Interning – and hanging out with wildlife

By Lawrence Malindi Nzuve

When I made up my mind that I wanted to intern back home in Kenya, I got skeptical looks as well as some dismissive words. Why did I decide to go all the way back to Kenya to intern? Why didn’t I take up an internship in the U.S. where there are better opportunities?

There were many answers to those questions, but the biggest was that I wanted to understand how organizations operate, and especially their communication strategies. I wanted to see how Kenyan science organizations communicate to their publics. Most important, I wanted to give back to my country while I was still fresh from class with the skills I had just acquired, especially in the use of online and digital communication tools.

Kenya Wildlife Service is a government agency in charge of Kenya’s wildlife protection and conservation. This is perhaps one of the best places to intern because Nairobi is the only city in the world with a national park within it. The corporate communications department, where I was based for the last three months, has wild animals roaming freely along the roads and walkways, so there are no dull moments!

My typical day started with media monitoring, which meant reading all the major newspapers to see how the press was covering the wildlife service and sharing that information with the rest of the staff. Between answering phone calls and taking instructions, I would walk out of the office just in time to meet a monkey that had snatched a piece of bread from one of the many kids who visit the park from all over the country.

But my major work was to write stories for the internal biweekly magazine, which serves the staff of thousands and which is sent via email. In the course of this, I covered events involving the organization – staff and other stakeholders – interviewed experts for story backgrounding, and took pictures. The two most memorable personalities whom I covered were the Israeli first lady, Sara Netanyahu, and United Nations Development Program Goodwill Ambassador Misako Konno. Both were surprise visitors to the Nairobi National Park.

Given that the Kenya Wildlife Service is a big organization, I would say I was treated well—although interns are unpaid or receive no allowances, despite working for eight hours every day and sometimes taking weekend assignments. I was allowed to go out and scout for stories without being too overly supervised. This was great as we all understand the problems with working on tight schedules, especially when our minds refuse to cooperate. I mostly helped change the way their stories were written, and I managed to introduce journalistic writing to a publication in which stories had looked more like reports. Indeed, I also extracted stories from these reports, following them up with interviews to give them more journalistic qualities.

What advice do I have for new interns and those who are heading out to organizations? Have confidence, knowing that the fact that you were accepted to intern means you actually have something to offer the organization. Make sure that you leave a mark in whatever department you are posted to. Make your organization miss something about you once you leave. Most important of all, make sure you learn something new that you did not know before you joined the organization, and which is not necessarily part of your training. This is very important for purposes of being an all-rounder.

On the downside, I wish before I joined or applied for the internship that I had had a better sense of the size and effectiveness of the corporate communications department. This would have meant that I didn’t have exaggerated expectations and would possibly have given me the opportunity to ask to be moved to a different department where I would interact directly with scientists – my original goal. On the other hand, corporate communications did give me the opportunity to be in a position to monitor activities happening in other departments such as animal translocations and veterinary interventions.

Interning at the wildlife service was very helpful. I now understand the workings of government organizations, especially of corporate communications, and what kind of stories can be mined from such an organization. I now understand the reasons why getting information is so hard, and how one who is an aspiring science journalist can navigate his or her way through a bureaucratic organization. It was a fulfilling internship, and I hope the advice I gave on the service’s external communications strategy will be taken seriously.