By Lindsey Wray
‘Shhh. Be quiet so we can listen.’
This is what Agnes Taile remembers hearing each afternoon as a little girl in Cameroon when her father’s favorite radio program came on the air. As she listened intently to the news program, Taile recalls thinking what a beautiful voice the announcer had.
She, too, wanted to have a voice.
“I was drawn to the microphone,” she said. “I was interested in everything that brought me close to the microphone.”
Like the radio announcer, Taile, now 29, became a journalist. She is the recipient of a 2009 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Eager to use her voice, Taile, who spent much of her childhood in Garoua in northern Cameroon, jumped at the opportunity to join her school’s journalism club. Then, at age 14, she was offered a position hosting the poetry portion of a local radio broadcast. She was ecstatic.
Delighted though she was at the prospect of hearing her voice on the air, Taile was unsure of what the profession entailed.
“I didn’t really know what it meant to be a journalist,” she said. “It was only when I got my first job at a radio station that I discovered the world of information.”
That first job in journalism was at Tom Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) in Yaounde. Taile had moved there to live with an uncle, and the TBC signal was so strong at his house that it was the only station she could hear. Her interest piqued, Taile went to meet with the station’s director, who tested her ability by having her read at a microphone. The following day, she was back as an employee. Within a week, Taile was reading news briefs on air, and in a couple months, she was doing the morning show. She was 22.
Taile said her older brother later told her that her chosen career is “a love story between her and the microphone.” Journalism seemed the perfect fit for her. Her mother, however, thought she might be taking too many risks, and her father warned her to be careful. Taile brushed them off.
“I am a lover of freedom,” she said.
But Taile’s freedom and her newfound voice were about to be challenged.
She started in May 2005 as a reporter at Sweet FM in Douala, where she hosted a talk show that was broadcast at a peak time. Called A vous la parole (Over to You), the show covered political, social, and economic issues. Taile reported on sensitive subjects, such as an operation to track members of the government who had embezzled funds. She reported on social inequality and homosexuality, and she was often critical of the government, particularly President Paul Biya.
In the fall of 2006, Taile began to receive threatening phone calls demanding that she stop her “pursuit.” She ignored the threats, proclaiming on air that she refused to alter her reporting.
Then, on November 6, 2006, the threats became reality. In the middle of the night, three men abducted Taile from her home. Heads covered in balaclavas and wearing all black, the men must be burglars, Taile thought. She saw their knives and felt her terror rise. It was around 2 a.m.
“My first reaction was a reaction of fear – not for myself, but for my son,” she said.
But then, she heard the men leave her son’s room and come toward her. They asked her to follow them, saying, “You better keep your mouth shut.” Taile had no time to think.
“I had no choice,” she said.
Grabbing Taile by her elbows and her hair, two of the men dragged her in silence to a ravine around 300 meters away. The third man stayed in her home.
“We’ve told you to shut up,” she recalls them saying to her. “You wanted to play tough, so this is what you get.”
When Taile inquired as to the identity of the men, one of them seized her neck and began strangling her. They proceeded to beat her on the ribs and arms for 20 minutes and then cut her hands and wrists.
“At that moment I thought things were over for me,” Taile said.
But because they heard a noise on a nearby road, the men ran away suddenly, sparing Taile’s life but leaving her for dead in the ravine.
“The pain was excruciating,” Taile recalled. “It took a lot of effort to get me out of the ditch.”
Taile isn’t sure how long she lay there. She couldn’t cry out because her neck and throat were hurt so badly. She remembers wondering if she was dead or alive. Eventually, she decided that if she could still feel pain, she must be alive, and she must make an effort to get out.
Maneuvering with her elbows, Taile crawled out of the ravine, stopping every few minutes to regain her strength. She paused at a neighbor’s house to try to get someone’s attention but was unable to wake anyone since she couldn’t speak.
Finally, she made it home, and, finding no sign of the third man, tried to wake her son. She worried that he, too, was hurt. But later that morning, after she had presumably passed out, a family member came to take her to a clinic; her son was unharmed. The attackers were never found.
The trauma of that night was so intense that Taile was disabled for three months. She did physical therapy – “I had to re-learn to do everything with my hands,” she said.
And, as her vocal chords healed, she gradually regained the ability to speak.
But upon returning to work at Sweet FM, she learned that her show had been cancelled.
“I could no longer express myself in the same way,” she said.
Undeterred, Taile found a reporting job with Canal 2 International in Yaounde. There, she covered three Northern provinces of Cameroon, an area disadvantaged by a hostile climate, poverty, lack of potable water and hunger.
In February 2008, Taile covered riots in Chad, where she was one of few reporters to venture there for coverage. Conditions were difficult, and there was a heavy military presence of government loyalists and rebels.
“I felt useless to stay behind,” she said. “You have to see it for yourself…I will not stay behind the barrier.”
Taile isn’t sure whether she considers herself to be a courageous journalist, but after the 2006 attack, she is more aware than ever of the risks she was taking and how her job was endangering her own life and the lives of those close to her.
“I go beyond the obstacles and limits some journalists set for themselves,” she said.
Her friends tell Taile that she is taking too many risks, but she is sure of her voice.
“My answer is always the same,” she said, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Lindsey Wray is the IWMF’s communications coordinator.