I’m excited to share the first post in my “How to move to Africa as a journalist” series here on Journalist In Africa and it starts with Drew Hinshaw. I met Drew in 2013 in Abuja, Nigeria. We learned that we’re both from metro Atlanta, Georgia which was cool because I’m always so excited to meet folks from home.
Drew is a senior reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He spent a decade covering West Africa where his work was nominated several times for the Pulitzer Prize. He and fellow WSJ reporter Joe Parkinson have extensively followed the April 2014 mass kidnapping of the Nigerian high school students known as the Chibok Girls and they co-authored a book called Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls that was published this year. The book has already received glowing reviews for its dogged and thorough journalism and is the first extensive account of what happened in the aftermath of the shocking kidnapping by Boko Haram insurgents and subsequent releases of 103 of them.
Drew’s reporting has also appeared in Al Jazeera, New York Times magazine, The Atlantic, The Rolling Stone and Bloomberg. After living in Ghana and Senegal, he is now based in Poland with his family.
On March 23rd and 29th, I had a chat with Drew about his time reporting in West
CHIKA: How were you able to move to Africa and work as a reporter?
DREW: I always thought when I was first making the move, I remember having thoughts of like, I should find a way to like talk to people later on. Because I had to figure it out myself, too, there’s not like a book for how to do this or something. I think what was the most number one helpful thing to me is that I didn’t immediately go and start reporting. I did a Fulbright scholarship in Ghana so there was like a year where I was like, living with like two Ghanaians my age in Accra. You know, I learned Twi. You know, like, I lived kind of like there; I was living there basically. I took classes at Legon, the university outside Accra. And I wasn’t just immediately arriving that first week and like, OK I need to start reporting and find something to say, ‘cause I mean, what did I know, right? You need time to like, know where you are and everything else. And also, just you know little things, how to talk to people, how to approach people, like it’s different in every country, you know? And then I did the same thing in Senegal. I did a homestay for six months with a Senegalese family like I lived, they had like, I guess in Ghana it’s called a “boys’ quarters,” is what they call it, you know? (Laughs) But it was like a little room where they like kept their sheep like across the way from me. I didn’t learn that much Wolof. Like I could maybe do a very basic interview, but just enough to like, get by. But you know I lived with them; I ate with them. You know, I learned little things. You know, like we played Scrabble every night. You know, like I didn’t know Senegalese people play Scrabble. I wouldn’t have known that but, you know, it’s kind of big in Dakar. You know so you like learn all this stuff and you get a feel for the country and like just, the other thing about it is I’d had pre-existing freelance work in America. So, like I wrote for like, Keyboard Magazine like where I would interview producers of music about like ‘what’s your best technique to make a drum sound good?’ or whatever, I’m mean, so it’s like these little freelance things that you can do from anywhere. Or like I wrote a ‘careers’ column for like Metro New York where I could interview career counselors on like, you know, ‘what’s the best body language during a job interview?’ You know, simple things like that that I – you could do from anywhere around the world. You know, so that’s what afforded like my first year in Senegal, was that kind of stuff.
I wasn’t really writing about Senegal at first. I had time to like learn, also French, you know I had to learn French. I had time to adjust to the country a bit without worrying. My first week, I wasn’t like, ‘oh my God I need to find something smart to report out of a country where I’ve only been for like two days,’ you know? I had pre-existing freelance from the U.S. That really – that’s really like my number one. I didn’t think about it, because I hadn’t thought about this in years, but that’s like my number one piece of advice, like have some stuff. Also you don’t need to like make a huge amount of money, you know. You need something to adjust to. So that would be my main advice, have some work from the U.S. that you could do for like some length of time while you get used to where you are, you learn the language. Living with people who were like super helpful. Because you know, If I had gone to Dakar straight without any kind of setting up a homestay or something, I would have been in like some strange Airbnb. I probably would have ended up hanging out with like other journalists or foreign correspondents, which you end up doing anyway. You make friends and you have professional contacts but that would have been like my only social circle probably, you know. So both from a social life point of view but also professionally and just having some, I don’t know, maybe like respect and competence for the country where you are. That really helped. That’s my main advice.
CHIKA: For the Senegal stay, was that also with Fulbright?
DREW: No. I asked people, who asked people, who asked people, who somehow found some, there was some program where families who wanted to welcome in, I don’t quite understand like what the program was because I wasn’t like a part of it. There was a program I think for students who were studying abroad, they would live with a family and go to school every day. And I just like said, “hey is there another family?” and they found another family that wanted to participate and I just didn’t go to school every day because I wasn’t like taking classes in Senegal. Oh, that’s like a great way to do it. You know? That’s what I did in Accra was I took classes at Legon, you know like I was taking journalism classes with other Ghanaian journalists.
CHIKA: So in Senegal, the family, were they based in Dakar or outside?
DREW: Yeah, yeah, they were in Dakar…they were speaking Wolof and French.
CHIKA: Would you say your journalism career kind of kickstarted in West Africa or did you have a very good basis [in the U.S.]?
DREW: I worked in New Orleans. My first job was in New Orleans after college for like a newspaper that was like tiny. It was like minimum wage covering a parish outside of New Orleans. Like I lived in New Orleans but worked in LaPlace, Louisiana and yeah, that was my first experience other than going to school and studying journalism, that was my first newspaper job which like, did help, you know?
CHIKA: Do you have university degrees?
DREW: Yeah, I do but I got a minor in journalism. I majored in history and minored in journalism. I had a double major. Music and history and minored in journalism.
CHIKA: That’s really cool because one post on my blog, I think the most popular post that I got, is, “Do you need a degree in journalism to be a journalist?”
CHIKA: So how would you respond to that?
DREW: No. I think, not at all. I mean I think it helps, like I definitely see, like, so I just had an intern who I was mentoring this past, gosh it’s been a few months now, I think last semester and he’s like at Columbia in the Master’s program and I definitely notice that I don’t have to teach him that much or anything. He knows how to do the job, you know? So, I definitely notice that, but it’s not like you need that. I didn’t have that. Like I barely knew how to write like a spot news story before I took that job in New Orleans. Yeah, I don’t think at all you need to [go to journalism school]. You can if you want, but I don’t think at all, like it’s a requirement at all that you have to go to journalism school. I think it’s actually more useful [to have] language skills and just being able to like go for it.
I notice, like I would get all these emails coming in, when I lived in Dakar and it would be people who want to come to Dakar but want to feel it out first and like the actual follow-through rate was like very low.
CHIKA: Wow. Interesting.
DREW: I don’t know, people, I think they want some assurance like yes, if you come here, you’re gonna make this much money a month writing these kinds [of stories]. They want some kind of assurance. But what I found is like, people who succeed often, just like they show up. I don’t even know they were coming and all of a sudden, it’s like, “hi, I’m so and so. I just got to Dakar a week ago.’
DREW: I think that’s like a skill I would encourage for people, just throw yourself out there.
CHIKA: That’s so interesting. OK, people skills. And then I like – you mentioned you did music and history because one thing I also advocate is to get another knowledge base whether it’s in music, whether it’s in economics or poli sci or something.
I definitely don’t think you need a journalism degree.DREW HINSHAW
DREW: Exactly. Exactly, yeah, totally exactly. Because, when I first started writing about West Africa, some of the first articles I did were like music journalism, you know? It was just sort of a natural segue because I had been doing music stuff for like Pitchfork and stuff back in the U.S. and it was like natural. So yeah, definitely. I definitely agree. I definitely don’t think you need a journalism degree.
CHIKA: OK and why Ghana? Do you think Ghana is a good landing board for people who’ve never been to Africa?
DREW: Yeah. I do. Ghana for me because I had studied abroad there in 2006. But you know, Ghana’s good but also, well, it depends. Ghana was really good for me for covering Nigeria. Because I don’t know, it’s like culturally similar, you know, but you have some distance, you know you can kind of go back and clear your head. I found Lagos to be such a high-pressure place. But, I think what’s nice for covering West Africa, it helps to speak French, so maybe like Abidjan. Senegal wasn’t good, well, maybe it’s changed. It was so hard to get from Dakar to like even Abuja and let alone from Abuja to where ever you’re going, like Yola [in Adamawa State, Nigeria] or something.
CHIKA: Now, there are direct flights.
DREW: Really? Wow, that’s great.
CHIKA: Yeah, with several airlines.
DREW: Oh, that’s amazing. Yeah, I used to have to go on a flight that was like Dakar-Bamako-Ouagadougou, then like, maybe Lomé or something.
CHIKA: Oh wow. OK.
DREW: So literally all night.
CHIKA: Oh, wow.
DREW: (Laughs) So Accra was like, yeah, just go to the airport at 6am and by like 8am I’m in Abuja. If I wanna go somewhere else, I’m there like by noon, depending obviously.
CHIKA: So, can you just talk about how to contact editors, like once you’re on ground and just to get work.
DREW: Yeah. That’s a good question. That’s kind of the hardest part I think, is like finding a consistent string, you know? And one of the hard parts is that other freelancers aren’t gonna help you, you know?
DREW: They can help you with contacts, like a spokesperson but they’re not gonna be like, ‘oh, you know here’s my string at like where ever.’ But, yeah, I think people want more coverage of Africa so like, it’s out there. There are publications. Like, I wrote a lot for like the Christian Science Monitor, you know, which I wouldn’t have thought originally. I don’t even know how I found it. I did a lot of pitching. You know what helps is elections. Because when an election is coming up you can – I don’t know, it depends on the election. But you can pitch a lot of [election coverage] or like big protests, like if I was a freelancer in Senegal right now, there’d be a good chance I’d be like, ‘somebody who’s a little bit interested in these protests at least that doesn’t normally cover West Africa’ and then you can kind of push them to like, ‘hey, that was great writing you the protest article. I wanted to also pitch you something else.’ And then people tend to say yes…don’t be afraid to follow up, you know, maybe one or two times just to keep on their radar. Because there will be news that they want to cover. Maybe you have an idea for like a soft feature and you’re not getting a yes. You’re getting a lot of rejections and that’s OK. There will be a moment when there’s another news story and you’re the person that they remember and they’ll reach out to and say, ‘hey could you help us cover this? We see that there’s a big protest in Dakar and we don’t have anybody else there that can cover it.’ So that’s useful, too.
CHIKA: So how often were you, like contributing stories before you got the Wall Street Journal gig, when you were still freelancing? Like how often were you getting work to live off of?
DREW: It was slow going at first. What was maybe the most helpful for me was Bloomberg. I wrote for Bloomberg and it was a bit steady and they were interested in stuff that nobody else was interested in, like Togo has a new bond next week. (Laughs) Nobody else would cover that, but Bloomberg would like actually phone and be like, ‘can you like, you know, find out what’s the coupon for this bond Togo is selling?’ I’d be like, ‘OK sure.’
Yeah, I think, it took me, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say when there was a moment where I was like, set. There was also like a fade in, fade out. Like I slowly faded out the work I did in the U.S. and faded in work I did for West Africa, so you know like, I stopped writing for Keyboard Magazine at a certain point. That sort of thing.
Nigeria is…a country where there’s a news story every single dayDREW HINSHAW
CHIKA: Here’s a two-part question: If not Ghana and Senegal, what other countries would you have considered? How has working in Africa helped you, changed you, benefitted you not only as a journalist but as a person?
DREW: Yeah, totally. Abidjan, I definitely would put on my list. It’s interesting, it’s kind of central. I like Nigeria, too. Nigeria is like a country where there’s a news story every single day, you know, and that’s not the case if you’re in other countries, like, you know, Mali. It comes and goes. I don’t know a lot about East Africa. I get a sense that there are a lot of journalists in Nairobi.
DREW: And there’s something that can be said for really covering one country really well.
CHIKA: Mmmmm. Yeah.
DREW: There’s like, I forget her name, Celeste Hicks in like, Chad, or something, yeah? She really seems to like understand, like get the country. I’m sure it must be a bit of a struggle to land stories from there. That [focusing on a single country] could be helpful. And then like, how has it changed me? I found, well, now that I’m in Europe, like if there’s a story I kind of have to do it immediately, you know because I know that Politico wants to write about it, or Reuters, or someone else is gonna do it if I don’t. And sometimes it feels a bit like what’s my added value, you know? But in West Africa it often felt like if I didn’t do a story, no one else would do it. Which comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility but also can be gratifying. You know?
CHIKA: Yeah. Excellent.
**Conversation continued on March 29**
CHIKA: Can I just get a timeline of your entry into West Africa?
DREW: I studied abroad there [Ghana] in 2006 and then I went back in 2008 on a Fulbright.
CHIKA: And when did you move to Nigeria?
DREW: I never like rented a place there. I just spent summers there. The Journal is really favorable towards travel. There was never like any kind of pushback or hassle having to take trips. Now there is because of coronavirus but back then if I was like, ‘hi, I’m gonna go to Nigeria.’ I mean, I barely even had to tell them. If I was going to like Maiduguri, for security reasons, I would. But they were like super generous about giving me free reign. So, it was a time when I could travel nonstop and do a lot of stories.
CHIKA: So when you were in Senegal did you report?
DREW: Yeah, that’s where I started with the [Wall Street] Journal. But it wasn’t convenient because Dakar is way up there. Well, I guess now we have flights but back then you had to fly all over West Africa to get to Nigeria. All the stories were in Nigeria. I don’t know if you found the same thing.
DREW: You know, you could write a daily news story on Nigeria every day. Whereas, like Ghana, maybe twice a year I wrote something, you know.
CHIKA: Do you feel that’s because the global headlines are hungry for a certain type of news or would you say that the other countries don’t have news of your interest?
DREW: It could be. You know, part of it is that Nigeria has everything, you know? So, when I was hired, the instruction was to write about business. You know, we want to cover Africa as like a business story. You know, like let the New York Times do the Nicholas Kristof type stuff. We want, you know, there’s an economy here. Let’s write about the economy, not always about the humanitarian story. So for that reason I was in Lagos all the time because if you want to write about business in West Africa, you gotta be in Lagos. You know like Accra, there may be like one or two interesting things. Dakar, there wasn’t really a lot to write about. But if you want to write about business, you gotta be in Lagos. But then in like 2014, I think Boko Haram became – I guess, terrorism generally – became a big story, so then you’re in the northeast of the country [Nigeria]. Like again, if you’re writing about terrorism, Ghana or Senegal, there’s not really anything to write there. So part of it is, Nigeria is so big, no matter what you’re writing about, there’s something, you know, even ebola. I was in Nigeria for ebola because the guy who flew to Lagos [the index case] and we even did stories about how Lagos figured it out. You know, they did it. They surpassed ebola. So part of it is no matter what your topic is you can find it in Nigeria and part of it is, like, Nigeria is just inherently more interesting for like an American audience, you know? Unfortunately, like, if you’re writing about like Guinea, you kind of have to like, ‘here’s what it is, here’s its history,’ you know? But like Nigeria, there’s some pre-existing knowledge, maybe, there. Like, not a lot but enough where people are kind of interested.
Also, it [Nigeria] sort of is the story in a way. Like an election in Ghana would be over in two days. An election in Nigeria would be like months of run-up and stuff happening.
CHIKA: I see, there’s more drama around it, OK. So why didn’t you ever base in Nigeria?
DREW: I don’t know, we were living in Ghana. It was easy enough, I found, because Accra has a direct flight to Abuja and Lagos so if I wanted to go somewhere I could be there. If the story was in Abuja, I could literally be there, like 9am, same with Lagos. And if it was somewhere else, I’d have to fly there anyway from Abuja, you know if it was Maiduguri or Yola, or I don’t know like Port Harcourt or something. So it wasn’t like a huge change of – yeah it wasn’t that difficult. Dakar was difficult. I found Accra was like – like really if there was someone who wanted to see me tomorrow, I could be there easily. Friday afternoons, I’m done. I could get back to Accra like that evening, instead of having to spend the night there again.
CHIKA: How long did it take you to go from, when you arrived, to go from freelancing to getting a staff position?
DREW: Let’s see, 2008 I really started freelancing. 2010, the Journal hired me. So like two years, something like that. The big thing that helped was Bloomberg. Again, I think there was a niche at the time for covering Africa like a business story and that’s basically what I was doing for Bloomberg. I was for Bloomberg on a freelance basis but that’s what I think the Journal was interested in.
CHIKA: Got it. Did you go in thinking you wanted to do busines reporting or it just kind of happened?
DREW: More just kind of happened. I like it because it was different. I mean it was pretty boring, frankly. I’m not a business journalist and you know, writing about bonds, the bond market was pretty dreary. But, I don’t know it was kind of interesting. It was like different and I kind of agreed with the mission at the time. Like I did kind of feel like all the stories out of West Africa were like Nicholas Kristof-type. Which I’m not downing it or something, but at the time I remember thinking everything is like, you know, humanitarian and things like that and, which didn’t really like, I don’t know, it didn’t really match the reality I lived in like in Accra or Dakar. It didn’t feel like the main story at the time was like, I don’t know, like a humanitarian crisis. It was like, it was like anywhere else, you know?
DREW: Social media was growing. It felt like a way of covering real life if that makes sense.
CHIKA: Yeah. I guess also with the humanitarian-coverage, like Kristof’s, it gives the impression that everyone is like, getting aid, or living off of NGOS.
DREW: Yeah, exactly.
CHIKA: It’s very NGO, heavy.
DREW: Exactly. I’m not like downing it necessarily, but it felt like it didn’t, I don’t know. There’s like a savior complex thing about it and there’s like, it just didn’t like, I was interested in Accra for like, Accra’s sake. I wasn’t someone who moved to West Africa to cover refugee crises or something like that. I studied abroad there and thought, ‘wow this is an interesting city. I like it here.’ And I was happy to write about ordinary life.
CHIKA: So what are some of the cultural shocks you had to get over?
DREW: Gosh, it’s been a while since I thought about this stuff. Cultural shocks I had to go over, yeah, it’s a good question.
CHIKA: Or maybe you didn’t have any?
DREW: Yeah, no there definitely were. I don’t know, there’s different ways that people relate which each other. You know, being more open and friendly in a way that you’re not when you’re coming from like New York or something, which I was. Let’s see. You know one of the big culture shocks is like moving from Ghana to Dakar, it was totally different. I expected, you know, I thought I’ll go to Dakar. I’ve lived in Accra; it will be similar. But no, immediately you realize it’s different. It just is, you know. Not totally different, I guess, but I don’t know the countries are different. I found that negotiating things was different.
CHIKA: Is it like they were more or less open?
DREW: It depends. So hard to generalize. I sometimes found Ghana, like which as very open as like a person to live there, sometimes reporting people – you know here’s one of the cultural differences that I found, especially compared to the U.S., I found you have to sit down with and explain like, you can’t just walk up and say, ‘hey I’m from the Wall Street Journal, tell me everything, you know.’ You have to be a bit more patient maybe, in both places, especially Ghana, for whatever reason. Yeah, I found that a lot. Even before I was working for the Wall Street Journal, ‘hi I’m freelancing for the whatever.’ In the U.S. you know you can sort of like just walk up and start asking people questions. In Ghana you have to be a little bit more like ready for people to figure out who you are, what you’re interested in, why you’re there, why you’re talking to them. Yeah. That’s like a cultural change, if that makes sense.
CHIKA: So you left the continent in what year?
DREW: Oh, I left in 2017 and then as soon as I was leaving, like the second release of the Chibok Girls happened and I was like, ‘wow I think there’s like a story here.’ (Laughs) So there was a year where there was like a Czech election or something or they were like, ‘Drew can you cover the Czech election?’ but I was like ‘sure but I’m in a hotel in Adamawa State [Nigeria].’ (Laughs) And the same thing happened in like 2018 so I was basically like going back and forth to Nigeria and they were pretty good about it, about not caring where I was, lately that’s changed.
CHIKA: And what do you miss about living in West Africa – if you can mention three things?
DREW: Yeah, what do I miss. I felt like it was a story, you know. I felt like if I didn’t do a story there, there was a good chance it wouldn’t be done. You know, no matter what the story was. What are the three things I missed? So one, I felt like doing news there was very valuable in a way because of that. If you didn’t do the story, there’s a good chance, nobody would. I don’t know, I just find it like more interesting in a way than, you know, after this job I’ll do something else. You know I haven’t found this job like hugely complicated or interesting. West Africa just raises like so many interesting questions about the role of journalism and what, you know. It’s more interesting in that kind of way, like craft wise I found it more interesting. You go from talking to people who are like, I don’t know, like literally going to a Fulani settlement and talking to a Fulani to, like, interviewing a senator. You know, there’s this huge range of different types of people you interview in a given week and I found that interesting. And I think in some ways, there’s a lack of interest in Africa from American newspapers and American outlets but in some ways that’s good because, like, nobody was telling me what the story was. Like here, you’re on a conference call and everyone thinks they know what the story is and they’re telling you, ‘can’t we get more on this and this?” Especially like coronavirus, like you know I’m covering the origins of coronavirus and everyone has an opinion about it like ‘isn’t it the lab?’ and ‘why is China covering this up?’ Whereas, you know you tell your editor what you’re working on and you’re like ‘hi, I’m at the Seme Border Post to do a story on import substitution in Nigeria’ and they’re like, ‘OK!’ (Laughs) You know? They don’t have like an opinion, so you have more freedom.
CHIKA: And why foreign correspondent work? Why not stay in the U.S.?
DREW: Yeah, I might do that one day. I don’t know, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I enjoyed not being a U.S. reporter during the Trump years. Especially since like D.C. is such a natural place to go back to, it just seemed poisonous and, I don’t know. Especially for D.C.-based jobs, you’re like compromised in a sort of way. You’re so like manipulated by your sources. It’s so political, you know. People don’t talk to you, if you don’t – I don’t know, I shouldn’t. I’ve never done that kind of work, so I shouldn’t like – it just seems from afar to be more complicated or something. We like being abroad. I like having my family here. I think about it a lot, whether it would be worth going back to the U.S.
CHIKA: But even how you started. Some people wouldn’t even have thought international. But were you always kind of globally-minded or was that like a new interest?
DREW: Not really. I studied abroad in Ghana and liked it and found it interesting. Then you know I came back and I was working in Louisiana, which was kind of interesting but wasn’t as interesting. And then I applied for the Fulbright. It was just sort of natural to stay there. But you know, it’s a good question. Would I go back to the U.S. or something? I don’t know, I don’t know.
CHIKA: Yeah. And how did your family react when you said you were gonna, you know, move to Ghana?
DREW: You know, they didn’t really have like a strong feeling one way or the other, I don’t think. I see my mom quite a bit. She comes and visits wherever I’ve lived. And my dad, they’re divorced. So I see them from time to time. That is the thing I’ve missed, you know, friends and things like that in the States and family and stuff.
CHIKA: Right. Being a foreign correspondent has been described as a lonely profession.
CHIKA: I read a book about Christiane Amanpour and she talked about that. So, would you describe it as a lonely lifestyle?
DREW: I totally agree. Yeah, it can be a bit alienating and lonely, you know. Yeah, I think that’s true. It depends on the friends you’re able to make in places. I felt like I had very good friends in Ghana. Here in Poland, it’s just like, well, one, I have a family so it’s not like I’m out every night. Like in Ghana, I was out, I don’t know if you know Accra, very well, but like in Osu, Labone?, these kind of popular nightlife places. Go out a lot. Now we have kids, so we’re not out that much. It is kind of lonely though, isn’t it, you know?
I stick out, you know sometimes it’s alienating, but sometimes it’s kind of like a challenge, too.DREW HINSHAW
CHIKA: But did you still feel alienated in Ghana?
DREW: In some ways, obviously you’re a foreigner. You weren’t born there. I learned the language, not obviously anywhere near like natural or fluent speaker. But yeah, definitely. Obviously, I stick out, you know sometimes it’s alienating, but sometimes it’s kind of like a challenge, too.
CHIKA: So, considering that, do you think that foreign correspondent work lends itself to a certain personality type?
DREW: Yeah, maybe, I think you have to like a challenge. Like, don’t you feel like people either do it or they don’t? You know they build themselves into it. And they stay, they stick around and they make it work or like they kind of, yeah, I think it is like a certain type of, I don’t know if the word is risk-taking…yeah, you gotta be willing to like leave and say goodbye to your family and your country for years.
CHIKA: And the Wall Street Journal gig, did you reach out to them or did they reach out to you asking you to join them?
DREW: I had pitched some freelance stuff to them. I pitched like everywhere, you know? And I pitched to them and they said, ‘no thanks. We don’t really take freelancers’ which is what they said, but it’s not true. (Laughs) And then, at some point they mentioned, ‘oh we might have a staff position eventually.’ So I kind of like kept bothering them with that.
CHIKA: So you kept pitching and pitching and they kept saying no?
DREW: Yeah, exactly. You know, a polite no. I wasn’t like hounding them. But just like politely pinging and they would say, ‘no thanks, we’re not quite interested in this one.’ You know, pitching again.
CHIKA: So that means you never wrote a story for them as a freelancer.
CHIKA: I see.
DREW: They would say – and I’m sure the [New York] Times would, too, or even the Washington Post – they’ll say they don’t take freelancers which is kind of true, but like what they will do, what I would when I was there [in West Africa] is like if someone had a good story, I would kind of do it with them and I’d give them the first byline, you know. So, I’d recommend that. We had a good reporter in Liberia but then he died, unfortunately. If someone had pitched a story in Liberia, I would have done it with them, like, ‘yeah, that’s great. Let’s do the story. I’ll give you the first byline.’
CHIKA: And then the last question I have about this travel reporting, I mean, I have to ask about racial dynamics. A lot of African-Americans, when they visit or move to Africa, they say they don’t feel black anymore. They just feel like a human being.
CHIKA: And one woman I know [of European-descent], I met her in Abuja and she was just overwhelmed with seeing so many black people in charge of their own country. So she was like, ‘the pilot flying the plane is black, the restaurant owner is black, the president is black’ and when she said it, I wasn’t offended but some people were and thought she was being racist. But I thought, no, she’s just being honest. She’s just never seen a country run by black people. So how did you experience that?
DREW: Yeah, kind of in a reverse way. You’re in a country where as a white person, you’re few and far between. In a way, it’s like, I remember having to think a lot about it. Like there were a lot of, I know a lot of foreign correspondents who come over as white people and have been grouchy about it. They don’t like being called obroni [a term used in Ghana to refer to a foreigner of a lighter skin tone, also spelled oburoni or oborɔnyi] or oyibo [a term used in Nigeria to refer to a foreigner or someone of a lighter skin tone] or something like that. And if you dwell on it, it can really ruin your day. You know, if you take it the wrong way, like why am I not being treated the very way I thought I imagined I would be. You have to be flexible as a person and you’re in someone else’s country and that can be a challenge. People are going to say weird stuff to you as a white person (laughs) and people will also go out of their way to be kind. I mean, they’re so many different ways that people treat you based on their projection of who you are which is kind of part of like being a minority almost anywhere. You kind of have to, I don’t know be, you’re in someone else’s country. I noticed a lot of people come and become like grouchy expats and they start hanging out with only other expats, and when you sit down with them, they’re complaining the whole time. If that’s your experience then like why stay? Go back, you know? So, for me, it’s hard to give a succinct answer because there’s so much to say about being a racial minority in a country like Nigeria or something but I felt you have to be flexible. You’re in someone else’s country and you’re on their terms and that’s part of the challenge and the joy and the interesting part of it, I guess.
CHIKA: Even so, did you feel sometimes you were given privileges?
DREW: Yeah, I mean definitely. It’s like there’s such a range. That part, I really would hate. Like, you know, I’d be in line at like some restaurant in Accra or something and the counter person would literally skip like three people and just like turn to me and ask me what I want as if there’s not people lined up in front of me. You kind of have to like, ‘no sorry, go on ahead.’ Yeah, that could be in a weird way enervating. I remember feeling, also in Ghana, you treated like a child, you know? And being annoyed by it, but like I said, you’re in someone else’s country.
CHIKA: When you say child, just to clarify for the readers, you mean like being pampered or like a someone who doesn’t know anything?
DREW: Both, yes, like sometimes as if I don’t know anything. Oh, and here’s something that really bothered me. Like, we would all, I would be sitting with a group of people and they would ask like in Twi if I can handle Ghanaian food. You know and this would be like in my fifth year living in Ghana, you know what I mean? And then that kind of stuff never stops and if I chose to, I could be really annoyed by it. If you chose to, you could like by in and demand to be pampered basically. But you kind of have to like navigate it and accept that this is part of like living in West Africa. It’s just navigating this stuff. I guess it comes with the territory is what I’m saying. If people are gonna pick up their life and move to another country, they’ve gotta be prepared to navigate that stuff and it can be complicated and interesting but also like frustrating sometimes.
CHIKA: Do you remember reading any books that were very helpful for your move to West Africa?
DREW: I wish I had. I wish there was some like good – oh, there was one by Manthia Diawara, it’s probably dated now ‘cause was like from the late 90s called In Search of Africa. It was about how he grew up in Guinea and he moves to Paris and then moves to New York and then he calls it like, identity fatigue or something, and he goes back and he looks for his best friend growing up in Guinea. He’d been like kicked out, his family had been kicked out by Sekou Touré or something. Yeah, that was kind of interesting because it was like the perspective of this, like, professor who lived in New York for like at least ten years who had lived in Paris and Guinea and Mali. He had lots of complicated ideas about how people relate with like race and African identity in different contexts. But in general, no there’s not enough, there’s really not enough. I didn’t find like a lot of resources to deal with these issues, which is unfortunate, you know.
CHIKA: Do you think you could ever be back on the continent as a reporter?
DREW: I don’t know. Maybe, you know, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t really know what I’m doing next.
CHIKA: But it sounds like you’re open, like the door isn’t closed?
DREW: Yeah, exactly.
Thanks, Drew for this lovely chat!
Drew later clarified about his time reporting in Nigeria: “When I lived in Ghana, I spent close to half my time traveling back and forth to Nigeria. So a lot more time than just summers (when my family would go back to the US and I’d usually be traveling/reporting in Nigeria the entire time).