Series: How to move to Africa as a journalist #2: Erica Ayisi

Hi friends! This is the “How to move to Africa as a journalist” series where I present in-depth conversations with reporters who’ve reported on-the-ground in African countries and they’ll be offering tips on how others can do the same.

Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal kicked off this series with an amazing interview outlining his time reporting in West Africa from his bases in Senegal and Ghana.  

For the second edition in this series, I want to introduce my sister-friend Erica Ayisi!

Erica & me in Dakar, Senegal 2017

Again, Erica & me, this time in Accra, Ghana 2013

Like Drew, she lived in Ghana as a reporter. Hey, Ghana in the house! Erica was born and raised in Massachusetts, where she is still based. She’s reported for ETV in Accra, NBCBLK and other outlets. She’s currently reporting for PBS Rhode Island and she is this year’s winner of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Ethel Payne Fellowship.

She and I had a chat about her professional journey, her reporting interests, Ghana’s historic 2019 Year of Return and the stories she’d like to pursue with her fellowship.

Here we go!

Erica Ayisi

CHIKA: What’s your background and how would you like to be known?

ERICA: I define myself as a Ghanaian-American journalist who has kind of spent the last 10 years or so looking at how black people live around the world, really, not just Africa, I would say really around the world. My career started in Africa as a reporter on a local channel there and covering what was happening locally, what was happening to diasporans living in the country at the time. But over the years, 10 years, 11 years since, I’ve really kind of looked at black people all around the world to see what they’re doing, see what their concerns are, and what’s happening to them in the worlds around them.

I think I always knew I was gonna work in media, especially news, in some capacity, even as a child…I would watch the news in the evening with my father.

ERICA AYISI

CHIKA: Can you talk about your heritage, your roots, where you come from, where you were born?

ERICA: Sure. So, I’m first generation Ghanaian-American so I was born and raised in Massachusetts. My parents are from Ghana, West Africa and I grew up in small town America, Massachusetts, in a very African home (laughs) which was very interesting. It was very African and it was very American at the same time so, very grateful to have those experiences where my parents were navigating and understanding America for themselves as immigrants and then through us with their immigrant children. That’s kind of my background. But I went to college in New York for my Bachelor’s and my Master’s and a large part of my life was in New York and I still kind of go back and forth to New York from time to time. But I would say New York is kind of my second home and I would say since then, I’ve lived all over. In Ghana, New York, Massachusetts, so, yeah.

CHIKA: And what made you decide to become a journalist?

I had Newsweek and Time magazine were kind of like my childhood books.

ERica ayisi

ERICA: Well, I think I always knew I was gonna work in media, especially news, in some capacity, even as a child. As a kid, you know, not so much having – well, maybe partly having immigrant parents and then having parents who were older being that they’re always trying to connect with issues that were happening in Africa and also issues all around the world so instead of having coloring books and things like that – I didn’t have Cable – I had Newsweek and Time magazine were kind of like my childhood books. I remember being very young and reading those diligently. Names and dates and places and geography and politicians and history makers and cultures, I found it to be very interesting and then I would watch the news in the evening with my father. I just felt like I wanted to be there telling those stories and telling the world what happened in different places. I think I knew, quite young, that I definitely had an interest in news, for sure, very young. And I always found breaking news very entertaining. Like, as a kid, I remember if something happened, I would flip through the channels to see if anybody was covering it or who was covering it and what they were saying. That was really fun – to me. I was a weird kid.

But years, you know, years later, it was kind of on my radar to be a journalist, kind of not. Kind of spent some time figuring out what I wanted to do. But I think after I worked as an English teacher for a while, that was becoming boring. It was boring and around that time, 2008, 2009, when [Barack] Obama was running I really felt I want to be a part of storytelling and I was missing out on telling any stories. There was so much happening and I wanted to be a part of not what was happening, but be a part of telling what was happening and that’s when I really made an aggressive change to get a Master’s degree in communications and focus on broadcast journalism and focus on TV news reporting, so, I made a change to really go for it 100%.

CHIKA: OK and before you go ahead with your academic pursuits, can we go back to your childhood? You said you were reading newspapers. How did get access to these news publications? Were they bought specifically for you or were your parents buying them and you just got hold of them?

ERICA: Specifically, I was reading Time magazine and Newsweek, ‘cause they’re still all over my house. So 100% they were my father’s subscriptions to Time magazine, to Newsweek because they were just all over the house. So that’s how I really became aware of what was happening and just had an interest for it. And then as a teenager, I had my subscriptions to Vibe magazine, the Source magazine. I was really into magazines. Cosmo magazine, later into Teen Years, YM magazine – that was a big one. I was really reading a lot.

CHIKA: I remember YM!

ERICA: You remember YM? YM was great. Hype Hair for your hairstyles and products at the time. Aliyah was on the cover and Ashanti would be on the cover and reading what salons were popping so for me I loved hard copy magazine. I mean, that’s what it was. Can we say hard copy, because we didn’t even have Facebook or the internet then? (Laughs)

So just reading and consuming what was around me. I really enjoyed it. I took my time to learn words, go back to pages, circle things, highlight things, so it was in front of me because my parents had subscriptions and then when I had my own money, I got my own subscriptions to other publications.

I’m interested in African narratives because I think they’re underreported.

ERICA AYISI

CHIKA: Yeah, that magazine subscription culture, it’s really from yesteryear. It’s almost dead.

ERICA: It is dead. Oh, yeah. People don’t have subscriptions now or even offer them if you wanted them.

CHIKA: Or they still do it but it’s digital subscriptions for most people.

ERICA: Right.

CHIKA: YM took me back. So what did you study for your Bachelor’s degree?

ERICA: Communications.

CHIKA: Can you walk us through your academic journey?

ERICA: Oh gosh. That’s like 25 years ago! (Laughs)

CHIKA: I know. Going down memory lane.

ERICA: Can’t remember my Bachelor’s degree. (Laughs) Bachelor’s degree was in New York City. New York Institute of Technology. I studied communication arts right in the heart of Manhattan. So this is early 2000’s. Really just understanding communications and how it works. I wrote for my school newspaper. I recall this was when the CNN building was being built in the Time Warner Mall. It was across the street, right, literally across, side by side. Yeah, I was there for September 11th [2001]. I remember when the window was shattered, all this glass fell from the building. I remember the actual September 11th studying media in the media center of the world when one of the biggest terrorism attacks happened in the world and being there at that same time was very, very profound and I know exactly where I was – in history class.  When the first plane hit, I think I was in my dorm room, but no one knew what it was at the time. But by the time I got up – I went on the train – and by the time I got up from the train, it was chaos. I remember sitting in history class, 9:30ish, 9:45 was when we heard what was going on. Um, yeah and I don’t remember my specific classes, it was such a long time ago. But the thing I remember most profoundly was being there for September 11th.

And then when I graduated in 2003, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do and just went into education because it was there and available.

CHIKA: And then for your Master’s degree you went back to communications?

ERICA: Yeah, but there was like a ten-year gap (laughs) in between.

CHIKA: Was it difficult to find jobs in news?

ERICA: After the Master’s degree?


CHIKA: After the Bachelor’s.

You know there’s this notion that you finish college and you’re supposed to have your whole life planned out and I don’t think that’s fair.

Erica ayisi

ERICA: Uh, no, I didn’t even look for jobs in news. I packed up, came home. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I can’t say I specifically looked for this or I didn’t know what – I came out of college with a question mark, at least after my Bachelor’s degree. I didn’t finish with a game plan. I just finished and I think it’s important to be transparent about that. You know there’s this notion that you finish college and you’re supposed to have your whole life planned out and I don’t think that’s fair. Even at 18 to say, ‘Oh choose one major.’ You have to choose this one thing that you have to love for the rest of your life.’ I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody especially at that age. So even after I finished my Bachelor’s I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to do it, so I just packed up and came home from New York City and I took a teaching job, not because I wanted to be a teacher. It was just available. It was English and I’m like, ‘Alright I could do this’ so I just took it and just stayed with it because I could do it, it was easy and paid well but after some time, you know, it was just boring to me. You know, how many times can you teach Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare? You know, it’s the same thing every year.  (Laughs).

So, I just felt alright, I have the passion for news and storytelling. Let me more aggressively go a second time around, because I would look for jobs and when I looked at jobs for on-air positions and I would look at the job description, it was like a foreign language to me. I had no clue what they were talking about. VSOTS and SOTS and packages and scripts. I had no context of that language at all. So, that’s when I said I need to specifically re-educate myself more so I can understand this job description and that’s when I sought out a Master’s degree specifically for broadcast journalism.

CHIKA: What university was that?


ERICA: Same school. I went back to New York, the New York Institute of Technology. I wanted to go to Columbia [University] but NYIT had a built-in internship at the time. They had a TV station at their Long Island campus so I felt that would give me quick access to hands-on experience, instead of going to another school, applying for internships, not getting them, waiting. Especially as a Master’s degree, it’s a short program. So, I felt like since they have a TV station and I don’t have to wait to apply for an internship, I can take courses and this gives me hands on access to the field right away.

CHIKA: Right.

ERICA: Um, so I went back to school and then I would move out back to New York and then I went out to Long Island once a week to work for their TV station, so it was a journey. It was a lot, but it was worth it. I had to get up at like 4am – I lived in Inwood – get up at 4am to go get the train, the Double R, LIRR, go all the way down to 34th street, get the LIRR, hop on the train…the other campus, Old Westbury, be there all day. You know working in the studio, working in the field, using equipment. We were even editing on tape, they were so behind, like tape deck (laughs). Putting a package together, be there until six, seven o’clock, the piece would air. Get back on the train from Old Westbury, go all the way back into the city. So, I did that for a good year and half, until I graduated.

CHIKA: And what made you take the jump to Ghana?

How do you pack your whole life into a suitcase and move to another continent by yourself?

erica ayisi

ERICA: While I was at NYIT for my Master’s, I knew that – I was very specific for my Master’s education – so I knew I wanted to have foreign news experience or international experience so during my Master’s I called family in Ghana and said, ‘I have some Master’s graduate credit that I need to use. Does anyone have, do you know any stations there that would take me on as an intern?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ So, I got an internship at a brand new station in Ghana and I interned there, I think, a year or so during my graduate studies, during a summer and when I completed the internship they offered me a job, a fulltime job, upon completion of my degree. So, I went back to New York, finished my Master’s, packed up again and moved to Ghana a little bit more permanently and was there for a year and I worked for ETV Ghana.

CHIKA: What was that experience like, especially when you first came in? Talk to me about your first week there.

ERICA: Oh gosh. This is 10 years ago! (Laughs) So, girl, you’re taking me back.

CHIKA: Your first week, what do you remember? Was it exhausting, stressful or were you just giddy with excitement?

ERICA: I know the first couple of weeks I didn’t work. That I know. I just graduated and I was tired. I left Boston. I left from Boston and it was like a blizzard and I remember thinking wow, I’m gonna be on-air, how do I pack for reporting on air when I’m in a blizzard in Boston? I remember that clearly, trying to find clothes to report in in West Africa when I was in two feet of snow, here. I remember that and just how do you pack your whole life into a suitcase and move to another continent by yourself? So, with all that, I remember getting into Ghana and I didn’t work for like three weeks. (Laughs)

And I just hung out with family ‘cause I just finished my Master’s degree and I was in New York, packed up my apartment in New York to my mother’s basement in Boston and packed up Boston and moved to Ghana so it was a lot going on. So, when I eventually started ETV, I don’t remember the first full week, but I remember my first story. My first story was an interview with Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife. She was holding a birthday party for him, what would have been his birthday, I think his 60th, a beach party for him. So that was my first assignment that I remember, that was my first day, as a full-time employee because remember I had been there previously as an intern. So that was my first day and I remember thinking, ‘Oh she’s holding a party for Bob Marley and she’s taking interviews; I’d love to do that story.’ It was late at night so I remember kind of hanging around the studio all day, maybe I shadowed someone, but it was a late-night story and I went to the beach and met Rita Marley and had a quick interview with her talking about Bob Marley and his legacy and his vision for Africa. That was a great first assignment as my first day on the job.

Watch Erica Ayisi’s 2011 story on Bob Marley’s posthumous birthday bash in Accra, Ghana

And after that I did a wide range of stories, local politics, water shortages, sanitation. There was a cholera outbreak, I remember covering that. Maybe I did some stories in the villages around Accra. Ah, I know I covered, I went to Elmina Castle? Um, no, went to Cape Coast Castle, covered a story there of black Americans visiting Cape Coast and this was at a time when they [the castles] weren’t as popular as they are now. That’s for sure, covered the slave castles many times since then and they did not have the popularity that they have had since the Year of Return and that is a fact. They were empty. It was actually quite difficult getting people to interview. You just had to sit and wait. People weren’t, they weren’t flocking to the slave castles ten years ago, as they are now. And as a diasporan, the stories there were very interesting to me because I was born and raised in the States and that was the center of the slave trade, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. So, I was honored to have such quick access to go there and do some reporting. So, I remember doing that.

Erica on location, reporting on ”Essay: Looking For Clues in Elmina Castle, A Slave Trade House of Horror” for NBC News

And of course, you know being exposed to the culture, especially work culture. You know I had visited Ghana many times as a kid, and when you go as a kid, you’re a kid. Well, when you go anywhere as a visitor, you’re a visitor. But it’s different when you go somewhere and you work. It’s a totally different experience. So, you know, I had my challenges with that. At that time, dumsor [power outages in Ghana] was big. Had to use an XLR with the mics and the lights would go out consistently for a very long period and experiencing that was new for me because I was this girl, just graduated from New York and I was very much an Afropolitan and my clock has to go off at a certain time and I remember waking up and ‘Wait, why is it so bright outside?’ The lights went out! So, my alarm clock never went off (laughs) and I was late for work and no one told me. So, I had those, those happened to me a few times. I remember going into the office, the newsroom and it was a Monday and I was like ‘Oh where is everybody?’ And it was a long holiday. You know, Ghanaians have Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday. (Laughs)

CHIKA: (Laughs) Wow.

ERICA: I didn’t know everybody was home.

CHIKA: So, you just showed up to the office and you’re the only one there?

ERICA: Yeah, or you know some maintenance or security manager would be there doing some work on their own. But you know, it was Easter Monday or Christmas Monday or whatever, Boxing Monday. I didn’t know every Sunday holiday had a Monday off.

CHIKA: Yeah.

ERICA: (Laughs) You know, no one told me. It was a lot of getting used to and adjusted to.

CHIKA: The internship, how did you set that that up? Was it your university that had to dialogue with the station?

ERICA: My cousin. I called a cousin and said ‘I want to come for an internship in Ghana. Do you know any stations that would take me as an intern?’ That was really self-initiated and he said ‘yeah.’ My school had nothing to do with it. He said, ‘yes,’ because I was a student and had a summer off and needed, I could earn credit and like I said I knew I wanted international experience and so I started where I knew I had a place to stay. And so, I went to Ghana and ETV was brand new at that time, maybe it was like six months old. It was a brand new station and my cousin knew some of the management at the station and he just made the connection and I became an intern for the summer. 

Erica’s on her first job in journalism, reporting on traffic in Accra for ETV Ghana

CHIKA: In practical terms, can you talk about how you had to presented yourself to the news editor for him to take you on as an intern? What was that conversation like?

ERICA: I would say I didn’t have to do that. I didn’t really have to do that because my cousin set it up. I didn’t have to interview; I guess I was fortunate in that way. He literally knew the management of that TV station and called them and said, ‘I have a niece, she’s coming from America and she’s looking for internship experience. Can you take her on?’ And they said, yes. And I don’t, so that’s how that was, I didn’t apply or interview. I guess that was that African privilege! And that’s what I used and it helped. It worked. So, I think when I got to Ghana after resting for a couple of weeks, he brought me in, you know we spoke, about, you know. I told them I know how to write, shoot and edit because I was already doing that in school and they said ‘OK, we’ll take you on as an intern.’’ So that’s really how that was. I didn’t have to interview per se, because I think the door was already open for me.

CHIKA: Got it. So what were your responsibilities as an intern?

ERICA: Oh gosh, girl you taking me back! (Laughs) So many years ago! I don’t know, intern stuff, right? (Laughs) I was shadowing and the station was really new. There was nothing formal like, ‘oh, this is our program for interns.’ It’s Ghana and it’s a brand new station and everybody was very young. I remember that. Everybody was fresh out of college. I’m not even sure if anyone was over like 35. Everybody was very, very young and it was a young station with a young staff and um, it had a young entertainment focus type of presence. They just had an evening show at night, so as an intern I remember shadowing, just shadowing the other anchors, shadowing the other reporters. And then it was time, towards the end, you know I asked to do my own stories. I wanted to do my own stories at the end. I didn’t shoot them but I produced, wrote them and really fielded my own stories, towards the end and that’s when they offered me a job, and uh, I took the job, just came back to New York, finished my degree and went back.

CHIKA: As an intern, were you ever on-air?

ERICA: Yes, my stories were on air, yeah.

CHIKA: OK.

ERICA: They’re still on YouTube somewhere.

Erica conducting an interview for short documentary about a skateboarding community in Busua, Ghana 2017

CHIKA: So why did you decide to continue to work in Ghana?

ERICA: Well, I only did that one job there as a fulltime person and then I came back. I didn’t stay that long. I stayed no more than a year. Then I came back to the States, um, and when I came back to the States, where did I work from there? Um, when I came back, that’s when I worked for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. So, I was only in Ghana fulltime for about a year.

…when all of those decisions culminated into a full-time job offer in Africa, it just showed me that all of my decisions were the right decisions and worked out for me quite perfectly.

erica ayisi

CHIKA: So after the internship and they offered you a job, were you surprised that they offered it to you? Were you hoping that would happen?

ERICA: Um, you know, I’m pretty stoic about things so (laughs). I was happy that they offered it to me. I felt like, yes, all my decisions paid off, for sure, because I was specific with my Master’s degree. In my Master’s degree, I was specific in getting an internship and I was specific about getting an international news internship so in turn, when all of those decisions culminated into a full-time job offer in Africa, it just showed me that all of my decisions were the right decisions and worked out for me quite perfectly.

CHIKA: That’s great.

ERICA: And of course, you know, had challenges on the job. It’s just, learning, you know I was in a new job, new field, new country, but all of my decisions had worked out and I was very happy about that.

CHIKA: And any plans to perhaps go back and do some reporting on the continent?

I love stories where black people and water meet.

ERICA AYISI

ERICA: Well, it’s been 10 years, 11 years now since that experience, so I’ve been back several times just not as a full-time person but as a freelance independent journalist. So within the last 10 years, I’ve been back. I’ve been to Ghana several times as a freelancer writing for NBC News and their different verticals. Who else have I written for? Um, I have a couple other outlets as well but I’ve written on chocolate and the emergence of women taking on the chocolate industry as entrepreneurs in Africa, considering, you know, the cocoa beans do come from West Africa so that’s been great to cover. And I’ve also covered it for the Lonely Planet book which has been great to be published in a book, especially Lonely Planet and especially covering Africa and chocolate so that was a fantastic opportunity to have and I also covered Ivory Coast and chocolate for them. I’ve covered surfing in Ghana. That’s probably one of my most favorite stories. I love stories where black people and water meet. (Laughs) It’s just something about it, yeah, just makes me so excited to be, to have that kind of, like a counter narrative because you know you – especially in the States – you always here, ‘black people don’t do this and black people don’t swim and black people don’t surf.’ Well actually we do, right? We do swim and we do surf and we do it in Africa and win awards. That was a great story to work on and to be able to surf with people who look like – well, I can’t surf. I fell off the surf board so many times! (Laughs) But it was fun to be with people who have my skin color and they’re showing me this is what they do, this is their sport and they’re winning at it and that was just so dope to have that story and expand what black people and Africans are doing.

I love opportunities that take me to the continent.

Erica ayisi

What else have I covered? Let’s see. I’ve covered Goree Island in Senegal. That’s on my blog, as well. Again, those counternarratives of the beautiful raw ocean and then juxtaposed with such, let’s see, atrocity of slavery. That just always stands out to me. How can something so horrific happen somewhere that’s so beautiful? So I’ve looked at that from slave castles – or houses, because there’s nothing palatial about them – in Senegal.

So I love opportunities that take me to the continent, for sure. I hope to be in the continent again in the next month and really seeing what’s going on there and the stories that are coming out of the continent are so horrible and inspiring and they’re so many stories to tell. There’s not just one so I’m happy to have learned skills to kind of be that conduit, that middle person who can gather – who has the interest – and then to gather and report back information.

CHIKA: If you were not from Ghana, if you didn’t have the Ghanaian heritage, would you have chosen Ghana or would you have considered other African countries?

…we’re hearing a lot of West Africa. We’re not hearing a lot of East Africa and I would love to be able to amplify music, art and culture on the other side of the continent.

ERICA AYISI

ERICA: It’s hard for me to say because I can’t look at myself other than what I am, you know, so there’s a sense of comfort, oh at least, I know I want Africa news experience so of course, I’ll start where there’s a place of comfort of what I know, so I went there and started there. I’m open to other countries, for sure. I would love to explore East Africa because I think with, especially with so much African music right now and afrobeats and how it’s become mainstream in the American sense, but we’re hearing a lot of West Africa. We’re not hearing a lot of East Africa and I would love to be able to amplify music, art and culture on the other side of the continent. Also, in terms of fashion, everything we see is coming from West Africa. Ankara, you know, we’re hearing that word all over the place and again these are all West African fashion which, you know is fine and beautiful and great and bright, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we have a whole continent to explore so you also have East Africa and I’m interested in hearing their sounds and seeing what they’re wearing and what’s happening on the other side of the continent.

ERICA: Again, we have the very known jollof wars, which are great and fun. It brings culture. It’s a healthy war to have, right? No one died. It’s just jollof! (Laughs). But I wanna hear what are they eating in East Africa, too. You know what I mean? Do they love hot pepper, like, that’s just a West Africa thing? I wanna hear what’s happening over there, so I think there’s so much to explore with the continent. And through my work with travelling back and forth over the years to the continent, I’ve developed a small business called Akosua’s Closet which is named after me. My Ghanaian name is Akosua, a baby girl born on Sunday and with Akosua’s Closet I have lots of goods from Ghana and Senegal and different countries but it’s a great opportunity, direct hands-on opportunity for me to lift up voices and arts and culture and style and fashion from East Africa. I have beautiful jewelry from Nairobi and it looks very different from jewelry from Senegal which I think is great. And I think that’s what the power of journalism is, creative storytelling in multiple ways.

Erica’s report on Ghanaians fleeing Libya for ETV

CHIKA: What do you think about the responsibility that some people of African descent feel in terms of reporting on Africa?

ERICA: Well, I think it’s individual. I think if you want to report on Africa as an African, for sure. But do you only have to? No, and it’s kind of like in the States where, if you’re the black reporter do you only have to report on black issues or should your news director only ask you to report on black issues? I think if you have the freedom and choice to say no, and if you do want to go for it, go ahead. But you don’t have to only do that. I think if you can expand, for sure. I think journalism is about that curiosity and if you’re curious on how people live geographically, go ahead and tell those stories. I’m interested in African narratives, but that doesn’t mean I’m interested in African narratives from people who only live in Africa. I’m very interested to see where Africans are living in some of the most off-the-beaten track places you wouldn’t even think of. We need to see what’s happening over there too.

I think there’s room for everyday life in Africa to be a part of mainstream coverage in the American sense.

ERICA AYISI

CHIKA: So why are you interested in African narratives specifically?

ERICA: I’m interested in African narratives because I think they’re underreported. What we have out there is marginalized, right? When we hear of Africa, we hear of war and famine and disease. But we know there are stories that expand further than that and as a first generation African and Ghanaian, those are not the stories I heard in my house. So I heard stories of community, heard stories of family, heard stories of culture and tradition but that’s not what I saw on TV, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s – you know, that was the peak of AIDS, right? And ebola, you know, it wasn’t kente fashion and all the Congressmen wearing it (laughs). You know?

I wanted to know more for myself and I wanted to share that with people, to expand on what they know.

CHIKA: How do you think the coverage has been since the ‘80s, you know, since those images of war, AIDS and famine in Ethiopia were perpetuated in newspapers. How do you think the coverage has been?

I still think mainstream American news coverage will only go to Africa when there’s disease, war, famine.

erica ayisi

ERICA: I think it’s evolving, it’s not perfect. It’s slowly evolving but it depends on where you’re getting you’re information from so I think there’s room for everyday life in Africa to be a part of mainstream coverage in the American sense, you know. I still think mainstream American news coverage will only go to Africa when there’s disease, war, famine, but I think there was a missed opportunity, for example, with the Year of Return [in Ghana]. It wasn’t covered as widely as it should have been. I mean that was the first time in modern history where the president of an African nation [Ghana] specifically told African diasporans who are victims, really, of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to come home. The president said come home, wherever you are, if you define as a person of color, if you define as black, come home. Just get here. Just get here, you know just come home for the holidays and people listened all over the world. People listened and went home. That was the largest migration of people back to Africa since they were probably involuntarily moved from the continent and it wasn’t covered.

It wasn’t covered. Even BET in America failed; it wasn’t covered. I remember putting it on and you’re still showing like Baby Boy and that was a missed opportunity because people went from America, from the UK, from The Caribbean and they made friends, met friends and built community with locals on the ground. They saw people that they went to college with. They saw their professors. They engaged. You know some people say, ‘oh, all they went to do is party.’ Hey that’s fine, at least they went. At least they booked a ticket. They got immunization shots. They got a visa. They took a long flight and they went. And it was missed opportunity.

CHIKA: I did see some of these stories in CNN and the BBC so when you say it wasn’t covered, what type of coverage were you looking for and hoping to see?

ERICA: I was hoping to see at least BET have a live feed. Essence did a whole panel [at Ghana’s Year of Return]. Boris Kodjoe was there running panels, having discussions. I would have liked to see that. I would have liked to have seen the concerts. Have a live feed, just like how they do, what’s the big one that MSNBC does over the summer, the Global Citizen, and they just have a live feed of concerts throughout the day. Someone should have had a live feed of the concerts, the speeches, the slave castles, the numbers of people going. I saw a couple things after with the different news outlets and the on-demand channels, but as it was happening? I don’t know. I didn’t see a lot of coverage. Where did you see coverage? You said you saw it on CNN.

CHIKA: Yeah, nothing live. Just articles about African-Americans going to Africa, just those 800-word articles of people explaining their stories and motives for going to Ghana. Why do you think something like this was missed so glaringly?

ERICA: You’d have to ask those stations. Maybe they didn’t see it as news, you know. Maybe they didn’t think it would hold viewership, that people would change the channel, maybe they didn’t think it was interesting. Maybe. I don’t know.

Take the risk and go.

ERICA AYISI

CHIKA: This opens up the conversation on the need to have more people of African descent in these international newsrooms, especially holding editorial positions where they can make decisions.

ERICA: Perhaps, to let news directors know, because, I mean that was a movement. That was a movement. That was historic. I don’t think it was captured really well and the money that Ghana made and the experiences that people had. Isn’t that the essence of America, the immigrant story? That’s the American story, the immigrant story. It’s a country of immigrants and immigrants, black immigrants were invited to go home and they went and America didn’t really cover it.

CHIKA: Did you do any stories about this, Ghana’s Year of Return?

ERICA: No, I didn’t do any stories. You know it’s interesting – and I’m talking about all this crap now, like ‘oh, did I cover it?’ No, I didn’t. I remember going in 2017, I remember going to one of the early Year of Return conferences and then when it was happening [the Year of Return] like 2019, 2020, I actually pitched it to BET. My pitch was not accepted and I don’t have a specific reason why and I’m an independent journalist so I need someone to pick up my story so I can have the funds to go. So that wasn’t gonna happen on my own. I was able to catch videos here and there but I think it [the coverage of the Year of Return] could have been elevated a bit more and we need to have – as you said – Africans in the newsrooms to be able to pitch these stories. So, this wasn’t a story. This was a movement.

CHIKA: I remember pitching it to the New York Times, this “go to Ghana” and the “move to Africa” movement and they said they weren’t interested. They weren’t convinced of the numbers, that there was a large amount of people going for this, you know, so.

Black people are seeking out Africa more than ever before.

erica ayisi

ERICA: Well, look at what’s happening in America with the racial injustice and people who are talking about moving back permanently. Maybe they’ll wanna talk about it then. You know, black people are seeking out Africa more than ever before.

CHIKA: How would you advise people to take steps, you know, if you have someone who wants to report on the continent, but they just feel like ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do? I’ve never travelled outside of my Western country.’ How would advise them to go about it?

What are you curious about within Africa and that can be really broad, but it’s a place to start…

ERICA AYISI

ERICA: Think of a story you wanna do in a place where you’d want to visit and I think anything starts as a journalist, as a reporter, it starts with that inner curiosity within yourself. What are you curious about within Africa and that can be really broad, but it’s a place to start and then how can you narrow it down to a country, to a place, to a village, to a locale. And really start with your curiosity and using your skills to narrow it down to a specific story. Then, really do your research and see what’s happening on the ground there and how can you be a part of telling that story and then if you have fears or questions or concerns, at that point, reach out to other journalists. See if you can find, whatever country that you’re interested in, see their local paper, a couple of their daily local papers. Reach out to those journalists writing some articles. Reach out to them – Twitter. See if they have their own website and try to form a connection and really just ask questions. I’m interested in your country. I’m interested in perhaps covering a story there. Can you have some time to talk about this story more? And I think they can give you the inside information on what’s really happening on the ground and who you need to connect to to make your story happen and if you have any concerns about life in the country. I think they can give you the specific information that you’re looking for and that’s what I’ve had to do with different stories that I’ve covered. You know I’ve worked in Cambodia before and I’ve never worked in Asia, southeast Asia in my life before and I had no idea what to experience there but you do your best to do due diligence as a journalist and ask questions. And some things you won’t know until you’re there, until you’re actually on the ground and it’s happening and that’s when you build experience. But I would say meet local journalists on the ground. Ask your questions and if you’re interested in that country, see if you can get some funding to cover it or if you have a channel you’re already working with and if there’s an angle to connect it to your local channel or your local paper, that’s a good approach as well.

But take the risk and go.

Definitely take the risk and go. Do your trainings if there’s any trainings you have to do ahead of time. See if you can get connected to a fellowship or grant. They can also be a great resource for telling you different issues on the ground, security issues that may pertain to your country. And also joy in the country. Africa is not all war-torn and famine and disease. I’ve never covered war and I’ve covered Africa a bit. You don’t have to think that to cover Africa, it’s war and disease because it’s not. I will say, it’s Africa and it’s hot! Not everywhere of course, but not everything is war, famine and disease.

And those stories are important to tell. There are places of corruption, even in Ghana, you know. There are stories of corruption. There are stories of disease. Look at COVID-19 and they’re saying some countries in Africa may not be able to deliver the vaccine. So, there are those stories that are important to tell, but they are not the only stories to tell.

CHIKA: So if those stories of war, corruption, famine are important, why haven’t you told those stories?

I don’t wanna come in and say I’m here for two weeks just to tell this war and leave. I don’t think that’s fair…

erica ayisi

ERICA: Those don’t interest me in my particular niche as a journalist. Some of them do, but not all of them, in my particular niche. Not every journalist has a niche. You can be wide; you can be a general assignment reporter, for sure, but I value feature stories. It can be a war story, but a feature story that’s standing within that. You know, you can have something as large as, like what you cover with Boko Haram. It’s war and terrorism but there could be that heart, that smaller story, that feature story that’s within that story as well. So for me personally, the larger war story – because I don’t live there fulltime so I’m not there to fully grasp and I think with war and terrorism you have to be there probably all the time so that you tell the story well and with context – I don’t wanna come in and say I’m here for two weeks just to tell this war and leave. I don’t think that’s fair, you know what I mean? And some people do that and I think some of the bigger networks will send their team because an atrocity has happened and they’ll send them there for five or six days. Maybe even less, to do that, but I don’t want to do that to somebody’s history because I don’t know it that well. So I focus on the features stories that have time to be fleshed out with more details. When I interviewed the girls on chocolate – it’s a feature story, chocolate is warm and fuzzy and everybody loves chocolate, but there’s child slavery within that and that was an opportunity for these young entrepreneurs to talk about it and we were able to talk about it. So you can have feature stories and still hit some of those pressing, hard issues as well and that’s what I try to do.

CHIKA: Is it accurate to call your niche, lifestyle stories or even human interest?

ERICA: Mmm, hmmm. Lifestyle, human interest.

CHIKA: Does your identity as a black woman, does that affect your storytelling as a journalist? How do you navigate being a black woman and being a journalist?

ERICA: I think with anything more of late, I would say, more of late, it comes through in not positioning black women, the African woman as strong and it’s not saying that we’re weak. But I try not to have this narrative that we can take on anything. That we’re so strong, we don’t have feelings. We’re so strong, we don’t have emotions. We’re so strong, we can birth fifteen babies. We’re so strong, we can deal with all kinds of people, men, doing us dirty. I think as a journalist, I’m trying to dispel that notion and not carry that in any narrative.

CHIKA: When you’re reporting on stories related to black people are you conscious that you are also black or does that not ever have an effect?

ERICA: Yes. I think in the questions that you ask. Mmm, hmm.

CHIKA: How so? Because this really goes into some questions about do black people report on issues related to Africa in a way that’s different than other reporters? For instance, Black Lives Matter. A lot of news stations, they sent out their African-American reporters to cover it, thinking that maybe the coverage would be different than having a white reporter do it. What do you think about this?

ERICA: I think the language would be different. I think the language would be different. I think the sensitivity and questions would be different. Yeah, I think the questioning would be different.

CHIKA: So when you were reporting in Ghana, were you conscious of your identity, your Ghanaian heritage?

Those were firsts for me, to be in an all-black office, an all-black newsroom.

ERICA AYISI

ERICA: Yes, for me, I remember really during my internship, it was like, ‘I’m in Ghana as an adult working’ versus, ‘I’m a kid and I’m here on vacation.’ I think, I remember profoundly during the internship feeling like ‘Wow, I’m going to work and I’m a black woman and everybody here is black.’ That was a first for me. I grew up in Massachusetts and then being in New York and stuff, a multicultural environment, but that was a heavy strong first. Wow, I’m black and everybody here is black. Like wow, I really haven’t seen a white face for a couple of days. Those were firsts for me, to be in an all-black office, an all-black newsroom. That doesn’t mean it didn’t have its own challenges, of course we’re all still human. But that was a first and very strong for me – that everybody here looks like me.

CHIKA: What are some other stories, or the next story you’d like to do from the continent?

ERICA: I’d to look at climate change in coastal communities. You know climate change impacts some of the most impoverished people and forgotten people in the world. Again, I love stories of black people and the water and what’s happening because of climate change. There’s less land. There’s less beach. There’s less sand on the land. There are islands that have disappeared due to coastal erosion. So I’d like to look at climate change on the continent, for sure…

I’m interested in lost languages and are we losing our languages within Africa? It’s funny because I’m a diasporan who can see things from both lenses, you know and black Americans are like, ‘We want more Africa. We want it all’ and Africans are like, ‘I want no Africa. Get it all away!” Are we losing our languages? Even at the station I worked at ETV, the boss was adamant, “English! Speak English!” I’m in Ghana and I have the worst Twi on the planet (laughs). Can’t speak my native tongue. I wanna know my language, you know, and my country is telling me to stop speaking it at work! They really wanted English in the office, and so are we losing our languages? And looking at the younger people in schools in the villages, we want a global society. We want children to be able to speak in many languages so that we can trade and have access to education and meeting people, but are we losing our language as well within that? So I would like to explore that some more.

CHIKA: And congratulations on getting the NABJ Ethel Payne Fellowship!

ERICA: Thank you.

CHIKA: So what stories are we gonna see from that fellowship?

ERICA: You know, that’s tough because we’re in this pandemic era which compromises where you can go and how long you can go and all that, but I’d like to look at climate change with this fellowship. Also, looking at technology and the advancement of artificial intelligence in Africa and what the young people are doing in terms of technology to solve their own problems. Africa has always been the heart of innovation and we’re not hearing that anymore. But I think there’s young people who are using science and technology and advancements to solve their own problems. We saw it with COVID with young people doing what they can to make their own water pumps along roadsides so people can wash hands and deliver masks and the use of drones to get COVID tests to villages and get them back in time to the city where they can get the results and really exploring that some more and who’s using technology to solve their own problems. I’d also like to look at stolen art in the continent and what different initiatives are doing to bring back the art that has been taken from them and that’s in the museums of Europe and in the places across the world. So I think with this grant, there’s a lot to explore. Even though we have travel challenges and COVID, we have YouTube that can bring us together. We have Zoom that can bring us together, so I hope to use it in a way that’s not just talking heads on screen. That’s my big thing, I want to use it in a way that no matter where you are, people can see varied images of Africa so that’s really my biggest goal.

CHIKA: Well, alright! Looking forward to seeing those stories and thanks so much for opening up and telling us about your journey.

ERICA: OK, thank you. I hope people are inspired to go to Africa and see what’s out there. Be curious, I know we all are. I hope that people are inspired to be curious and go do that African story you wanna do. I know people are gonna love it.

2 thoughts on “Series: How to move to Africa as a journalist #2: Erica Ayisi

  1. Great piece. You doing a good job. I would welcome diaspora journalists willing to come to Africa with one year free accommodation in Nigeria. I’ve worked as a UN correspondent and know the attraction and challenges in Africa

    Like

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