One less star in Africa tonight

Christina Scott — Africa’s foremost science journalist, an inspiration across the continent and beyond, and my colleague and friend — died today. 

I last saw Christina in a dragons’ den. She was one of the dragons. We were in Doha at the World Conference of Science Journalists in June 2011. In a session organised by IDRC, three researchers had to pitch their stories to a trio of hardened media editors: the dragons.

Christina led the pack and showed the researchers how people need stories not statistics, plain speech not jargon, and that if scientists cannot explain themselves in terms people understand and value, they should not be surprised if journalists misinterpret them.

The researchers — all with great ideas — looked a little sad after the dragons had finished gnawing on the bones of their stories, but they all left the room as better communicators.

The first time I met Christina was at the same conference six years earlier, in Montreal. She was telling me about poutine, the strange melange of fries, gravy and cheese curds that the city is proud to call its own. Soon she had tracked some down and was showing it off to anyone who passed by. An hour later she was helping to form the African Federation of Science Journalists.

Those are just some of the ways I remember Christina.

She was a tiny, straight-talking, fact-demanding package of endless energy, an adventurer with a lust for life, an endless fountain of stories, a kind woman whose humility spoke right from her eyes. Eyes that always twinkled with youthful rebellion.

Christina died today in her beloved South Africa in a tragic accident that has sent shockwaves around the world.

Other friends will write about Christina’s journalism, her book about Nelson Mandela, her many awards and her bravery in confronting ignorance in power.  I just want to say a few words about her legacy.

As a veteran journalist Christina told helpful and hopeful stories to vast numbers of South Africans. That is important enough.

But as an inspiration and mentor to an entire generation of science journalists across the continent and beyond, her knowledge and her wisdom will continue to penetrate minds for a long time to come.

Christina loved to help people and to help her profession. Any journalist or science communicator who spent just a few minutes with her came away with new thoughts about ways to do things better.

But many journalists have been lucky enough to work with Christina more closely. Together they now speak to millions of people. As they do, I hope Christina’s lessons linger.

She was a mother of science journalism and we, her many adopted children, can honour her in the stories we tell.

28 thoughts on “One less star in Africa tonight

  1. Beers, smell of curries, wonderful ideas on science journalism and she, in Doha, saying that she wanted my dress. So persuasive that I almost gave it immediately, but I realised that no replacements were available… Oooops! I was suppose to give her the day after but I never did… May be we can do a kind of goodbye worldwide? I can do it here, in Rio de Janeiro.

  2. Thank you, Mike, for these beautiful words about Christina. I was fortunate to work with Christina from time to time. She made every workshop and conference fun and memorable and she was hugely talented in making science meaningful to readers, listeners. When I look through my photos now, I notice that everyone laughed when they were standing next to or even just close to her. We will miss her so much – personally and professionally. Marina Joubert, South Africa.

  3. Mike, you said it all in your generous and wonderful piece. Like you, I first met her in Montreal. I last met her in Doha.

    I want to share another nugget. Chris, Imelda and I used to joke about our five feet nothing height and call ourselves the ‘the three little women’ of science journalism. We took a pic with this label at an AIDS conference in 2007; and when we found each other again at the same time in Doha, the first thing we did was take another pic, laughingly saying it was a long time since the three little women were together again. Its still there in my FB post

    Luisa, she and I were the curry sisses … they were soooo fond of Indian food that I had a choice in London and elsewhere — eat Indian food with them or eat food of my choice without them. Needless to say, I ate Indian food with them. And with a twinkle in her eye, Chris would ask me .. “so, does this meet the Indian standards?”

    I will miss my curry sis. I will miss my buddy who always cheered me up. May her soul rest in peace

  4. Mike it is hard to think about science journalism in Africa without Christina. I first met her in Kenya in 2007 as one of our mentors in a two-year mentorship project by the World Federation of Science Journalism. She’s been an inspiration to many young science journalists from all over the continent. Akalale ngoxolo (May her soul rest in peace).

  5. I don’t remember to have met Christina; but if it happened, it could be during the COP12 in Nairobi (if she was there), we did not interact anyway. But from Mike’s personal testimony about Scott, I must admit that as a practicing science journalist, I must have missed a ‘real thing’ in this life of science communication. She has gone but am sure she will still remain in the hearts of many science journalists for years to come. From African Federation of Environment Journalists (AFEJ), we say Rest In Peace our Science Journalism Mother; Christina Scott!

    George Kebaso
    Science Journalist
    AFEJ Communications Officer
    +254 721 77 41 98
    Facebook Acc. Name:George Morara.

  6. I felt a great sadness when I heard of Christina’s death. It seemed unbelievable mostly because everything about her shouted life and laughter and the essential energy that defined her. Annual SciFest Africa advisory board meetings will never be the same again. Christina we will miss you and the amazing contribution you made to science journalism in our country. Your light will continue to shine through all the people you touched through your passion for people and efforts to make us communicate more meaningfully with each other.. Hambe Khale.

  7. What a tragic loss. On a personal level I will miss her terribly, we had fun, fights and laughter together over many years, shared many joyous moments and learned a lot from each other. As a science journalist she was great and had an incisive line of questioning that made sure that she got what she wanted the public to know – good or bad! Not only will her jornalism be missed, but so will all her mentoring and efforts at helping others attain her levels of reporting. Hambe Kahle.

  8. Mike:

    I have not met or worked with Christina. But I have met her many times in cyberspace. My first contact was when I was handling media relations at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Since a substantial portion of ICRISAT’s research for development work happened out of the six stations in Africa, I wrote to her so that I could become a member of the African Federation of Science Journalists. I circulated information from ICRISAT on this network, and have answered questions from Christina. Though I am working in the back end of the communication process at the Africa Rice Center in Cotonou, Benin, I continue to receive mail from the Federation, and have been seeing Christina’s inputs.

    May her soul rest in peace!

    Gopi

  9. A very sad time, and a great loss. Christina joined a UWC-NASA research team at Gobabeb in the Namib Desert in April 2010 and, as a small bundle of energy and enthusiasm, embedded herself in every aspect of our work there. It was a great experience for all of us and, with her untimely death, the science community has lost a great supporter and promoter.
    Don Cowan, IMBM, UWC

  10. She was a woman of steel, a teacher, a counselor and teach-by-example mentor. She built many, picked up careers of those who were struggling and stood alongside those she helped grow. She was everywhere, and she did it right. Christina was both a friend and a mentor. We worked together in the WFSJ mentoring programme as one of her mentees. When I could make an error, she was not shy to tell me plainly. When I succeeded, she was quick to remind me I was as good as the last success and I should work for the next. For two years, she skyped me every morning, reminding me of the work that needed to be done. She constantly reminded me of the strength I hold and how to use it. Even after the mentoring programme ended, she herded me and my friends and ensured we remained in the course.

    Though she is not with us, her work remains, her zeal for science journalism in Africa remains. Thank you Mike for this tribute.

  11. Awesome stuff Mike. Met Christina five years ago in Sydney and she always kept in touch with new ideas. Only recently, she suggested a name and everything for the very small group of environmental journalists in Guyana to form an association to encourage more science journalism here. Her guidelines will help to make that possible!

  12. What a tragic loss of a great science journalist, although small in stature she was made of steel. I’ll miss her laughter, advice, passion for people and science contributions. I always remember her saying, to stand out in a photo….wear RED. Yes, dear friend, I’ve never forgotten that, nor will I ever forget you.

  13. Mike,
    This is a wonderful tribute except I’m crying too much to be able to read this and all the comments properly. Christina was everyone’s inspiration, as a friend, mentor and colleague. I know we shall all continue to carry a little bit of her around with us.

  14. I haven’t read a paper today, I confess. What happened?!! The posts assume we all know how Christina died. I’m still reeling, the news just minutes old. Met her for the first time at the Bamako, Mali health summit a year or two ago and took an instant liking to her amazing down to earth, non judgmental, all-embracing mischievous personality. Remember walking in the near-dark down a side street past the palace in Bamako and AK47-wielding guards stopping us and telling us to ‘go the other way’. She took my arm and joined in a somewhat irrational argument as to what possible reason they had for stopping us walking down a public street… Ayi yay yayi. No man! – Chris Bateman, SA Med Journ.

  15. I am a working scientist, who met and worked with Christina repeatedly over the years. I am deeply saddened by her loss. She cared about science enough to care very much about how it was communicated: simultaneously coaxing scientists to be more intelligible and their audiences not to be intellectually lazy.

  16. Such a sad one. to think that she was killed while communicating the science of driving is more disheartening.Never got to meet you, but i respect you for ever ma. RIP. Another Great African Journalist has left us.

  17. All the human rights lawyers in Durban in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Durban, who worked with
    Christina Scott, will remember her courage, dedication, independence and her wicked sense of humour. What a sad day.

    Richard Lyster, former director of Legal Resources Centre in Durban, and former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  18. I met Christina through Ina in 2009 and I loved her soo much. She was very kind and generous. I adored her. I stayed with her and she was just a mother and she took care of me like she did to her kids. She had a unique personality and I loved her sense of humor. To Nozi, Ally and Little Ben, let us thank God for the great times we spent with her. RIP Christina Scott #always love you

  19. Christina,

    One of the saddest aspects of eulogies is that they are one hour, one day, one week too late. I am sorry that heart-spoken words are often not offered in the living years. Is there another lesson in that for those who you have left behind?

    The tragic irony of falling victim thus, in the international year of road safety, beggars belief!

    We really need a paradigm shift : citizens’ responsibilities before citizens’ rights!
    The motor-car is the most insidious weapon of mass destruction invented by man, should mankind as a whole issue driving licences so much easier than fire-arm, medical practitioner and carbon emission licences – when the former is clearly far more damaging to the fabric of society ?

    How long before the maxim “Think, don’t drive” restores sanity to humanity?

  20. I have known Christina from a distance, watching her speak about journalistic experience and views on panels. As a young journo, I wish we have had a chance to get to know each other more. We have indeed lost another inspirational figure. Good that you have written about her here, and may her soul rest in peace.
    Best,
    Piyaporn

  21. A really great tribute from Mike and very touching testimonies from everyone. The news was quite a shock to me and coming so soon after Doha 2011 and so close to Durban 2011 – events which Christina would put her traditional mark on. RIP Christina.
    Warungu

  22. Dear Mike, thank you so much for this touching piece of writing. Up to now I have been too dumb struck to think clearly about what to say. I will remember Christina for all the exceptional qualities mentioned above, but especially for her big heart. She opened this heart and her home to me and to a young student when we could not find her accommodation near UCT, and I did not even have to ask. She offered her a safe haven when the student, who had never been to Cape Town, started her studies there. She provided her with a home, food and a family away from home. I’m sure Christina will have a big smile when the student graduates as an environmental scientist on 14 December.

  23. I only met Christina a few times, but my partner, ida Jooste, knew and worked with her over the years and it was through ida’s words and sense of great loss that I now look towards this profound human loss and seek to learn from it in a way to continue, and to celebrate Christina’s huge contribution to the world of Science and Humanity. The challenge is thus to strive to emulate her high standards and in doing so thank her, with every Science story that I may have a hand in, that makes a credible difference.

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