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Remembering South Sudan's pioneer female reporter

When The Juba Post's star reporter, Apollonia Mathia, told me that so-called "tong tong" rebels had attacked again near Gumba, in southern Sudan, I looked at her warily. "Let me get the camera I'll check it out," she said. Apollonia planned to hop on our rickety motorbike to cover a story about the infamous Ugandan rebels, the Lord's Resistance Army. Locals in the current capital of what will soon be South Sudan, Juba, call the Ugandan rebels "tong tong," which literally means "cut cut," because of their notoriously brutal machete attacks. It was getting late in the day, but I knew there was no point in trying to convince Apollonia out of a story. 

It was a challenging time to be a reporter in the south of Sudan. The newspaper started publishing just as a peace agreement with northern Sudan was signed in 2005 after 22 years of civil war. As the Post's journalists trekked across roads that often didn't deserve the title, the war-scarred populace sometimes treated them with suspicion. Just as journalism seemed a new concept to many in southern Sudan at the time, so too was the idea of a professional woman in the workplace. So very many in Juba admired Apollonia's vivacious spirit, but others criticized her decision to divorce her husband and raise four children alone. Apollonia was not only a pioneer as one of southern Sudan's first female journalists, she also championed issues that had never been addressed during the long, protracted civil war.

Mathia, right, with the staff of The Juba Post, including the author, center.

"She was a skillful writer, and above all, her courage and mission to tackle sensitive issues was a great example for the new generation of reporters," wrote the founder of The Juba Post, Hildebrand Bijleveld, currently the editor of Netherlands-based press freedom organization Press Now. "To exercise real freedom of the press did not come for free. She fought for it."

She brought sensitive topics such as domestic violence and the crucial role of female leadership within the paper's pages. After eventually leaving The Juba Post and then working for the BBC Monitoring Service, Apollonia started the Association of Media Women in South Sudan, an organization that pushed for visibility of women and women's issues within the press.

Apollonia saw the region change dramatically within her lifetime. She spent a childhood in northern Uganda, where soldiers under Idi Amin terrorized the citizenry with total impunity. And then a life in Juba, sometimes forced to sell firewood to survive in a garrison town controlled by the northern Sudanese army--where curfews and fear of torture surrounded her. Finally, she witnessed a post-conflict town, soon to be Africa's newest capital, where a mass population influx of citizens and foreign development organizations flooded the once silent town. Somehow she always seemed capable of adapting to the changing times.

Apollonia died in a road accident while riding a motorcycle with her son on March 18. Her son, Alphonse, remains in a coma. Few local reporters are recognized for their efforts, despite the great logistical, fiscal, and emotional challenges they must overcome. I had spent countless hours with Apollonia and her children at her tukul, the Juba-Arabic term for a local hut, and had high hopes our paths would cross again in the near future. My heart goes out to her three daughters, other family members, and colleagues at The Juba Post. I miss her already. 

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Comments

What a moving text Tom. Thank you for letting us know of this remarkable woman.

Thanks for telling this story about such a courageous woman. How sad that she has passed and tragic about her son too.

Very sad indeed Tom. Thanks for telling us of who she is and what she fought for. I hope God grant her children the strength and courage to move. Great woman Appolonia!!

Very sad indeed Tom. Thanks for telling us of who she is and what she fought for. I hope God grant her children the strength and courage to move. Great woman Appolonia!!

What a loss! Such an asset going to waste. I think those who lived around her felt proud, though i know that most of us don't know what we've got till it's gone. I wish i could have known her and cheered her on her good and courageous work. May Apollonia's soul and those of the faithfully departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Wishing her son a speedy recovery.

I join the world journalism community in mourning her. She must sorely miss the birth of her new country for she gave her life. Pity. But wherever the story of her people's struggle for freedom is told she will be celebrated.

Thanks Tom for bringing to light the powerful story of such a great woman. Her courage and commitment to promoting press freedom despite the many dangers along the road really worths emulating. It's rather unfortunate for her to die at a time her services are greatly needed. The new Sudan definitely needs many Apollonias around to man things up. I wish her son a speedy recovery.

What bad news! by reading this article I feel as I knew her only because his work is like mine. Peace to his soul.

Chouchou Namegabe April 5, 2011 6:30:05 AM ET

The late Appolonia was a colleague and a friend. She was such a remarkable woman who was an inspiration to southern Sudanese women. May the southern Sudanese women now carry the torch and continue with the great work she was doing for South sudan. Rest in eternal peace mama Appolonia.

‎"Death has nothing to do with going away. The sun sets and the moon sets, but they're not gone." - Jalaluddin Rumi

it was really sad when i heard the sudden death of Madam Appollonia before she test the fruits of our new nation in which she struggles for.

the last comments I gave after I saw her body laying drastically in Juba Teaching Hospital's Mortuary was that she did not died but will come back because it is still unbelievable to lost such couragious woman.

What a such big loss! I am personnally touched by the demise of a great friend and colleague. Thanks Tom for providing such a moving story about this couregeous woman. May her soul rest in peace.

Innocent Malobi April 7, 2011 6:53:03 AM ET

Very sad indeed. A promising life nipped in the bud. May her efforts to bring up the Association of Media Women in South Sudan be not in vain. Those she left behind must keep her vision alive.
Thanks Tom for this wonderful eulogy and for letting the world know about Apollonia.

Mathia will be missed by many young upcominge female journalists. May her soul rest in Eternal Peace. I miss her, she was my great friend. Hopped on motor bikes together many times to meetings. My heart goes out to her family and the all the staff of Juba Post

Tom, life will not wait for realists to do their thing (speak out and Act). Appollonia left a legacy that not one female journalist is about to hit her hieght in this new nation. I believe her Offsprings in the Media will continue to fight the course She fought for-true story that is set to transform lives.