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.
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.