Interview with IAMCR Kenya Ambassador

Leah Jerop Komen, IAMCR Ambassador in Kenya

Interview by Mazlum Kemal Dağdelen

Leah Jerop Komen is a senior lecturer and Deputy Director of resource mobilisation, projects and partnerships at Daystar University, Kenya. She holds a master's in development communication from Daystar University and a PhD in new media and development from the University of East London. Dr Komen is a member of the IAMCR Membership Committee; also, she has been an IAMCR Faculty Ambassador in Kenya since 2019. As an ambassador, she has organised academic events such as the Development Communication Paradigms Webinar, where she collaborated with Professor Srinivas Raj Melkote, Professor Emeritus of Bowling Green University (USA) and 3 Communication for Sustainable Development Symposia (C4SD). Dr Komen also took part in the local organising committee of the IAMCR Conference in Nairobi in 2021. She also received No-Travel Grant in 2021. In this article, Dr Leah Jerop Komen talks about her experiences as an IAMCR ambassador, and she shares her thoughts and experiences about the IAMCR Nairobi 2021 Conference as a LOC member and the no travel event that she organised during the conference as a no travel grant recipient.

Could you please share your experiences as an IAMCR Ambassador?

When I was first asked to serve as an ambassador of IAMCR, I was taken aback because I thought I was biting more than I could chew. Because I was already in the membership team, I had been asked by Professor Robin Mansell to be a part of the Clearinghouse for Public Statements. When Professor Murdock suggested to me this, I thought that I had enough on my plate. Then, he said that this was not going to be a day-to-day commitment. I thought that I would be happy to represent the interests of IAMCR. So far, the journey has been magnificent. 

I have enjoyed working with many people and speaking about IAMCR whenever possible, mainly during the conferences. That has been an opportunity for me to introduce people to IAMCR and invite them to think about being a part of the association. That has been nice to see many people participating in IAMCR conferences; it feels good to see familiar faces, mainly from my context, because of the apparent travel challenges.

Also, the travel grants are beneficial. I first benefited from the travel grants of IAMCR; I went to the IAMCR conference in Cartagena, Columbia, in 2017. It was not just a travel grant; I was asked to be one of the speakers at the closing ceremony, which was terrific. It was a huge honour. I have never taken that for granted. So, the experience has been good in terms of reaching out to people and speaking about what IAMCR stands for.

My key highlight was to be a part of the team that brought the IAMCR 2021 conference to Nairobi, a dream come true. I remember the then-president, Professor Janet Wasko, asking me whether we could consider bringing IAMCR to Africa. Later, when we went to Cartagena in 2017, she reminded me of the same, and we had our little meeting where we decided to take it over. I was delighted when Bruce Girard supported the idea. We had a meeting to discuss this and see that this could work. For me, it was a dream. I thought in the beginning that if we could get the IAMCR conference here, I would be satisfied. So now, I am deeply gratified that it happened.

What do you think are the advantages of being an ambassador of IAMCR?

There are many. If you are not looking for monetary benefits, there are many advantages of being an IAMCR ambassador. The first one is to take the honour of serving academically in the field. You can see it as an academic service or as a community service. Being an ambassador is like a social responsibility that you are giving back to society. Also, another benefit is that you get known; known beyond the quotas of the university of your country, you begin to interact with brains that maybe you only read about, and now you can see them face to face, you can interrogate them. One of the things that I love about interactions that I have seen in IAMCR, you do not quite see yourself as off because the experienced scholars, the gurus, so to say, are very humble. You see yourself growing. So, just hanging around these people, of course, shapes your path in that area as well. You look at their contributions to the academic world. Then it becomes an inspiration for you because you remember you are now sitting at the table with them. When you share a table, you begin to think that "I could also be that". Opportunities start to open up, and you begin to sense possibilities. 

The other advantage, of course, is the opportunity to collaborate in research and workshops. I have personally experienced this. I had to do collaborative research with people outside my country, and that has opened my mind. It helps you to see how people argue out their points, or their voices or their narratives. So, when you begin to rub shoulders with other people, you learn a thing or two. They, too, learn from you because you are from the context. So, there is something they lack which you have, and that exchange of knowledge is one of the benefits you get there. IAMCR is not a small body. So, if you are an ambassador of this global association, you are most likely to meet the key people for your interests. 

Another advantage is that you can also become active not just in the session you are part of, but you can transverse and see what other Sections and Working Groups are there that you could collaborate. 

As an ambassador, you have a bird's eye view of what goes on in IAMCR. So, you are growing your network, you are developing your friendships, and you are also growing. I have invited people to speak in symposiums just because I met them at conferences. It removes the barriers that we always have. I think it takes away the fears that we usually have. Before, I would think that I could not just ask Nico Carpentier to speak. Perhaps Nico Carpentier is happy to talk, and you are the one who is presupposing a no-response. So, I think being an ambassador removes the barriers that we have created. 

There are many opportunities that IAMCR provides, and as an ambassador, I have chances to pass these calls to other people. So, these are some advantages to mention. As I said before, if money is the driving force, this will not be enjoyable. However, if the service is what you wish, you will enjoy it much more than the money.

How do you see IAMCR's position in East Africa?

I proposed an IAMCR special panel to bring all the communication associations in the region together. We were able to get the South African, West African, East African associations together. So, we were able to put almost all corners, so to speak, together in this special forum. The key point from that meeting was how we could work together. We asked if we could be a team so that when, for instance, the East Africa Communication Association calls for a conference, the South Africa Communication Association does not feel like it is not theirs, but they jump in.

I was amazed by the way the three were happy to come. People need to know that these associations exist. So that they can participate in their conferences or other academic events even though they cannot make it to IAMCR. However, these smaller events should be competent enough to provide people with the quality that they desire. I believe that it was essential to bring these three associations together. Because as they come, they also bring an input. As I said before, there is always something we can learn from each other. When we have people from the context speaking into the globe, there is an addition to the global, and the opposite is also true. The local associations are good in terms of effectiveness; however, I think they should feed into a bigger one. If we are going to grow IAMCR, we need to look at the smaller ones. We should try to nurture the scholars in those contexts and look for opportunities to develop them to become a big family. So, bringing all these communities together is the key in this context.

Regarding the distribution of ambassadors, we already have two ambassadors in Africa, including me in East Africa and Dr Brian Pindayi in South Africa. It would be nice to have ambassadors in North and West Africa. However, it is not so much about the distribution of the ambassadors; you could even have one. If this one can work around the four corners, it will be fruitful.

How does IAMCR collaborate with other organisations in your region?

So far, we have hosted some academic events. In the last one, Professor Srinivas Raj Melkote from Bowling Green State University was the main speaker. Initially, I planned to invite him to speak to my class; then, we decided to have a bigger event. I communicated this to the Communication for Development Network (C4D), we discussed this with Jackie Davies, the executive director of C4D. When we first posted it on the Africa hub of C4D and social media, about 600 people registered. It was a significant number, and 350 of them showed up in the event. We had people from the Philippines, the US, the UK, and all corners of Africa. It was difficult to end the webinar because everybody wanted to say something; there were many comments on the chat. So, there I felt that we need more of these. Now, we are discussing with the CPT to plan more webinars like this. 

How was the "No-travel Event" in Kenya?

We had a watch party after the sessions were over. We had a smaller group come over face-to-face with social distancing to discuss the conference content. Participation was good, although some people could not make it to the event because of the pandemic. People were coming from various districts or towns; we also had participation from different universities. There were people from USIU, the University of Nairobi, the Technical University of Kenya, and many others. They were not necessarily from Nairobi; some travelled from Mombasa. So, it was great that these people came. We had professors and graduate students. As an ambassador, I felt gratified that people could go, although we provided no travel support. We just facilitated the refreshments and booked the hall because that was what we could afford. We had almost forty people at the event, and it was really good to discuss with all the people from different backgrounds.

Could you please share your experiences with the organisation of the IAMCR conference in Nairobi?

First, it was a learning experience. Hosting and organising such a great event of a global organisation comes with challenges and excellent benefits. Let me begin with the advantages; first thing, such an event is a visibility event. The institution, particularly the hosting institution, becomes visible for obvious reasons. There is the president to speak up, and you get to know the features of the place; you are introduced to the world. So, if there is visibility, there is a marketing thing down there as well. Then, there is the opportunity to work with different people and just trying to bring people together to one page to move together for direction.

There is a collaboration, you need to work closely with the COC, the executive body, and then you have the LOC. The other benefit is the support that you always get from the executives, particularly the COC. So, the chair and three members are incorporated into the COC, which is good because those are like the big brothers and sisters; they show you how it is done. That was a plus to have the executives help us and walk with us through this journey. The challenges were, deciding on the platform we want to work on and whether it should support the nature of the conference we have.

Then there was the challenge of usual politics in institutions. The other challenge is the misconception around virtual events. People have the idea that they are free because they are virtual, but the virtual must be paid, the internet must be paid, the hosting platform, all those. Virtual being equated for free is a misconception that needs to be handled. Some people say, why would I go all the way to Nairobi to attend this conference while I can sit and watch it at home. However, when they come to Nairobi, the experience might have been different. Also, some people get frustrated when they find out that they must pay a registration fee for submitting papers.

The preparation phase is also challenging, but with the great support of the EB, it was not so much of a challenge. The fact that they planned their things way ahead of time helps a lot. I think we are the ones who dragged our feet, not because of our choices but because of the usual bureaucracies. The support overshadowed everything else; we constantly checked each other in our weekly meetings, which was nice. In the end, EB also said thank you and gave us dinner vouchers; we did not expect that. I want to say nobody should be scared to host IAMCR conferences, you just need to plan ahead of time and work with the leadership, and you will be good to go.