-off venture created by the organization's founders--the service has earned a reputation as being the most effective source for up-to-date information on the continent.
But Howard's commitment does not end with her successful stewardship of the 25-year-old news agency. Commonly regarded as an expert on Africa--her frequent travels there, knowledge of various cultures and ability to speak fluent French allow her to "blend right in," especially in the western portion of the continent--she has spent much time imparting her knowledge to others.
For the past decade, Howard has worked with the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit devoted to supporting independent media around the world, to throw a spotlight on the precarious political circumstances of a number of her African media partners.
In 1998, she was part of a coalition assembled by the Clinton Administration to prepare the president for his historic trip to Africa. That same year, Howard's push to provide college students with a better understanding of the continent and its people culminated in her being named executive director of The Center for Africa and the Media at Duke.
"Bertie has been very successful at maintaining open links with those of us in academia regarding our common interests in Africa," says Ann Dunbar, an associate professor of African studies at UNC.
"She is an active resource and advocate for all of us who maintain an interest in the continent," says Rebecca Kohler, a Duke grad and a former research assistant at Africa News Service. Kohler now manages a UNC-based program aimed at improving health-care delivery systems in developing countries in Africa and Latin America. "She constantly keeps her colleagues in the loop."
Africa News Service was founded in 1976 by Duke graduates Tami Hultman and Reed Kramer. After working for the National Council of Churches in South Africa for two years, they noted the lack of timely information coming out of the region. The two organized a radio news service, which evolved into a newsletter and then into a biweekly paper that, by the 1980's, was nationally recognized as the premier source of timely and accurate news on the continent.
By 1988, recalls Hultman, "we were looking for someone to manage our growth and run the operation," so she turned to Howard, her former roommate at Duke, who was ending a 12-year career as a human services administrator in Chapel Hill. "It quickly became clear that she was indispensable, not just for managing the organization, but in terms of being a voice for African people and for advocating for the continent's place in consideration of global issues." Her role, Hultman adds, "kept expanding."
Howard was named executive director of the agency in 1990. At that time, despite its growing subscriber base and award-winning journalism, the nonprofit operated on a shoestring, funded for the most part by foundations and church agencies. "By hook or by crook, we got that paper out," remembers Howard of the tremendous effort it took to keep the operation afloat from its cramped basement headquarters on Ninth Street. "If it meant working without pay or mortgaging a house, we did what we had to do to keep the service running."
In late 1993, after two decades of print journalism and financial struggle, the agency was forced to stop the presses. But within a few years, Howard, Kramer and Hultman successfully converted the service into a revenue-producing online entity capable of reaching a worldwide electronic audience. Given their commitment to having Africans tell their own stories, a substantial portion of these revenues were and still are channeled directly to their media partners on the continent.
By 1999, the growth and success of the online service led Kramer and Hultman to D.C. to launch the spin-off, AllAfrica, currently the largest electronic distributor of African news and information in the world.
While servicing close to five million monthly page-views and posting hundreds of new stories daily, the company touts a client base that includes Comtex, Lexis-Nexis, CNN and CompuServe. And since Africa News maintains a stake in the new company, its success has created more earnings for its African-based media partners.
Such successes have only strengthened Howard's desire to see more Africans tell their own stories to a global audience. Currently, she is raising money to establish a fellowship for African women journalists to come to the US to strengthen their skills and enhance their careers. The fellowship will be named after the renowned African-American journalist, Charlene Hunter-Gault, who now heads CNN's news bureau in South Africa. Hunter-Gault has voiced her support for the program.
Howard sums up such efforts, along with her lengthy list of accomplishments, as being not a matter of professional responsibility, but a labor of love.
"It is more than just a job," says Howard. "Africa has become a passion to me. And I have the opportunity to really make a difference."