By Margaret Brinson, Managing Editor
When we pulled up to the church, I asked if she had ever been before . Quietly, she told me, “This is where I come to pray.”
The juxtapositions were staggering: not only was I talking God with a prostitute, but there was the contrast of her fate against mine, our drastically different life stories, dreams and aspirations, even the color of her cracked and peeling coffee-colored hand next to mine.
But there we both were that afternoon, as I tried my best to finagle a story from my subject: Amanda, 20 years old, a victim of human sex trafficking. Bought and sold into slavery, from Mozambique to Durban and finally Pretoria, where I first met her in June, for Amanda the buying never stops. Now, though, it is only her body that comes at a price. Her soul has already been claimed; it is property of the pimp.
I was green, just a few weeks into my internship as an international correspondent in the Republic of South Africa, when I got word of an opportunity to cover human trafficking in the region alongside a fellow reporter. I knew I had to do it. And after I had been once, I wanted to go again. And again.
This was a story I wanted not only more than any I had ever worked on before, but more than my nights and weekends, more than sleep, more than my own well-being. When it came down to a question of safety over the scoop, I would have opted for the story every time.
I remember one night we found ourselves in the middle of a brawl. We had come to the red light district of town to hang out with the women and hopefully hear a few of their stories. We had landed in hell. Shadowy silhouettes darted in front and to the back of us, liquor fizzing and spraying through the air like fireworks in the dark. The pimps were screaming in some foreign tongue — presumably Zulu or Xhosa, the predominant tribal languages of the area. As fists and insults continued to fly just steps away on the other side of the street, I had the distinct feeling that we were next. If our white skin and American accents did not give us away, the massive Canon 7D at my side should have told them that we were trouble.
I was scared. But I was not half as afraid as I was exhilarated, intoxicated in the moment — even the danger — drinking it in. And before I even knew what had happened, I was hooked on the adrenaline.
I still wanted the story for the sake of the women, for truth and for justice, but I also wanted it for the excitement — for me. Instead of breaking the journalist’s cardinal rule of objectivity, I got lost in it. It was not the outcome or angle of the story I was interested in, but the thrill of getting it — the notch in my belt, the way it would read on a resume.
Now I know everyone wants a job they can be excited about. Most of us desire to do great things. But the journalist’s call is to be a voice for the voiceless — not to use them as an amplifier to shout our own names loud.
In the end, I never did get Amanda’s story. After all of the fighting that night, everyone was too on-guard to talk. Forty-eight hours later, I was on a plane headed back to the States. I would never be able to sign my name to that story, to say, “Look what I did!” But because of that, I was able to step back and examine myself, see where I was heading in the wrong direction, and reform.
Most aid organizations estimate the number of humans trafficked across borders to be somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 annually, with about 80 percent of those destined to land in the sex industry. Half of all trafficking victims are believed to be children. As I sit writing this, a friend from South Africa tells me two of the young girls I met there had been sexually abused in the past. She was also a victim of abuse.
These are issues that matter. They are stories that matter more than me, and certainly more than my career. And I hope one day I get the opportunity to tell them again, not for me, but for those who need to hear, and more so, for those who deserve to be heard.