Hello, awesome readers! You all have been waiting for a new post, and I’ve got a great one for you. It’s the third edition of the “How to move to Africa as a journalist” series. In this series, I have deep conversations with reporters who have reported on-the-ground, in an African country. I’ve spoken to Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal and my very good friend/freelance journalist, Erica Ayisi.
Now, I am so honored to present Melissa Chemam!
Melissa and I had an incredible conversation. It was exactly the sort of conversation I like to have with people. Melissa has a remarkable mind, an acute intelligent and a fascinating world view, and I found that she and I have similar perspectives. Perhaps, we’re even kindred spirits in a sense, from what I gathered when I spoke to her back in July. The interview felt more like a delightful chat with a friend actually. She shared her inner thoughts and bold observations on race, society and interpersonal relationships.
Melissa reached out to me back in May after my introductory “How to move to Africa as a journalist” post and mentioned that she had moved to Kenya for the BBC in 2010, after being based in the U.S. and London. Then, I responded back to mention that I’d like to feature her in the series. She said yes, and so we’re here.
Coincidentally, we realized that we had communicated years ago. When she was freelance reporting for RFI, Radio France and Le Monde, she contacted me back in 2015 to ask about Nigeria’s presidential election that year. She interviewed me and six years later, I’ve just interviewed her. You see how life makes this cool connections?
During the interview for this post, Melissa told me that reporting in Africa was the best thing that ever happened to her. Amazing, right? Let me put that in bold letters because it is a declaration. Melissa told me that:
reporting in Africa was the best thing that ever happened to her.
(I put that in bold later down in this post, too!)
Melissa is a journalist, former foreign correspondent, podcaster, researcher, writer and she describes herself as a “bit of a Marxist.” She’s been traveling around the world, covering current affairs. Since 2004, she’s been working for television news, print, radio and documentaries. She writes primarily about art, music, multiculturalism, activism and social change. She has been based in the USA, France, Czech Republic, the UK, and East and Central Africa, for the BBC World Service, AFP, Reuters, CBC, DW, RFI, TV5, France 24 and other news outlets. She has been an associate lecturer at the University of the West of England in journalism (UWE Bristol) since October 2019, and became a Senior Lecturer in June 2021.
Now, dear reader, I implore you… keep reading to soak up Melissa’s rich insights and clever commentary. This is good stuff.
Chika: All right, well, thank you so much for your willingness to talk to me. As you know, I don’t know if you got the chance to read some of the other interviews in the series.
Melissa: Of course, I did.
Chika: Cool. I’m really excited about this topic because there is no real resource online about how to be a foreign correspondent, you know and especially how to move to Africa to work as a reporter, you know? So, I created this resource for students and working journalists and professionals in related fields. So, I read your background and I was so fascinated. You’ve been in so many places, so I’m curious to see how some of your living experiences have affected others, what you’ve picked up along the way and things like that. So, let’s just start with an introduction. How do you want the readers to know you?
Melissa: Well, so I’m primarily a journalist, but I’m also a writer and a broadcaster and I’ve worked for a lot of filmmakers and podcasts and I’m a bit of a nomad. So, I was born in Paris in France. My parents are from Algeria in North Africa. So, I guess I’ve always felt the urge to go everywhere else, you know, to not be in one place and now living in West England, which would have been unexpected after all these wonderful places especially warm countries or heavily historically impacted places. Like, you know, my journey took me along what some historians used to call the Triangular Trade route, right? I moved to Miami ‘cause I worked with a Haitian filmmaker [Raoul Peck], then I moved to London, then to East Africa… I mean it’s been you know, and it was not planned to be some sort of researcher on history. It was just obviously, I don’t know, random, unconscious or maybe you know, guess, this time, you never really know, right. So yeah, that’s me now and now I write mostly from Europe on issues that impact people from the diaspora and what we call multiculturalism. I mean, I envision this term meant different things in different periods so it’s not very fashionable these days. It was much more valuable in the ’80s and then it became a bit like, you know, overused and now it’s criticized on every side but, you know, trying to reflect on why is it such a thing while for people like you and me it’s probably quite natural for us to think of having multi-layers of culture. And I’m also a lecturer at the University of the West of England in journalism.
Chika: How did you decide to be a journalist? Like when did you consciously say, I’m going to become a journalist?
Melissa: So, when I was a child, so both my parents didn’t finish school because of their history in their country. So, I was a bit of like, you know, I was a year ahead in school, very much in love with the local library and all of my desks, and you know. The first books in the house were books that I was given because I was good at school. So, it was a new way for me. And I think when I was a teenager, I had this secret desire to be a writer, like both non-fiction writer and a novelist. I wanted to be some sort of Ernest Hemingway, but it was a massive taboo to say that cause in my family they wanted me to have a solid job and all my teachers thought, “You know, children of immigrants. It’s not for you. You can just, go step-by-step. Maybe you can become a primary school teacher and your children might have dreams.” You see what I mean?
So I kept that for myself and I wrote a lot and, ’cause I was passionate about travel. I wanted to see the world and very soon, you know, around 17, 18, it became obvious that the best way to write and travel, you know, learn, meet people, would be journalism. So yeah, I think that came quite quickly. Once I was sort of like a young adult, right, I think at 13 I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be a working woman.
Chika: Why was it a taboo. Would you say that was just in your family or the general society felt it was a taboo?
Melissa: I think maybe that was mostly my perception that yeah it was a taboo because it’s not making money and it’s a bit elitist and so people would tell me, “You will fail, you will never be a journalist.” So people told me that nicely, like friends, their parents will say, “No, no, no it’s not for people like you. You need a sort of background. You need money.” Or teachers will be like, oh, it’s risky, and my mum would like say, “No, have a solid job where you can earn an income.” And then of course there was a lot of perception then that it’s for the elite. It’s for certain kind of people to write and to be in the news. But, of course, I’m a daydreamer and a stubborn person so if you tell me you can’t do it, I’m like ‘hmm that sounds interesting’ and ‘why do I really want it?’ It was a bit of a surprise when I finished high school, I told my parents I’m deciding to study the arts, humanity, history and I want to become a journalist, and they had no say in it. It was too late.
…people would tell me, “You will fail, you will never be a journalist.”Melissa Chemam
Chika: Wow. So, is it also because I mean you are a woman, so was there a particular perception of a woman who was kind of roving? Did that also have something to do with it? Tell me more about that.
Melissa: I’m sure it was a lot about that because I heard so many times and also my Dad was a driver and he didn’t want to pay for my driving license. He says, oh, get yourself a job and you sort it out. So I decided never to drive and I also never saw him because he’s always working. So, I always heard, “You can’t drive; you’re not strong enough; you’re not tall enough; you’re not courageous enough and you’re a woman; it’s a dangerous environment.” For sure, it was always this sort of echo. Even at journalism school and even when I was working as a journalist, people told me, “You can’t be a foreign correspondent. It’s dangerous; you are a woman; you’re not strong enough. Don’t try.” So it’s the same narrative, which is, of course, it’s impacting your brain right?
Chika: Yes, yes.
Melissa: My sister’s a doctor, so she didn’t have that. She [got] a lot of encouragement, like it’s great for a family of immigrants to have a doctor and for a woman it’s a great job, I mean obviously they’re gonna work too much but you know there were no such things like it’s dangerous or you need to be some sort of super hero. I also heard from a lot of editors when I was an intern that, you know, a good journalist drinks a lot and smokes a lot and has a very fascinating life. He’s got women on his side. So, it’s not a woman’s treat; it’s just a man’s treat.
Chika: Yeah, I really want to get into some of those stereotypes. And who was actually telling you this, was it your white male colleagues? Just kind of break that down a little bit.
Melissa: Always white male, absolutely. And I grew up in a world that was very, very white. I guess it was because my Dad, he didn’t want to live in a social housing or a poor environment so we paid this expensive rent to be — in a quite — not a classy suburb but a bit middle class so most of my friends were from other parts of France and very white except for my best friend who was half-Greek. And her parents were in the arts so they were way more open minded and they probably changed my life in a way, so I discovered music and films with them that I would never have come across and then it opened my mind and it gave me confidence and stuff. But yes, it was mostly that teachers were very discouraging, a lot, but that’s because the system, the education system is a lot about discouraging the hoi polloi, we say in English right, coming from the Greek. The populace, the poor and see who resists and who is good enough and strong enough, so they always tell you you’re not good enough which I think is a horrible way to think about education. But it’s changing probably. But it was like that when I was a kid and when I was a student, even more. So teachers would say, teachers told me all my life, you can’t do what you wanna do, including going to the second year of my program when you had to have such a level, they say you can’t do it. All year long (laughs).
Chika: Wow. It sounds like that was a strategy to see who’s gonna rise to the top kind of thing, like tough love?
Melissa: Yeah, yeah exactly, tough love. That’s the thing. They don’t mean to discriminate, but I think because they were white they didn’t realize that they had, in a class of 60 students, they had me from a North African indigene background and a guy from Vietnam, no black people, and they were, for them it was not the same sort of discourse, because you would hear that also on other levels regarding other things and also, yeah it depends on – I didn’t have a community to grow with. Like both my parents, their families stayed in Algeria and they didn’t have local friends. So, it was a bit of a lonely life – no grandparents, no aunty, no uncle, no cousin and luckily, I was shy but had a lot of friends but it’s not the same, so you feel alone. There’s lots of things you can’t talk about and when you have a dream it’s just staying in your head. So, maybe it helped in some way that I just kept thinking about it, right.
Chika: So, do you think, like being a bit alone is also what inspired this? I find that a lot of foreign correspondents have this certain personality type where they are okay being by themselves, and maybe introverts. They, myself included, are dreamers.
Melissa: I think, first, it’s a very lonely life. People, when they’re young they picture Hemingway parties and love fests. I mean it can happen if you’re lucky but it’s a lot of superficial encounters and very short. Funny, right? Especially if you are foreign correspondent, whether you work for an agency or you’re freelance, you’re gonna have to move somewhere else, find more work in some ways or they’re gonna move you somewhere where there’s more activity as soon as you are well trained. You know, you’re good at what you’re doing, so they send you to a place where something’s happening, I mean, it’s just, it’s how the news works, right? So, I think for me it was funny because I’m totally an introvert and of course you become more social because you talk to so many people as a journalist. But it was a tug of war because being lonesome, sometimes you become lonely as well but it’s like no presence is as satisfying as your own mind, because you are so, you know, it’s like you’re trying to get close to people. It’s never close or intense enough so you go back to your shell and that’s why you keep on writing or creating. I think musicians could say the same thing, right? They look like they’re touring and having fun but, in the end, they need to be with their instruments and that’s why I think England has got a lot of musicians. It’s raining outside. It’s ugly, suburb, in Birmingham, wherever, so you just stay in your cave with your guitar.
Chika: Yeah, yeah. I’m smiling ‘cause I can totally resonate with what you’re saying. It’s all resonating. So, I’m like yeah!
Melissa: Oh, that’s interesting!
Chika: Yeah, because, the lonely aspect, as you said being by yourself can sometimes make you feel lonely. So, there’s alone and then lonely. So, talk about that feeling and how you deal with it as a foreign correspondent?
Melissa: Yes, I think I’ve always wanted to move abroad and at the root for a journalist, in journalism school [what you’re taught] is that you go, first, to a smaller city, somewhere in your country. I did that. I went to Avignon, famous for the film festival…
Chika: And the castles, right? I think they have castles, too?
Melissa: Exactly. They have a fort and it’s a very beautiful city. And then I went to Prague as a student for an exchange when I was an intern. I was working on a Chinese cinema festival and then I went to Miami. My goal was to go to London or New York but you know things happened, there’s someone else, and you have to try somehow. Well, back to the reason why I went to Miami ‘cause I guess it’s interesting. But I think the first drive is to discover the world, meet people, have an incredible, rich life right? But it’s not exactly what’s happening, and it’s not because you’re, so first you are abroad, in a country full of strangers. So for me when I went to Prague I couldn’t speak the language obviously. I learned a few lines, to be polite. I could order a bit of food in some restaurants and I could repeat the phrases you hear in the underground, but you can’t connect. Luckily, I had friends who were multilingual. I have a lot of respect for people who speak over three languages –
Chika: Yeah, me too.
Melissa: – who would always speak to me in perfect French or in English and I had American friends there who couldn’t speak anything at all, so that’s always funny. But yeah, it’s like very intense and they’re new friends but it’s just – I went to Prague for three months, then it became two and a month in the same year. Miami, I stayed there just under a year and so you don’t really have time to make people your life and I think a lot of people never talk about that but for me it was always frustrating, that especially when I was in Miami because it’s a difficult place to – it’s a bizarre place, right? It’s a new sort of place; it’s a transitional place. So, you can be with people all the time and be terribly lonely, that’s what I mean. People you hardly know or everyone’s wearing a mask of some sort you know. I met tons of journalists in Nairobi, white guys, American, Irish, British, who were always cool and you know, drinking and partying and working hard but actually deep down there’s something shattered and they are not there because they wanted to be there. Something happened to them and they floated around in the rest of the world. And I worked for the UN for short missions, for NGOs and I saw that a lot with NGO workers. There’s a lot of people that are like pretending they’re healing people or they’re helping people and they’re actually trying to heal themselves. So maybe I’m going too deep there.
You go for a place short term and though you have fun, it’s just very superficial relationships, so you can’t always count on people. Like, I remember asking someone for a radio recorder ’cause I was there with my camera I didn’t have one but I had someone, a radio, a small radio [station] interested in me doing an audio story or this sort of thing and then people just suddenly you think you know them. You’ve worked with them, but they are like ‘no, I’m not helping you’ then you realize that, you know, they’re not your friends and they’re not there for you if you need anything. It’s not even being sick or anything serious it was just like, “Can you give me that contact or how did you meet that person?” And then suddenly it’s like, they go silent, right?
Melissa: So, it does happen and you have to have a thick skin and I think you have to be passionate and there’s also a terrible story – I lost some colleagues abroad. They went through really terrible things, especially [for] French journalists, these past few years have been really awful. [A reporter], she died when I was in Central Africa. Colleagues of mine from RFI died in Mali when I was in Algeria. So, you know, you have to cope with this and you have to be aware that it can happen in a certain region where it’s always on the back of your mind and it’s on the back of the mind of your parents. So because you don’t want to worry them, then you’re not gonna tell them how dangerous it is, and stuff like that and that’s what makes you even more lonely right, when you can’t tell them the kind of work that you do.
Chika: (Laughs) Yes! Melissa, you’re such a wealth of information. Let’s break it down one by one. So just talk about how you even got entry. Did you focus on newspaper or radio? Just talk about that.
Melissa: Yes, so it was always a bit difficult, I’m not gonna lie, which I think is why I like to talk to students ’cause I’m like, if I could do this, frankly a lot of people can. It’s about being good at the job and not giving up. So, I wanted to be a writer as I said previously, but it was a bit too hard – no jobs, paying nothing and newspapers were a bit, you know, they’re not very open minded. They’re very elitist. So I did a few internships but couldn’t get a job, certainly not a letter for someone to send me because obviously to become a foreign correspondent you need a visa. You need at least someone sponsoring you because the days of people being sent out for a job, it’s almost over, right?
Like European media, we have a couple of correspondents paid in Washington, maybe Moscow depending on their interest. Al Jazeera might be paying quite well, some people in the global south like in Lagos or Nairobi and some places in Asia and maybe Delhi. So the best places for people to work are agencies ’cause they need to send people and they take care of you somehow. But for me it was all about going freelance, and so I worked in my hometown first in an international newsroom. So that was television at the time. News channel 24/7 was completely booming all over the world right after a decade of dominance from the US and then BBC World Service coming up. Everybody wanted to have their own channel so that happened in France. They wanted to have an international channel, bilingual and in English so they started sending people abroad.
So luckily with my university or with my school I had been abroad a lot, not for a long time, but it was still, you know. My English was very good, for a 25-year-old, and you know I had been to Prague, and been to Germany, Italy, the U.S. So it looks like you’re trying, right? Um, but then my first experience as a foreign correspondent, it was actually a bit crazy. I had to quit my full-time permanent job in Paris to become freelance for the TV.
Chika: What was your full-time permanent job?
Melissa: Because the job, I couldn’t like take a break, because, I had only been, I was very young, I had only been there a year and a half and they would not send me…They’ll send the guys first and of course the children of very famous journalists. It’s a very French thing. I don’t know how it is in the U.S., but most journalists are children of journalists. [Many] university researchers are children of university researchers. (Laughs)
Chika: That was at a TV station, yeah? The permanent job?
Melissa: Yes, it was a channel called France 24.
Chika: Oh, France vingt-quatre. I used to report for France vingt-quatre.
Melissa: Vingt-quatre, exactement. So, I was part of the team that launched the channel. We were working three months ahead to do all the things that had to be ready and after a year and a half I really wanted to go abroad. So I went to Miami, ‘cause I knew people who had worked there. I had worked for a filmmaker who is from Haiti and so he had a flat in Miami and he knew a lot of people, and I knew that if I went to Miami I would go to Haiti. So, I was not interested in reporting on Miami as such, I was more interested in the relations between the US and their neighbors. Yeah. So, I had been to Canada before and I couldn’t be in Washington as I said there’s always somebody there. And you know, so I thought if I want to be in another city it has to be something different, right? If you go to any of Philadelphia, or even Chicago or even LA it’s still the same thing, whether you are gonna report on the economy, you know, interview specialists of politics. Miami was a bit of a crazy place right. First, it’s a swing state, flip-floppers. Then in 2000, there was all the problems with the Bush election and you know. So, it’s always on the spot. People would look at what’s happening in Florida. Then Barack Obama was campaigning so people were like, ‘oh maybe this is fine. You know, African-American, I mean not in the traditional sense, but a Kenyan-American candidate might win for the Democrats. Florida, that would be something quite unique and that will change the relationship with Cuba, obviously. So, I thought you know it’s a very interesting spot, right? And then again, I was interested in going to the Caribbean. Then of course, it costs a lot of money; I had to buy my own camera; my own microphone… Some of that I bought once I was in the U.S. ‘cause it was easier and cheaper there and etc. But then I had to set up my little limited company. It was a lot of crazy things I was not ready to do.
“I think the first quality of a journalist is to adapt, to adapt, to adapt.”Melissa Chemam
Chika: Oh wow, you set up an LLC?
Melissa: I had a French company, so it was a bit of a mess, ‘cause I couldn’t have an American thing cause I’m not American, right? So, I had a visa but I couldn’t work in the US. I had a journalist visa which was an i-Visa, so it means that you cannot work on the U.S. soil. I mean you can get employed by someone but it was highly improbable that someone would take me full time and pay for my visa because I’m French right, so why would they need me, maybe a translation agency or you know . But anyway, it was not the goal. I worked for AFP as a freelance. I used to send them a few videos and then it was a lot of challenges. It’s like, I discovered, I should have been more aware of that but I’ve really found that on the spot that Americans, they’re not really interested in talking to foreign journalists, because they’re a bit insular in the way they think of their politics and you know, we’re all much smaller and far away and not very interesting and we do not even speak English in France. France 24, though, broadcasts in the two languages but sometimes it was really hard to get an interview with people because they were busy. You know how it is in an American electoral campaign. There’s tons of media all the time, so for me it was interesting ‘cause you have to adapt. So, then I – I’m very interested in feature stories and social issues so then I was trying to find angles that were not that newsy. To give you an example, John McCain came to give a talk in Miami and I tried to get registered and to film the whole thing, but you know again, they asked for a list dah, dah, dah. I did go and I did talk about it, live, I think but I was just looking for people who had interesting stories to do a portrait of someone or something like that and then I focused a lot on like migration, the differences between Cubans and other migrants from the Caribbean, for instance.
Melissa: It’s impossible, especially your first post. You’re gonna be surprised and I think the first quality of a journalist is to adapt, to adapt, to adapt. You have to be a sponge, observe, talk to people. I think the mistake I see a lot in white, especially Frenchmen journalists is that they always know everything, right? I know a guy who went to Iraq to cover the Iraqi war, didn’t speak Arabic and have never been in an Arabic country before. He did only lives and when he came back he wrote a book about Iraq. And I was like seriously?
Chika: (Laughs) How long had he been there?
Melissa: Like three weeks!
Chika: Oh my gosh and he wrote a book after three weeks? That’s audacious.
Melissa: He literally wrote a book about himself basically. Me being there; I feel so proud of myself. But I would wonder why a f**king publisher, sorry for my English, but would do that. But anyway, now he’s a superstar in France. He’s written I think seven books, I think, and he’s been on TV and very big TV shows which is a bit like, first, a journalist’s ambition should never be to be famous. I know nowadays with social media it’s difficult ’cause you have, you can get, if you’re very known on social media, it can open doors. It’s like almost like you have to be a social media star to go on TV… So sometimes credibility and the hard work and the skills [to do] reporting and investigating are very poor cause the main goal of people is just to be known… That’s another issue of course.
Chika: So, Miami was your first posting?
Melissa: It was my first posting as a foreign correspondent, yes, as I said I had lived abroad, I had written a few stories here and there from Prague, from Italy but yeah it was my first self-posting cause I kind of sent myself but of course my editor sent a letter. So, I quit my job and launched my little production company which I closed very soon when I came back ‘cause it was not a big business thing, it was a way to get paid.
Chika: Sure, sure. And what year did you go to Miami? When did you arrive?
Chika: Okay, that was really, Barack Obama’s campaign beginning.
Melissa: Yeah, and I remember very well I had a lot of friends in the US ‘cause I had visited Northwestern University during my Masters and I felt it would be great to reconnect but they were really not helpful. Some of them said ‘Oh why you coming so late, you should have come six months before the campaign,” dah, dah, dah and I’m like, you know, we’re a small country. We do what we can, blah blah blah. It’s a new channel blah blah blah.
So, you hope you will reconnect and I had a friend who lived in Haiti and I thought it would be easy to go and see him or he would come over but he was just super busy and he had no time for – so there’s a lot of like human disappointments in this job like you know, you’re like, “Oh my God. It’s not exactly like in the movie I had in my head.” But if you are ready to just, again be very flexible, it’s just exciting, right, because things are happening all the time. My experience in Kenya was much better, much, much better than Miami. It was just incredible and I think it totally changed my vision of the world as well.
Chika: Wow. Was that the first African country you went to? Kenya?
Melissa: Yes. Like I mean obviously I had been to Algeria a lot but Algeria is like not sub-Saharan Africa, so it’s a bit different I guess in every dimension. I had never been to Algeria as a journalist obviously cause it’s a highly closed up country. It’s difficult to be a journalist there. So, I would never have started there. So yeah, what happened is that when I came back from Miami I didn’t want to stay in France for personal reasons as much as professional reasons and I got a job miraculously in London at the BBC World Service. So, then I lived in London without being a foreign correspondent, of course, but I did write some stories for some French magazines sometimes, and radio and they sent me to Kenya but I was still freelance. That was a few years later by the end of 2010.
Chika: And how did that happen? Were you pushing for that?
Melissa: So, there’s a lot of circumstances. I was hired at the BBC World Service because they were closing their newsroom in London and opening one in Dakar, Senegal. So, it was a lot of shifting in personal, in HR, see what I mean? And they needed a young person. I was the newsreader mainly and the producer so to be working a lot while some people would quit and other people would move to Senegal. So, the straight road for me was to have a job in Senegal because they were moving there but finally, I decided not to go because it was the same job which was like in the studio, producing or news reading. Paid of course three times less ‘cause they were local salary which I thought was very unfair for African journalists, right? But as a European person it was really hard to live with that amount of money and I thought, if I’m paid that little, I don’t want to be in the studio, I want to be a reporter, at least. This is what I wanted to do. So I talked to my boss like at the end of my contract and I guess he liked it. Like, yeah, maybe I could go somewhere they need some extra staff and he said, “Hmmm, it’s not a bad idea, I could use someone in Mali or someone in Kenya.” And when he said Kenya, obviously I already had all these incredible images in my head… and I’m like I could live there!
“There’s a lot of like condescending about African people.”Melissa Chemam
Chika: What were some of those images in your head? I have to hear that.
Melissa: Yeah, when I thought of Kenya at the time, it was like a lot the movie Out of Africa. So, the beauty of the landscape, ‘cause I guess, you know growing up in France and having all these West African colonies on television and in films, the representation of Africa was always dry lands, poverty, flies, little babies, people who can’t speak properly, you know, dreadful caricatures, right? But luckily, Kenya and a few countries like South Africa have a very different history that is much more known ‘cause it’s so incredible. So, yes, I had seen like probably everyone, and especially Out of Africa, in films you see that Kenya is nothing like that. It’s an incredible land for animals and of course there’s a coast, Indian Ocean. It’s, you know, it’s just counted as one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Rift Valley, the origin of humanity. So for me there were all these very positive connotations of a country that was – ’cause I’ve always had it at the back of my mind, I’ve always been interested in working in Africa ’cause I worked for this filmmaker from Haiti who had made a lot of films about the Congo. He lived there as a child and I’d seen a couple of documentaries in Paris about Niger, the unfairness, the mine, uranium mines and I thought we need a positive vision.
“…I was worried about going to Africa just for my editors to force me to recreate some more stereotypes about poverty and more and stuff like that.”Melissa Chemam
Because I was Algerian myself. The image of Algeria in France is the worst: we’re terrorists; we’re poor; we’re Arabs; we’re Muslims. Even worse than I guess, dark skin sub-Saharan Africans because in France there is a lot like, “Oh we like these people. They are really nice.” There’s a lot of like condescending about African people. I mean, I must say I do find that the French are a bit very racist generally. Not always like in a very cruel way, like there might not be as many people dying from racism as in America. But there’s a lot of prejudice and there’s a lot of feeling of superiority, which obviously you know has always, even when I was very young, I think for me it was always frustrating. It was always some sort of priority to correct in my head.
“…this media world is very post-colonial…”Melissa Chemam
Chika: But it sounds like you are trying to say that the way they saw sub-Saharan Africans is different from how they saw North Africans.
Melissa: Yes, yes, I think North Africans have always had a backdrop in France because the Algerian War. There were so many people who thought they would keep Algeria, that it was their land. It’s a bit like South Africa. It’s a bit of a crazy story, to move there and recreate the whiteness. It’s been like the U.S. as well in some way but there it worked. It worked, but it’s changing now, because the indigenous people are learning their languages again and they’re rising again and you know because there are so many other migrants who are not white. They’re gonna have to recreate, rewrite this story at some point, right? But yes, I was worried about going to Africa just for my editors to force me to recreate some more stereotypes about poverty and more and stuff like that. So that’s why I think I was inspired to go to Kenya because I felt it’s a much, more complex country and you know, the dynamic economy and it’s a very multicultural place. And also, it’s not a former French colony ‘cause I’ve got a French passport, I’d rather avoid that sort of like, you know, I can understand that people are resentful because in the end this media world is very postcolonial right, working for BBC or VOA or RFI. We take it for granted because we grew up with it. I listened to RFI a lot when I was a kid, not a kid, but a young teenager because they had good programs about the world that the national radio wouldn’t have. But it’s not that normal. It exists because we were colonized and we want to have some soft powers, right? But it’s never really said this way and again this was a preoccupation of mine. I didn’t wanna do any harm. I didn’t wanna put my career – and I see that all the time, like I see journalists they move to a place, it’s a bit boring, nothing’s happening, suddenly there is a big event and just like this guy who wrote a book about Iraq (laughs). They become ‘Mr. Know it All’ about this place ‘cause there’s been drama and I find that really difficult to live with, because I’m like, it’s a bit exploitative in some way. I mean, I know they are trying to do things for a good reason. We need information, but if you think about it, it’s rarely someone from the country. It’s often a white American person or rich dude who gets all these, [type of men] who lectures the whole world about a country’s catastrophe. Some people have done an incredible work, like you know Robert Fisk. There are too many journalists to name them.
Chika: Alex Crawford.
Melissa: But I do find that there’s a need to rebalance. So, in my position I was like, what am I? Who am I? There was a lot of identity crisis obviously in the midst, right? ‘Cause as an indigenous North African, we are not Arabs in my family. I always thought I was African, but of course not every sub-Saharan African see it this way because it’s a different climate. It’s a different form of racism, as well. But when I went to Nairobi, I met a lot of people who could relate very well ‘cause the Mau Mau Revolution and the Algerian War have a lot in common, a lot — displacement, violence, death, rebellion, lies, appropriation, family, generations of freedom fighters — it’s very close, so if you meet someone who is educated or someone who knows a lot about the Black Panthers, they know Black Panthers…the Battle of Algiers so they understand the intellectual common ground even though it wouldn’t look the same and it’s not the same history yeah and I don’t think anyone in North Africa has been enslaved, not in the same way. They’ve been enslaved maybe in their country and not been deported on the other side of the planet. So anyway, it was all that at the back of my mind and I was like maybe if I go to Kenya maybe I can do a job that is more eye opening than just repeating the stereotypes and also it’s beautiful and it’s a good idea that you live in an environment that you feel you will like.
“Oh don’t go to Nairobi, you’re gonna die. It’s dangerous.”
Chika: Talk about, logistics, you know getting to Kenya, looking for a place to live and, you know, the neighborhoods and things like that.
Melissa: Yeah, that was always a lot of incredibly good luck in my case, right? So yes, I asked a few friends like I have a friend who is an American photographer in London. She said “Oh don’t go to Nairobi, you’re gonna die. It’s dangerous,” so that was really not helpful ‘cause I already made up my mind. And then, luckily, I had a colleague from France 24, we didn’t know each other very well at the time, ‘cause he was very very young — who had moved to Kenya, he worked for the UN, and so I asked a friend and she said, “Oh Bryan is in Nairobi.” So, I emailed Bryan who said, “Oh, my friend Julie, she’s got a house. She’s looking for a housemate. She’s looking to rent a room. So that was quite expensive ’cause when you’re an expat you can’t live in certain areas. I mean you could if you really want to but there’s this, I’m not saying it’s dangerous, I’m saying that people expect you to spend your money, so they expect you to rent in some areas where it would be more expensive. They won’t rent to Western journalist a place where regular middle class Kenyans live. Not really.
Maybe after a while, if you stay and you really want to move there. I know a few photographers who’ve lived in places that were not expat land.
“…it’s much easier to travel in East Africa than in West Africa.”Melissa Cheman
So yeah, then, I had gotten rid of my camera, focusing on radio and writing, so it’s much lighter equipment. Still the same laptop and I had just gotten a radio recorder. I still have, 10 years later, it’s probably very old but it works really well. I borrowed it from the BBC right, you can borrow and once you’ve used it a lot you can get it for yourself as if you were buying something second hand. And I always booked my own flight, always had to get my own visas. So Kenya at the time was extremely flexible to foreigners. For six months I lived on a tourist visa.
Chika: Wow, okay.
Melissa: Because having a journalist visa was like, it’s very extreme. ‘Cause I worked for the BBC, it would be like a five-year £2,000 pounds per year sort of visa for an employed person and the BBC wouldn’t wanna pay for that. So, because I travelled all the time, I would go to Uganda, to Ethiopia and then you come back. You come in, they don’t, you know, there was no anger about this. All the journalists I knew who worked freelance were there are on a short-term visa or tourist visa.
Chika: Okay. So, you were just booking a one-way flight?
Melissa: Yes, I booked a one-way flight. I think the first flight I booked a return ticket ‘cause it’s cheaper and I thought, well, I should just try to come back for my Christmas… It was a stupid idea because in the end this winter was extremely cold in Europe. So, when I arrived and it was full of snow…December in Kenya is summer so it’s the warmest period with January. I should have stayed but anyway, and then I would just book lots of single flights and there’s a lot of things I learned once I was there. So, for instance, it’s much easier to travel in East Africa than in West Africa. So, for $100 I could get to Mombasa, one way, or I could get to Lake Victoria or I could even go to Uganda for $200, return. So that was really fantastic because very early on I just left Nairobi for other places. It means more stories to cover and more angles and more discovery. I went to the Dadaab, you know the refugee camp at the border of Somalia. I went to Kisumu; I went to Mount Kenya; I went to Zanzibar; I went to Addis Ababa; I went to Mogadishu, Somaliland.
So many lands and that was much, much easier than, yeah, again in West Africa. I had a colleague based in Abidjan and to go from Abidjan to Lagos is a nightmare. It’s like, Europe and then come back to Nigeria. Then, I learned later that the visa journalists took to Nigeria is really hard to get as well, very expensive. So, it’s all good luck.
Also, when I went to Kenya it was a peaceful time.
Chika: What year was that?
Melissa: It was from 2010 to 2012. And the previous election had been really violent and then a few years later in 2013 I was back in Europe, there was a terrorist attack against the mall where I used to go shopping every weekend.
Chika: Yeah, West Gate.
Melissa: West Gate. And then after that there was more political violence but the year I was there was quite peaceful. So, I used to joke with friends about how I’m a very bad journalists ‘cause you know people go to New York on the 10th of September 2001 and they get their big break again but I was always more interested in like social stories. I did a lot of stories on like AIDS, how to help women not to transmit disease to their children with the UN, with UNICEF or how to fight malaria, how to teach people how to get rid of filthy waters, education. I made a lot of features about you know, a great guy who made organic tomatoes in the slum. You know, lots of stories like that and then of course there’s the usual politics, whatever, the opponent said, the MPs have bought some new seats for their parliament that cost more than someone’s salary for a year. And it’s a good balance between what your editors want in London and what you have as ideas for features or other things. Then of course I had to, the BBC wouldn’t pay me much. They paid my story and so I always had to pitch other stories and then I started working for a local, not a local, a South African radio and a German radio on top. Which was fine, the BBC would always agree. They were like don’t work for VOA or RFI of course because it’s direct competition, but smaller things we understand that freelance people need to earn a living and they can’t pay for anything, not even a flight. So that was interesting. And I worked for a magazine but again that didn’t pay very much.
Especially ‘cause I was mostly writing in French at the time ‘cause everyone in Kenya speaks English so it is not a good place to start writing in English. So, I also worked with Reuters ‘cause they needed a translator, so that was very useful ‘cause I went to their office and met other journalists there and I was physically translating their shot lists for all the video shootings from English to French. ‘Cause Kenya, Nairobi is very close to Burundi, DRC and there’s a lot of overlap in the stories and they need to read each other’s stories because the economies are very connected and all. That was just an incredible experience. I mean, I learned so much. I had been working only on Africa affairs for almost two years in London so you learn a lot already but it’s not the same cause they would not send us, the BBC would rather have people on the ground…which made sense because flights and people coming from London. They don’t know the place very well, even if they come regularly. They do when it’s a very big story and they want this famous face on TV, then they would send someone sometimes from London.
Chika: Did you end up staying with your friend who works with the UN or the one looking for a housemate? Did you end up staying with that person?
Melissa: Yeah, I did stay with that person and I saw my friend a lot and it was great ‘cause I mean I don’t wanna tell about his own life but he was a gay guy from Belfast and so we spent all our best evenings in the local gay scene in Nairobi which is really small and it’s difficult for them, right? They can’t really be in the open. So, the best bars were like, they were not like for gay people ’cause you couldn’t have that. So, it was a casual bar and we would stay dancing there late at night and we met extraordinary people ‘cause you know to be gay in East Africa is like being a Nobel Prize winner. You have to be really courageous and you have to be really careful so it was an interesting community of very kind and helpful people. Most of them, quite middle class and quite well-educated because again taking the risk in public, especially to date a white guy, it could lead you into tons of problems. So yeah, Bryan was like a great friend and I lived with his colleague – that was fantastic.
Chika: What neighborhood did you say that was?
Melissa: That was very near West Gate, so it was just the western side of Nairobi, not the place where you have the UN now which is a separate neighborhood. It’s a bit funny. It’s very separate. But it was called the Brookside, which is, if you’ve been you might have crossed it. There’s not much there. There’s an Ethiopian restaurant. That’s what it’s known for, very near where we used to live and I could walk to the West Gate mall in half an hour. Which I would do which people told me I was crazy to do, but you know it’s funny and it’s there and I don’t drive. So, I lived in Miami and in Nairobi without driving which people always told me I couldn’t do. But it’s less money in the end to pay for taxi and also when you pay for someone to drive, you give money directly to someone who needs the money. When my friends who were driving in Nairobi, they bought a car from Japan. So, I thought ethically you know, plus if you’re not planning to stay for three years or more, buying a car is expensive and all that and you know, insurance and Nairobi was quite famous for carjacking at the time so you needed probably to be a very sure driver and as a journalist you would always go to different places, right. It’s not like, my friends at the UN, they will just commute to the office mostly and then go to restaurants at night. But I needed to go to places where I meet people I’m gonna interview all the time. So again, I had another friend from my university who was from Canada who lived in Nairobi working for I think UNHCR, maybe it was another refugee agency. Yeah, it was the Norwegian Refugee Council, I think. So she gave me a number of a person she worked with, a driver, who had set up his own company and it was wonderful you know, ‘cause every morning if you need someone you could go in his car, my driver, I don’t want to say my driver, he was not my driver at all. But you know, he was like in his fifties; he’s very knowledgeable. He would listen to the local radio. We’ll talk politics every morning. Sometimes I would take the bus, the matatu, which was ridiculously cheap, I think it was 20 shillings at the time for the drive compared to 500 for the taxi fare. So, if I just got into the office in central Nairobi, I would take the matatu which again is a thing. People told you never do that. You’re gonna get blah blah blah. But it’s just people making noise, you know?
Chika: Ok so that’s the BBC office in central Nairobi yeah? The bureau?
Chika: Okay. And how did you pitch stories? You were going to Burundi, Somalia and Ethiopia for a German radio station and South African station, yeah? So how did you pitch these stories? What was your pitching process like to these editors?
Melissa: So, you get to – my editors at the BBC, I would know them really well because I worked with them as a computer for two years and the same ones have moved to Dakar so that was very easy. Sometimes they will just tell me this is what we have, can you cover it or there was an international conference. You know there was a lot of ‘international day of something’ so you have them in your calendar and you’re like, oh because it’s the eighth day. Well, it’s a month in advance so let’s plan a story you know. So, then you get used to these sorts of tricks and you do that as a producer as well, right, ’cause some days, we call them slow news days and you need to fill in the programs. Most of the time when you work on African news, there is way too much news. It’s the opposite way around but now everybody has the luxury to do that. A lot of people work on African affairs on bigger programs so in the end, they can’t – they have to choose certain stories over others.
“…elections are for me, are a great source of work because you can cover many angles that are never in the news.”Melissa Chemam
And then of course elections are really interesting. That’s how I started going abroad, ‘cause I travelled with the UN to Lake Victoria, that was my first trip out of Nairobi. I was there like four weeks when that happened. I don’t even remember how, it’s just like you are always on the wire, you know looking at things that are happening and then you go over them. So, then you find a press release. How do we do that? It’s a funny process. (Laughs) And so, then after that, in February, so six months later, there would be election in Uganda and I knew that we, the BBC, we didn’t have a French speaking correspondent in Uganda and I thought Uganda is even closer to Burundi and Rwanda culturally, so I’m sure it’d interest people to have that in French as well, or even in West Africa. But my editor said, “No don’t go. It’s pointless. Museveni. He’s gonna end up winning.” Blah, blah, blah. But elections are for me, are a great source of work because you can cover many angles that are never in the news. So, it’s like, so what about the currency? What about the economy? What about women? You know? So it depends on where you are. Of course, the great thing when you are a foreign correspondent is that you read local news all the time. Sometimes they are very poorly written ‘cause you know [it’s] daily [news coverage], and it was the beginning, I think, of digital journalism in Africa, right? It was the first, NTV and all the local TV stations had their own articles online. It was just booming. It was very dynamic.
So yeah, you read a lot and once you know enough, you kind of make your own story but at the beginning you kinda follow, you listen to the radio and, or you mirror things. Like I hear an interesting story in Senegal or in Niger and I feel like, oh there is a lot of similarities with some population in Kenya. Then you’ll be looking for a moment where it’s relevant and so you always have a list of things going in your head. And then it was a few positive events, like you know, cinema festivals, and then it was also, Nairobi is a big conference event center so a lot of people will come to Nairobi to talk about water, agriculture, aid development, all these things that are like never ending. We [have been talking] about development I think forever, cause I’m like 17 years of development and we are still developing, there is something not working. With western economy, it’s not working this way. It’s called investment in the West but when it comes to Africa or some parts of Asia we call it ‘aid.’ Anyways.
“…the main correspondent for TV was always the guy from Oxford, English, white British…”Melissa Chemam
But yeah, you get in a sort of mode of having a routine of where to look for stories, listening to radio a lot, looking at local TVs and talking to other journalists, obviously. So, I very quickly became friends with tons of local journalists ‘cause I decided to work from the office. I didn’t have to but newsrooms are exciting for journalists. If you were a journalist, you like being with other journalists. And there was this very loyal setting in the BBC [Nairobi bureau] that the main correspondent for TV was always the guy from Oxford, English, white British, blah, blah, blah, and he has his own producer and his own corner in the office so his producer was Indian and, if you know Kenya, you know that the Indian and Pakistani community are a bit middle class and live very separated for multiple reasons.
So they were driving their own car, doing their own thing and I was just chatting with all of the works of these people, with people broadcasting in Somali, in Kinyarwanda and you know all the other languages that were there. So, they were just super cool, you know. I was just a young girl from somewhere else. They were the most welcoming persons but the main reporter will never take the time to chat with these people. He was a busy, important man doing TV stuff and we were just doing radio. And so, you learn a lot of things about the country, the cultural differences, you know. I had heard all these stories about Eastleigh, for instance, the Somali neighborhood. Funny I never managed to do an interesting story about Eastleigh, ’cause I think it’s not in the news and I didn’t want to go to Eastleigh when it’s a terrorist attack and do the aftermath vox pop. That’s just too cliché, I guess. So yes, it’s a lot of, it’s a funny thing. There’s a lot of improvisation.
“Oh you don’t have a face for TV.”
Chika: Yeah. But it just sounds like you really made a point to be more grassroots. It sounds like you really made that intentional. Did you never have the desire to do the whole glamorous TV type of work?
Melissa: No. I must say I’m a bit of a Marxist. When, I was younger I wanted to make groundbreaking, shocking, anti-capitalist documentaries. My first job was a researcher on a film about Karl Marx with the same filmmaker, Raoul Peck. I grew up in a communist town in France which means, it’s not like a Soviet prison right? It was a ruling communist party which means very, very left wing. And so for us it was just quite normal and as I said my best friend was also an immigrant from Greece so, and Algeria was socialist for decades. So, I must say I had this idea that yeah TV was, for me, it was shallow, right? And I started in TV because even the France 24 I worked for, French television channel and I liked it because I like working with people. But I remember one day when I was in that small French TV channel, um, summer, we had a chat, it was very hot, like it was in Paris with other journalists and one guy who was not a journalist himself, he was more working in the archives, who is a son of a very famous French journalist. He told me a bit as a joke, “Oh you don’t have a face for TV,” and I said “Well, I think you’re right. I think it’s not what I wanna do.” He thought I would be like “Why would you say that? I could be on TV just like everyone else.” But I don’t care. And it was also not a problem with me ‘cause you know I have curly hair and the French, they hate curly hair.
“…I’m not gonna change my hair for TV…”Melissa chemam
Melissa: Yeah, they do, like it’s not good for TV, ‘cause you know most of times you have something behind you like a map or green background, blue background. So, from the editor to the makeup girl, they say, oh it’s messy, and when I was a child my mum used to blow dry my hair because it’s easier to brush and you look more, Western, right? And so, when I was twelve, I was like, “No, no, no. I don’t wanna do that with my hair. I want my natural hair.” And so, for me it was a very political issue. I’m like I’m not gonna change my hair for TV especially not for an international channel and especially not if I work on the Middle East and Africa, right?
Because I was so stubborn then my editors were like, okay, well. Like one day I had to cover a strike in Paris, Gare du Nord. I’m sure you’ve been there, under the rain in November and I was a bit sick ‘cause it’s the weather and I had a big scarf and my hair was blowing in the wind or whatever. I got a call from a big boss who said, “Who do you think you are? This is television. This is serious work here!” And my English colleague had blond hair. She had a little thing, a little bun, perfect, and a big cleavage and I’m like seriously man. I’m just doing my job. You can’t expect because I’m a woman to have perfect hair under the rain in November in front of a station that is notoriously difficult, because Gare du Nord has got a lot of homeless people, blah blah blah. So, there’s a lot of people behind us, like you know, you know how it is when you do live TV. So I’m not gonna put myself in a situation where I’m on heels, in a dress, standing all day you know. You go there like a reporter. You know, I just had a blue coat, a scarf and curly hair. So, I was like, you know, if they’re not gonna take me as I am then I’m not just gonna do TV. It doesn’t really matter. And it’s very competitive, so though I’m very stubborn and I know what I want. I don’t want fight another journalist from my community to go somewhere. I love to collaborate, so I’m like you wanna be the big star, you wanna be the presenter, I’m fine with that ‘cause actually I wanna be a reporter and that’s why I switched to radio as well. It’s easier. It’s also much easier to talk to people, right? Because you don’t have to film them, especially in Africa where they don’t know what you’re gonna do with it. Sometimes you don’t know how to watch back so it’s a bit worrying for people. What if you say something about me and everybody recognizes my face? So, radio is a bit more less in the face than, yeah. I shied away from that idea. Sometimes I see people who are like in London or in Paris, DC or Atlanta, and they’re always on TV and they’re always the expert from there. They don’t even go places. And I feel like seriously? You know, it’s just why are they paid three times as much and they have blow-dried their hair and they have expensive clothes and they always seem to know less than people who have been reporting on the ground.
Chika: That’s so interesting because I think you have like the ‘perfect TV look’ so this is interesting to hear that they thought you don’t. For France 24, the few things I did with them when I was in Senegal and Nigeria, I would wear my headscarf when I was going live for France 24 and the producers liked it and they were like, “Wear it again next time.”
I’ve always wanted to work for Al Jazeera…”Melissa Chemam
Melissa: I think they changed the law and I think it’s different because again there’s a lot of stereotyping. Me being French, they wanted me to be more French, right? If they had been looking for someone in North Africa, they probably would have been sensitive to find someone who looks North African, but it all depends on you know, and also I guess the channel has changed a lot. It was the very first years, so the bosses were afraid of what people would think. Are we a credible channel? So yes it was just a lot of you know misunderstanding and these sort of things. But yeah, and also not fitting in, like again being in sub-Saharan African and not being a black person, being French, not being a white person. Now there’s a lot of like you know especially in the UK, there’s a lot of interest of like having people of color ‘cause they want more of them to show that we’re not racist. So, everybody is hiring an Indian person or an African person ‘cause it looks good. And most of the time these people look amazing, let’s be honest. They are not like pot-bellied bolding me. For years we didn’t hire people of color but most of the time they look as you said, they have different styles. They just look stunning, so it’s finally shifted but sometimes it’s a bit hypocritical, right? They just want a person who would look – like I have a friend for instance who’s been an amazing, maybe you’ve met her, she’s been an amazing reporter for Al Jazeera and sub-Saharan Africa, but she’s Zimbabwean of an Indian background so she’s not the typical sub-Saharan herself. She worked for Al Jazeera in Ivory Coast mostly, way before me. But then again now she had an interview with the UN and the woman said “I don’t know if she’s African enough for us,” but finally she got the job and she didn’t take it actually. But there’s a lot of like there’s a lot of like posturing.
Chika: Yeah and I would have thought that Al Jazeera would have taken you on air. Did you ever consider Al Jazeera?
Melissa: Oh my God. That’s a weird thing. I’ve always wanted to work for Al Jazeera ‘cause again they’re a bit more activist. I mean not really activist. It’s just because the West is so wired on a certain wave of thinking that Al Jazeera is counterbalancing. They have another way of thinking. But it just never happened. I never managed to get in touch with the right editors. I sent CVs to, you know, these anonymous email addresses. I know, I guess they would want to have someone who speaks French as well. It’s important to them and it’s not that easy to find Americans and British people who can speak French without an accent or well enough for TV live in a stressful environment. It’s easier the other way round or maybe not cause there are a lot of French people who cannot speak English very well, not broadcast quality. But anyway, I thought it would happen eventually and it never happened really. Maybe it was all my fault ‘cause I moved quickly from one place to another. I think a lot of people, they settle somewhere and it’s easier too. If you take your time, you will eventually get to know everybody and they will come to you.
“The East African Correspondent Association was run by white people.”
Chika: So, Kenya, I mean Nairobi is buzzing with foreign correspondents that’s one of the reasons I kind of avoided [being based there longer term] because it’s so full of reporters.
Melissa: It’s ridiculous. There are probably more [foreign] journalists than Africans, right?
“So, when I was in Kenya, it [the colonial history] was so much in your face.”Melissa Chemam
Chika: I had an issue with that. I mean, I went there. Northwestern University sent me to work at a Kenyan TV news station. I was so shocked by the racial divide, like the East African Correspondent Association was run by white people. So how did you manage that? It seems like you were kind of like floating in the middle because of your background.
Melissa: Totally, totally. I was a member of the association and yeah it was very like, we went to have drinks in Muthaiga and they were all like white people. Actually, the admin person of the BBC was a white Kenyan and so very early on, I learned, I think other white people were not even interested but I learned that most of the biggest industries, the milk factories, they all belong to white Kenyans who remained. They were probably 2000 families. So, it’s crazy colonial, right? And you know you still have this Karen with the beautiful house of Karen Blixen and all that. So yeah, Nairobi was very – but I think for me it was interesting because it was exactly what I was interested in. You know in France, most intellectuals and journalists believe that postcolonial studies are an invention that is just American problems, ‘cause they have got so much racism and they need to fix it and they’ve invented that thing, but obviously there’s no such thing as a post-colonial world. That’s how the French think. They also think they’re not racist because they never went there to colonize. They went there because it was an opportunity. Look, the Romans went to Greece and that’s about the same. That’s really what French people think. So I would say, I obviously disagree because my family was colonized. So, when I was in Kenya, it was so much in your face.
Chika: Yeah, it is. It’s shocking.
“And the presenter…didn’t even know what a Somali person was, that there were Somalis in Kenya.”Melissa Chemam
Melissa: Well, now we cannot deny, right? We can’t deny that it’s like white people running this and even, it’s a very tribal country as well. I mean you must know Kikuyus run all the political parties and a lot of opponents lose because they are Luos. Barack Obama is a Luo as well, so. Of course, if you are not from Africa you wouldn’t know; it’s too specific. And even when I started reporting on the post-electoral violence in 2007, I think it was, most journalists, they wouldn’t even mention that for an international audience because you know it’s detailed and nobody knows these tribes. When there was the attack on the West Gate Mall, when I was back in Paris and I was all day on TV for free, like my old editor asked me can you come in and comment on things. And the presenter…didn’t even know what a Somali person was, that there were Somalis in Kenya. So like how? Where do we begin? Why is there a terrorist attack? So, it was just appallingly difficult. So, I think, you know, for me, it was almost like an exercise of political enlightenment being in Nairobi. And because again because I was French, there was so many parallels. I was not obviously white British and that – no one assumed I was white British. I don’t look British at all, right? I look very fair but I don’t look English. So, I talked with a lot of people about these issues and it was really interesting. But I think I always liked reporting on East African affairs because it’s quite a special region, you know? The East African community is much stronger than any other bodies. It works a bit better, so there’s a lot, I mean it’s a complicated issue, obviously Rwanda …its controversial role. But there was a lot to learn for ‘where is Africa?’ by living in East Africa and the relations with obviously, you know, the ancient story. You know, how the Indians were moved there by the British; how the Arabs were there for centuries and centuries; even the Portuguese were there in places like Mombasa. So, I was just too happy being in that sort of pot of knowledge, too. When I went to Senegal for instance or Niger, I don’t know about you but I did find that it was less politically aware, and less – Senegal is a very pro-France country like Morocco. But that’s mostly because the political environment is different. It’s less divided. It’s the same rulers for decades and people are not really, I mean what other options do you have? You know, most people dream of going to Paris and that’s it. They have no tradition of that rebellious generation who really gave them freedom. [Leopold] Senghor is the symbol of a successful African man who was accepted in Paris. He was in the French Parliament and stuff.
“…it was almost no African journalists in that group [Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa].”Melissa Chemam
Chika: But then you had the anthropologist, Cheikh Anta Diop, which could be seen as a counter.
Melissa: Yes, of course, of course. There’s always. It’s just, so the guy on the street was generally, and I’ve only been to Senegal for short periods of times so you can never generalize, but yeah it was eye-opening and it was sometimes infuriating to see what was happening in Kenya, you know, once you’re there. There was a lot of, yeah, I guess. It was always – in that sense I feel it’s better to be woman. I think most of my colleagues there, they were all, just the other journalists, they were very much less aggressive than the ones in Paris, a bit younger. They were very openminded and respectful. You know, as long as you are not a confrontational person, they accepted different views. So, I was a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association and there was some weird stuff there. A lot of people were not even based in Nairobi and were a member of this just because they would come and take a few photos and then go back to New York. So again, it was like, why should they be member? Some people could do whatever they wanted and it was almost no African journalists in that group. It’s almost like it was meant to be for expats.
Chika: That’s interesting. So how long did you stay in Kenya?
Melissa: I stayed about a year and a half and then I had another opportunity to work back in London because, again, in freelancing, it paid very little. I went back to Kenya a lot when I could but I was working in London.
Chika: Okay but you were there for some time. So are you satisfied with the work that you were able to do in Kenya?
Melissa: Yeah, very much so. The only thing is like, I really wanted to work in English because most Kenyans don’t speak French so I was like I’d like to broadcast to an audience that can understand me but, and I would like to share the stories I covered now with people around me in Britain but you know it Britain, if you speak another language, it’s like, you’re half a person. They couldn’t care less. Even us French, because the French and British are quite competitive with each other. But if you’re German or if you’re Romanian, or from the Global South, doesn’t matter so much, what you think, what you’ve written, but again if you are from English speaking – I mean, I’m not saying it’s the ultimate truth, it’s obviously always my perception. So, if you come from Nigeria or Kenya, you can write in English, you can have an audience because they can read you, they can listen to you. But even at that, I think it took a while for British people to be like, I’m gonna look at your story, yeah, from Al Jazeera made by journalists who were not born in the UK or the U.S.
But it’s changing rapidly. And that’s the feeling I had when I left Kenya, I was like, oh my God, I’ve been so privileged to have this experience. But I guess the future is like, not to send people from so far away. It’s just a very twenty-first century thing and it’s bound to disappear in some ways or at least to be more equal. The day where I would see like African journalists walking the streets of Paris all the time for African TV or Al Jazeera, I’ll be like okay we’re all doing this. But for now, the Russians and the Turks are trying to start, again, but then again, who is listening to you in Russia? Only people back home. Russia Today does emit in English and I have friends who’ve started there because they wanted to go abroad and they had no other option. But it’s not a very credible source ‘cause we all know. So yeah, it got me thinking about all these changes now especially now that I’ve left journalism. I think it’s important to talk to students about all these issues, right? ‘Cause as far as journalism can pay very little, it’s still a privilege to be on one side covering the story and being in charge of the narrative in some ways.
Chika: Yeah, did you feel responsible for the content that you were putting out?
Melissa: Yeah always, always. Sometimes you have to cover something and it’s something which you really dislike. It’s like, well, it’s not something I would have written myself so, that’s why I do so poorly as a freelancer because most of the time to be paid well you need to be copy writing, right? People say, we need this, can you do it? And I, most of the time say no, ‘cause if it’s not something I’ve investigated myself or I have a link with or I’ve been to the place, I don’t do it. So, then you don’t work for the big newspapers. They don’t get to know you and it’s a bit harder to pitch stuff. But that’s just my way. Maybe it’s a bit stubborn, maybe I’ve been missing out but you know you can’t do everything.
Chika: Can you break that down a little bit further?
Melissa: In the sense that, yeah, what I like is to report on something and pitch a story that I think is interesting but if stories come to me and I don’t feel they’re well-framed or they really represent something that I’ve seen on the ground, I just don’t wanna write about that. See what I mean?
Chika: I see. Yeah.
Melissa: But if you have a really good editor and if you have a team and the work is done greatly, like your news editor who has been a reporter before you and all that, it shouldn’t happen because they would only ask you to do stories that you feel are relevant, but it’s not always the case…
The world of journalism has changed so much since I started it. Now a lot of people write first-person, which I really don’t like. You know, like talking about your own experience. I think it’s like the end of journalism in some way. It’s all based on this idea that you can be a vehicle for some sort of objectivity, of course, we know objectively is not completely achievable. You’re always gonna have your mind and the person talking to you as well, but you’re aiming to have a good reflection on things before you get them out. And it’s a good thing that there’s so many first-person pieces out there, but it shouldn’t be the norm either.
Chika: Sounds like you did a lot of stories on social good and social entrepreneurship and public health and of course politics. Did you ever cover the big conflicts?
Melissa: I think I covered more post-conflict which again is more confusing, ‘cause again it’s not so much the news, right? So, I didn’t go to, for instance, I’ve been to Mogadishu with the African Union…I asked them to go, because you can’t go on your own, not there. Well, you probably can but my newsroom would not let me do that. BBC is very cautious and especially with us freelancers. So, I talked to people at the African Union to go with the peacekeeping mission who’d been in Mogadishu for years, and they said yes once they could show that Mogadishu was freed of terrorists. So that was again, it was like more of a peacekeeping, post-conflict story, and of course, they came again. That’s Somalia, unfortunately, it [peacekeeping missions] comes and goes, comes and goes. It came again, a couple of years later but they had secured certain parts of the city for a good year and I did a story in Somaliland about pirates that were being brought back to the Puntland prison on Somali soil, because Kenyans were tired of having them there, so. All these sorts of like post-conflict issues…
Chika: Is that intentional, you preferred to see after the mess?
Melissa: I do prefer. It’s not because it’s after, it’s more because I feel like everybody forgets about what’s happening afterwards and you need to, because you know, as I said, I started working with someone who’s from Haiti. It’s never in the news, but also there’s lots trauma and there’s lots of ongoing problems, So I was very sensitive to that. But, also I guess I’ve not been, you need a special training for war zones probably and again a guy and, I worked with refugees a lot mostly because once you’ve been to Dadaab, people know you’ve been to a refugee camp and then so they know you can do it, right? Between the climate, the poverty, the dryness, a lot of people will faint, the same thing with war, a lot of people can’t cope. So, they send people whom they know and I think I never really got on that train, right? Be trained to go to war zones and then do more of that. Have you done any of that yourself?
Chika: I have done the hostile environment trainings. Have you done those trainings?
Melissa: No, I again, I applied but I’ve never done it. And before I went to Kenya, actually I applied for a job in DRC in Kinshasa and I didn’t get it and at the time they really told me, “We want a guy.” Yeah, they said, “It’s too difficult. We’re afraid a women would get into trouble.” Probably afraid of someone getting raped or something.
Chika: Was that BBC who said that?
Melissa: It was BBC, yeah, and it was an important job because at the time they wanted someone to work both in English and in French, so they would send only one person. So, it was hard to get someone so Thomas Fessy was there…and then finally a few years later, a French girl got the job, so that’s good to go.
And when you cover DRC, you do a lot of conflict. They send you to go Goma and all of that, but I never got the training ‘cause it’s very costful, the training. So, in my session they were like, sending a person maybe once every two years, and that would be someone, you know, that was employed for a while. So, I never got to do the training. I mean if you worked for the BBC they’re never gonna send you somewhere if you haven’t done the training, right?
Chika: Of course. I know that Rory Peck sponsors the training for freelancers, the HEFAT training.
Melissa: Oh yeah, I think I have a friend who’s done that. An Indian-American friend.
Chika: ‘Cause there’s definitely like a “genderized” type of reporting. I mean typically, women do the refugee stories, aftermath and the guys do the on-the-ground, as it’s happening coverage. So do you think that still exists or is it changing?
Melissa: I think it exists a lot. I think a lot of women want to cover bigger events, big political things. We have a colleague at France 24 for instance who was in Cairo and she was attacked during the protests on Tahir Square and she went back. She was like okay, it happens but it’s my job and I know I can do it well. She’s now in D.C. Maybe she came back to France but she covered the last election. I think it’s the other way around. Men who really want to do woman with children having AIDS is very less. They are not fighting to do soft stories. You see what I mean? Boys always wanna do the hard stories and so women if they want to do it as well, it’s harder for them. But I don’t think there are so many guys fighting for the culture and human-interest stories. I must say I have a very strong profile in like cultural journalism, so sometimes I’ll just be happy as well because I like in-depth interviews and I love artists very much. So, if I could choose between covering a big corruption scandal and you know a big political trial and a music festival, my heart will be like okay maybe half of the audience would even listen to my thing, but working with artists for me, is just something I value a lot. It’s not because it’s easier.
Musicians, sometimes they’re very bad at interviews because the way they express themselves is through the music. So, they literally have nothing to tell you. So, you need to find an angle to make it fun, to have twenty more questions because they might just say, yes, no, yes no. I mean it happened to me too many times. No, no, no. You’re like, come on, we have to talk about something here.
“There’s only a story on Africa, if we can say that they’re doing poorly and it shocks me…”Melissa Chemam
Chika: That’s interesting.
Melissa: It doesn’t mean it’s less, [or that ] it’s easier. But I think there’s still a very strong, I mean, there’s a lot of guys in cultural news as well, but I think there’s still a lot of, like, it’s hard for girls to cover news and more, and even big political events.
Chika: I mean, that’s why Alex Crawford stands out so much as, as a British journalist. Yeah?
Melissa: And Lyse Doucet, I guess, you know, the Canadian BBC journalist. She was, I mean I don’t know what she looks like without her helmet.
Chika: (Laughs) Do you think that there’s a dominant narrative when it comes to reporting in Africa from Western media outlets?
Melissa: I do feel that yes. I do feel that. I mean, again, I do find the French, especially if we take non-international news where they have to be a bit more in details, but if you take national news, I do find that it’s horrendous. There’s only a story on Africa, if we can say that they’re doing poorly and it shocks me, but I’m obviously heavily biased. As I said, I’m heavily interested in post-colonial studies. I’m an activist for de-colonizing the world, so I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t affect me, right? So maybe my white, French friends, they say, “It’s you. You see it everywhere because you care.” You see?
“…Why is, news so Western and so white?”
Melissa: And I’m like, well, it’s there. Obviously, there is sociological serious research about imbalance in the world, but they haven’t seen what I’ve seen. When I came back from, Central African Republic, I worked there with the UN, so I was doing exactly the same work, but it’s not journalism work.
There was also post-conflict. I was there just after the worst events and all my friends said, “You’re gonna say that we messed up because it was a French colony.” And I’m like, well, in the case of Centre Afrique, my God. I mean, it’s the worst postcolonial disaster in history with Haiti probably. Haiti is a complicated story that most people don’t know on top of things, ‘cause it’s also the most successful story in some way, but they just didn’t wanna hear it. And they don’t know. They’re so ignorant about African history and African European history that they can’t hear what you have to say. So that’s my point of view. So, I do feel that I wish I could actually have tried to publish some columns about that, that why, why is, news so Western and so white – not in the faces ‘cause I think faces have changed, but in the way we cover things. It’s like we’re going to Africa and there’s an election, so we’re gonna summarize it. And there’s a lot of people who always say, “Oh, you’re a journalist in Africa.” Now, I mean, of course you and I would say that ‘cause we’ve been to many countries, so then it comes to Africa. But you know, they say “Africa,” because they don’t know which country they were referring to.
Melissa: Well, I do that all the time. I change the headlines when I post articles on Twitter. So, when I post a headline I always had the UK, because obviously British people and American people, they never say that it’s something happening in their country, because everybody should know, right? But if you write a headline about Africa, French headlines, they’re so incredible! Sometimes I fall off my chair! Like the other week I read an article about a boat in the twenties that would take colonizers to Africa. And the headlines was, like, “Well, these days where people could go to adventure, I was like, “Oh my f**king lord. How do you write that in 2021?” It’s just crazy. They were literally going in a country and took their freedom away. They were ruling it and of course you had little thugs that were trying to find their own business there – adventurous white guys. But you can’t put the headline, like it’s a f**king Tintin story. Le Monde, Le Monde! The section of African affairs, I really don’t like it; they’re very biased. All Moroccans are corrupt; all Congolese are poor; it’s just, I don’t know what it is. It’s just ingrained in the French culture. And I’m not saying Americans are better or British, but they’re just, they had more people to fight back. I think there’s more black people in the English-speaking world who are brilliant, who are sociologists…to be standing as I have a different story, and I can tell you, without being upset, making a riot. I just have the knowledge. I’ve just made a great film and my name is Steven McQueen. See what I mean? We don’t have that much of that in France so much. You see what I mean? A couple of guys.
Chika: It makes sense.
Melissa: A couple of guys have done quite well with a film on Algeria, which is a woman and a woman, we always listen to them when there’s nothing else, when it’s like summer and you know. I’m making a caricature a little bit, but I’m quite sensitive to it. So.
Chika: Wow, I can’t even imagine how you stayed there. I would just get aggravated all the time. I would explode in that kind of environment. They would definitely think I’m too radical if I’m in France, you know?
Melissa: Well, I can’t stand living in France at the moment. It’s a very bad environment. And also everybody in the English-speaking world always thinks France is like the revolution every morning. 1789, but it’s changed a lot. It’s very middle class and it’s not opening. When the football team won the World Cup and they replied to Trevor Noah that they were not Africans. You’re like, “C’mon seriously, are we still there?” You’re born in Cameroon and you’re obviously French and Cameroonian right? So that upsets me a lot.
And then there’s obviously a war against Muslim people. You’ve heard of Islam or leftists, blah, blah, blah. So, it’s just political manipulation. I don’t think they’re terribly racist. I just think it’s convenient in a political debate to blame the same people. But you know, that’s what happened to the Jews a hundred years ago and it didn’t end really well. So, there’s way more Muslim people in France than ever have been Jewish people and no one feels how dangerous it is, so I can’t stand it anymore. England is not so much better, but for me at this level, it’s just not France. I mean, it’s not like I’m not, I wasn’t born there and it didn’t colonize my own family, but I don’t know about you. I don’t know where you live. If you’re still in Africa, if you’re back in the States or if you’re in between or, and how it is for you.
Chika: I’m in Nigeria, presently and I was just curious, after Kenya, did you live in any other African country? You mentioned Central African Republic.
Melissa: Yeah. I stayed in Central African Republic for three months and then no, it was mostly short trips. I wanted to go to Nigeria at one point. I think when I interviewed you, I was at RFI, so it’s a lot of very short interviews, but I think your interview was a longer piece, cause that’s when I came to Bristol. Then again, I thought maybe I’m not the right person to understand Nigeria well, but again for a French speaking media, because so many of them, they don’t, they don’t know West Africa. They don’t know Nigeria too well.
Chika: Well, that’s weird because most of the West African countries are Francophone.
Chika: Most of ECOWAS, so I thought that they would be more familiar with it than East Africa, for sure.
Melissa: Yeah. You would think. When I was at RFI, I was doing all the Nigerian stories just because they couldn’t understand the people and the telephone lines can be really bad and the accent really strong. So, for a French person, it was just, I mean, when I was there. It’s probably changed and there’s probably someone else doing that, but it was just a complicated story. Nigeria is always a complicated story.
Chika: It is.
Melissa: So, a lot of people would shy away from that in France. So, I got. Nigeria is a fascinating country, right, especially as a cultural journalist, right? The music, the literature, and the history, just in the same way that Tanzania and Algeria are. It’s not one country really. It’s just these crazy colonial borders, but still it has been one country for 70 years. And I knew there’s actually some problems at the moment around the Biafra region. Right?
Melissa: I’m actually supposed to write a piece I’ve delayed, delayed, delayed about the Benin bronzes…There was a wonderful story here in Bristol, a local, I think she was not even a journalist, she was a journalist in training, she did a little story for the local BBC and she literally called the Oba of Benin on her cell phone during the interview with the museum curator. It’s a small, tiny provincial museum in Bristol that has a few Benin bronzes and he said on the phone, of course we want them back, because the curator was saying, “No, no, no, it’s a complicated story. You can’t. It’s about conservation,” blah, blah, blah, and the camera was still on and the king, you know, the Oba was like saying, “Of course we want them back.”
Melissa: It was just a crazy. Well, yeah. And then, then what happened to me is that I wrote a book about the Bristol music scene and so that opened many doors for me here in Bristol and I’m lecturing, so I don’t know, maybe I got too old or, and I can’t really work in Algeria. That’s the thing. Because I think a lot of friends asked me, “Why don’t you work in Algeria?” But my parents didn’t teach me the language or Arabic and it’s a difficult country for journalists and I have all my family there. So, I’m very worried about backlash and, and they don’t really like French Algerians. It’s a difficult story, right? There’s a lot of, um, unresolved issues. So, unfortunately, I could have gone to Tunisia for instance, I think, maybe that would be a good place for me. Of course, Nigeria or South Africa, I’ve always wanted to be based in Johannesburg, where it was probably the only place where I would definitely have to drive, I think.
Chika: (Laughs) Yeah.
Melissa: You probably can’t escape it, driving yourself. You can’t live with taxis…But yeah, like as I said, a lot of my journey was totally unprepared. It was a lot of accidents.
Chika: That’s so interesting. I mean, I think a lot of people, when it comes to that whole East versus West Africa, what draws people to the West is the vibrant culture. What draws people to the East is the vibrant landscape. That’s kind of how I see it.
Melissa: That makes a lot of sense because when I went to Nairobi, I went to a couple of art galleries and I was like, obviously, the artists are not here. I mean the music festivals, the fashion, you know, it’s obviously West Africa.
Chika: It’s West Africa, but East Africa has the dynamic landscape. They’ve got, you know, the rifts and the volcanoes and it’s gorgeous. So that’s kind of how I see it.
Melissa: Going to Zanzibar for a weekend is quite something, right? I’ve been to Gorée [Senegal] but it’s not the same sort of vibe.
Chika: Not it’s not.
Melissa: I mean it suited me, I think because of all the Arab influence, you know, I felt like East Africa was almost, Somalia, is very similar to Algeria. In many ways you see, the rebellious, and then the camels and the desert, the dryness, the crowd, the misunderstanding about this incredibly old and glorious culture in the West, you know? They don’t really understand it. They take it for granted, right? The Maghreb and Somalia has always been like, the music in the sixties were amazing. So, I think, yeah, but, but I feel what you say, I’ve always felt like Mali, you know, the best musicians in history comes from Mali and then Nigeria has got Nollywood, so of course there’s more money for other things as well. And it’s gigantic. I’ve heard a lot that Lagos is a very difficult city to live in.
Chika: I think it is. I think it shortens your lifespan by 10 years.
Melissa: (Laughs) It’s a polluted city. Traffic is awful.
Chika: It’s hard to live and work, there, at least for me it would be. You mentioned that you felt you were kind of too old to get back into it.
Melissa: Yeah. I think it’s COVID, you know, with all this, I don’t know if you were in lockdown in Lagos and how it was. But here it was really strict… I feel there’s this sense of like, something’s been stolen from us. When you’re a very rolling stone person, you find your energy moving, moving, meeting people, doing the next project, for me the pandemic, it was really quiet because I’m an introvert. I was writing and lecturing online, but then after a year, I did realize that I didn’t have the same energy at all. It’s like it’s been taken away. So, I don’t know, maybe it would come back. Sometimes I feel like I want to pack my bag and go somewhere far, like Argentina.
Chika: (Laughs) When did you start teaching?
Chika: You started teaching during COVID?
Melissa: No, I started teaching just before that. I was actually called by a lecturer who read my book about the Bristol music scene so he asked me to teach music journalism in Bristol. And then from there, I joined the BA in broadcasting, which is more of what I do this year. I’m not a typical music journalist, but it was the kick. So when someone asks you something and it goes well, it’s just ideal. And so, yeah, so now I love my colleagues at the University of the West of England. I got promoted as a senior lecturer this summer. So, I feel like maybe, yeah it’s time to give back to young people and to reflect on what I’ve done. So, you never know, I mean, in my dream world, I think I would meet someone fantastic, like a friend or a boyfriend, and it would just kickstart the energy to go somewhere else. But I’ve been, we were talking about loneliness at the beginning and I think it’s been so lonely, and I don’t know about you, but I have lots of friends here, but unlike Africa, I do find that people in the West, you know, they just know the West and sometimes they take for granted all the other stories you have within you and sometimes they find it hard to relate to people who haven’t.
Melissa: Not even traveled because travel could be like seen, as you know, a posh thing, you can afford to travel. But people who haven’t seen the world in a different way from the country where they were born. So, it could simply be, sometimes someone from Northern Ireland would have more of this understanding because, you know, they have a tragic history, as well, or someone who, I’m not talking about people whose parents were like working for big thing, big companies and they took them to – I have a friend who grew up in Washington because her dad was an ambassador, it’s not the same thing. The people who understand other parts of the world are sometimes much richer and you know, here in England…They’re so sure that it’s the best country in the world and the French are even worse…So that is hard and sometimes I feel like if I could go back, yeah to Africa. There almost everyone speaks three languages in Africa, right?
Melissa: And [many] Africans have been in another African country to try some study, to visit family, like you know, especially in West Africa. Like, I think a lot of people from Sierra Leone have got family from Liberia or people from Senegal have got family from Mali. So, my friend in Ivory Coast, she’s half French and tons of her friends are from the Congo. They moved to Abidjan because it is probably the best city for contemporary art in Africa. Abidjan has got tons of galleries…
Chika: OK, I always thought that Dakar had more of an art scene than Abidjan. Would you say Abidjan does?
Melissa: It [Dakar] has a great art scene for sure. Dakar is like the capital of art fairs for West Africa. But I think, so I haven’t been able to go. It was on my list every year. Lebanon and Ivory Coast were always on my list of places to visit next year and then of course you can’t do it all and my friend who lived there, maybe it’s because she’s very interested in it, but she knows all the galleries and all the musicians in Abidjan and from her field. She’s the BBC, French speaking correspondent. She’s been there for twenty-five years. It seems like a super exciting place to live in.
So, there’s a lot of people crossing, coming to Abidjan to show their work. They’re not based in Ivory Coast. Maybe that’s the difference.
Chika: Oh I see.
Melissa: But they want to show in those galleries. There’s a famous gallery Cécile Fakhoury. It’s probably a French Ivorian foreign owner that has a lot of African artists from all over the continent…
Chika: You speak English and French, yeah? And so Arabic is a bit shaky?
Melissa: No, it’s not. I don’t speak Arabic at all because my mom is, she speaks another language and so she didn’t teach me because my dad was afraid we would never be good in French, which is a bit sad. But at the time in the ‘80s, you know, it was true. If you had an accent and curly hair then [it would be difficult for you] and I know ‘cause actually I had some neighbors who were a family from Morocco. The children were born in Morocco, so they never had a French passport. They arrived late. They had a strong accent and they did terribly badly at school. Just because all the teachers assumed they wouldn’t learn and were stupid. And we were like, no accent. Perfect. Mom would buy us the best clothes, even though it was too expensive for her. And that worked. It was crazy, but you know, that’s how racism works.
Chika: Yeah. Wow, that’s interesting. I didn’t get your educational background, like your schooling, what did you major in?
Melissa: Yeah, I did study European literature at La Sorbonne and then I did a degree, you’ve heard of the School of International Politics? In international affairs and then journalism school, just, yes, in the University of Paris.
Chika: Okay. And you mentioned Northwestern University.
Melissa: I just visited Northwestern for just over two weeks, really. It was a very short trip, but when I was doing my Masters in France and they visited ours as well. It was an incredible trip. I love that place.
Chika: Yeah. That’s where I went to do my Masters. It’s a good school.
Melissa: Did you?
Chika: Yeah. 2010.
Melissa: So, I went there in 2003. It was really interesting ‘cause it was the beginning of the war in Iraq and everybody was pro-war, including the most Democrat. So, we were literally in the middle of a freedom fight. (Laughs).
Chika: Just two more questions. So, what kind of tools do you think that a journalist should bring, like just as a foreign correspondent? You talked about audio recorders. Can you just mention some brands that you would recommend?
Melissa: I’ve always worked with a Marantz. My friends in Europe, they use Zoom, not, you know, the platform. (Laughs) I think Zoom has got a really incredible machine now and they’re much less expensive as well. But to be fair, I know a lot of people here doing podcasting with their iPhone. It’s just, they’re so good. So, I wouldn’t recommend doing that when you’re a correspondent ‘cause you know, you underestimate how you multitask when you’re a reporter, right? So you might need to call, write down things and then record, and of course it’s better to have it an SD card. I still edit on Audacity, but of course most people have got Adobe Audition…I don’t know, it’s easy and yeah, that’s it. That’s the main tool. I mean, there’s many other recorders and microphones, but, I’ve never done super tricky production. Or if I did, I did it with an extra producer and the material that they brought. So, I didn’t have to do it myself, which is another luxury of all the people, you know. When you’re three or four in a team. Yeah, I would recommend working on a Mac, but it’s probably prejudice. And yeah, I think it’s important to remain curious and to triple check everything. We live in a funny era of fake news and lots of journalism as we call it now, right, is copy and paste… So, it’s meant to be about the drive to bring in new stories, I guess.
“…are you sure you don’t want to be my lover and give me babies?”
Chika: Can you describe your social life, maybe your romantic life as a foreign correspondent?
Melissa: So social life could be great. I mean, it’s obviously a great way to meet a lot of people. When I, it was a lot of partying because that’s the sort of thing you do when you’re new to a city. So first, Miami and Nairobi are both nightlife places, right? In Nairobi, for me, it was almost frustrating because there was so little to do on Sunday afternoon, right? The center would be dead, most people just go to malls, and I’m not American, so I wouldn’t find the pleasure of like buying and then having a meal in a mall. I did it because again, Westgate had wonderful cafes. The food in Nairobi is extraordinary. I don’t know. It’s a mix of everything. So I don’t know if you would say, ‘cause I haven’t been to Lagos, but it’s better. It’s not like it’s not good in Dakar but I think Nairobi’s got a unique mix of Indian, European, even Mediterranean cuisine plus their own. Ugali, you know, corn meals, lots of meat obviously. I’ve become very much of a non-meat eater, but there’s also great, I ate nyama choma at the time, which was delicious, but I don’t eat meat anymore. So social life was always kind of adventurous, lots of clubbing, lots of international friends. Luckily, we were, most of us were quite of the same mind, as I said. I had a friend who was also very keen on having local Kenyan friends and not only expats from the UN, so we were on the same page. I met lots of Kenyans who had studied in England and they were just coming back. So, you know, because they know England, then I guess, you know you also feel you have much more in common because sometimes, you know, you can’t delude yourself. You don’t know what it is to be born there and to meet like someone who has never been anywhere else.
Personal life was a bit more difficult because I find it again as a young woman and I look a bit younger than I am and when I was like under 30, it was even worse. I looked like a child.
Then, African journalists, you know, or journalists based in Africa, I don’t know if it’s the climate! (Laughs) You know they’re very flaky and everybody’s always after everybody. There’s a lot of cheating. I met so many people. I would be like, I met you in Nairobi, you were with your girlfriend and here you are with that other girl. You see what I mean?
Chika: And these are the foreign correspondents or the African journalists reporting for local media?
Melissa: They were mostly foreign correspondents, but I also had a local friend. He was married, but his wife didn’t want children, so he was literally asking me every three months, are you sure you don’t want to be my lover and give me babies? And I’m like, yes I’m sure.
Chika: Oh my goodness.
Melissa: You should know my dating life was not ideal. Lots of like meeting people at the time when they would leave. Like I’d arrived somewhere, have a big crush on someone who would leave two weeks later or people who were taken or going to party and having like three men offering you free drinks and then feeling so overwhelmed that you just want to stay away from guys. And I met a lot of African girls who were…they were bisexual. They had a foreign husband and local girlfriends, which I thought was a bit sad in some ways, because I felt they needed protection or something, but you know, it could be fun, for a lot of people, it could be fun. It’s not my thing. I’m a bit of Victorian, like one day I’ll find the perfect match, who can read my mind and read a lot of books, but there’s not so many guys like that! … I should have been a librarian or something.
Chika: That’s interesting.
Melissa: So dating was not easy, but having children, I wouldn’t even imagine. I had a friend, she was not a foreign correspondent, she worked for Human Rights Watch but there’s a lot of similarity in the work that we do. And, she married a Kenyan and had two children while she is in charge of like LGBTQ+ affairs for Human Rights Watch which means she travels a lot and she meets a lot of people in trouble and she’s a mom of two and I’m like, you’re my hero. I could never do that.
Chika: You couldn’t do that. How?
Melissa: I don’t think in a foreign country without my mom. My mom is a supermom. She was a nanny on top of things, so I’ve always thought I would never live too far from my mom, otherwise I wouldn’t get through it. So yeah, I think I was a bit afraid of that.
Chika: Yeah. I mean, it’s something that women journalists definitely have to think about all the time. It’s, you know, you can’t have it all, at least not at the same time.
Melissa: I don’t think I can. I’m very, again, I’m very, I don’t want to discourage anybody. I don’t want to say, oh no, you can’t do it because I told you, so many people told me, you can’t do this, but I was a bit – and I think, for most of these travels I always thought, if anything goes wrong, I’ll just pack my bags and go somewhere else. So, I never really felt a sense of grounding. As much as I love Nairobi and I miss it like so bad when I came back, I never reached that stage, like my friend in Abidjan, where I would feel like this is my life and I can settle here with a proper, local, good boyfriend. It didn’t happen to me. It’s just, it’s not on purpose, it just didn’t happen.
Chika: Yeah. Then lastly, where do you get your news about Africa? To stay up-to-date, what are your favorite sources?
Melissa: It depends. I guess I still read the BBC a lot, Al Jazeera, of course. And then when it’s a country where I’ve lived, I check, like for a very long time, I had all the newsletters from Kenyan TVs and Kenyan websites. But now I find there’s so many new websites all the time. Africa Is A Country was a big thing when I was there, mostly cultural, I would say, but there’s new website. I write a lot about also diaspora so I guess I would read more about, you know, African people in the West as well. So, for that, there’s a lot of websites and I write for a website called I Am History and they have a platform for black people in the UK. So, nothing groundbreaking, just typical. Yeah, sometimes I read Le Monde as I said and France 24, and I feel, I listened very much less than I used to. When I worked for them, I was obsessed. I listened every day.
Melissa: Yes. So I know a lot of people who work there. I knew Trésor [Kibangula] who was from DRC. Jeune Africa. I have a weird feeling about Jeune Afrique. I feel they’re very biased on certain issues. You know, they obviously have money from Morocco, which probably means that they have money from some of the Emirates. And I think they’re very biased on certain issues. They’re a bit pro-France for my taste, but it’s good for like just the regular, typical hard news, I guess. Yeah, I check their website and I follow all of them on social media. But, I’m a bit skeptical. It’s not, I guess it’s just more old fashioned, than biased.
Chika: I see.
Melissa: Le Point also has a website now about Africa. Le Point, but I think Le Point’s a very right -wing newspaper, so I always feel a bit wary of what I read. Sometimes it’s great, because the journalists themselves, they’re not, that’s a funny thing about journalism, right? You can have a right-wing newspaper and have journalists who are not right-wing and then they would surprise you with what they write and the other way around. So, I find The Guardian a bit conservative. The Guardian for instance, it’s not very good on African affairs. I don’t know what you think. They have a, most of their African stories are the paid stories from the development page, which belongs to, I mean, is financed by the Bill Gates Foundation. And it’s not that they’re not doing good reporting, but it is mostly advertisement for aid workers and charities. That doesn’t mean you’re not learning anything, but I feel they have very much less coverage of African countries compared to, for instance, Southern Europe or Latin America. I don’t know why. They probably have a couple of people, maybe one in Johannesburg and one in Ghana. Afua [Hirsch] here used to work for them in Ghana, but now she’s back and she’s got to, she’s like a big TV woman.
Chika: Yeah. They have a Nigerian guy now there for The Guardian.
Melissa: Yeah. What about you? Do you read the Europeans press even though you’re based in Nigeria?
Chika: Oh, I read them all. I definitely try to read as much as possible. So of course, papers in Africa, local papers, stuff in Europe, of course, following what America is talking about. I definitely try to get the whole full scope and of course the Arab papers as well, the Arab media. Yeah, but I did want to pick up on one thing you said, like you said, you and a friend made a conscious decision to have local Kenyans as friends. Did you find other foreign correspondents that were a bit more insular?
Melissa: I mean, I’m not in their head, so, it’s hard to make assumptions, but I felt a few people were, they didn’t realize that they lived in their expat world, they just didn’t think it’s a funny thing to do. But maybe if they had been to Belgium it would have been the same. See what I mean? Especially sometimes Americans, they tend to stick to [themselves] and again the French, they tend to stick to [themselves]. Like I know here people in England who live, Spanish and French people, they just have Spanish friends and French friends because they like to recreate their own community. So I don’t know about other people but I did notice. I had a friend who worked for CPJ. He was always with local people, always. He even lived with a local guy at some point. So I don’t want to make assumptions and again…but I did feel that some people didn’t care for sure. They were only interested in knowing the knowledgeable people, the ones with the big address book and all the ones working for the big company, or those sorts of things.
Chika: You also said that the faces of people reporting on Africa are changing but the narrative is still the same. I thought that was really interesting.
Melissa: I do find sometimes that with these big networks it’s a bit true. But then again you can’t always blame the person. You never know what’s their story. You don’t know how hard they’ve tried to make that change. Sometimes it’s also misunderstanding. What happened to me is sometimes I’ve met someone but I’ve already read before and once I met them, I had a different perspective. My experience in Central Africa Republic was awful…There was this French guy owning a French restaurant. It was French food. He was making, heavy hot French meals in the middle of this equatorial weather, drinking a lot and it was so colonial and no one there obviously interacted with local people because it’s a ravished country right so there’s no middle class. So, then they wouldn’t even try. And at the time I worked with the UN, so it was difficult to have a normal life because we had a curfew and I was not allowed to walk in the street, so a car would always pick us up so I had no social life basically.
It was very hard. You’re in a little prison, which is why when we entered lockdown with COVID, I was like, it’s nothing compared to a real curfew where you to stay in your room literally. You wake up at six, a car will pick you up, you go to the office, you come back at four, five, six…so your social life, your interactions with local people, apart from aid, apart from when we distributed food, almost none of our colleagues were Central African, only the secretary.
Chika: Yeah, sounds like your reporting in Africa was a special time in your life, looking back, would you say?
Melissa: Oh, definitely. It was the best time. It changed me, I learned so much; it was fantastic; it was humanely incredible and yeah it was just uh, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Chika: But would you say that the Western world still misunderstands many African countries and context?
Melissa: Definitely. Definitely. For me, it’s a bit of a nightmare. Sometimes I lose hope that it might change in my lifetime. Sometimes you have hope and you see great stuff and again there’s so many wonderful African-British artists doing so much. John Akomfrah, Steve McQueen and then you walk the streets or you turn the TV on and there’s never any African stories. All these horrible headlines that I mentioned or when something bad happens in an African country. So you see, old habits come back. Like you what happened in Haiti like the president was killed and there’s all the stories about, oh this cursed country. Blah blah, blah, you know? And I’m like seriously, haven’t we been there before? Yeah, sometimes I wonder how. And I’m sure Americans feel the same about Black Lives Matter, right? How many times, you had the Civil Rights Movement. Before that, it was so many great, Harlem Renaissance was already in the ‘20s and then in ‘70s and then the 80s they were so many protests and then the 90s and then the cinema and then Black Lives Matter and now there’s almost a third iteration of Black Lives Matter in the US.
“[The French] have this idea that you’re less than them, pretty much, especially if you come from Africa.”Melissa Chemam
And so, it’s been a century of struggle. How can you change? And it’s complicated, ‘cause here in Britain, I see a lot of white journalists writing about Black Lives Matter to say, “It’s great, we should all be anti-racist. But if we support black people and ask for reparation, we should also give money to the poor, white people because it’s the same and when you say privilege.” Every time we talk about white privilege, you have white journalists going to a white working-class neighborhood saying, “Do they look privileged?”
And they don’t understand that the privilege we’re talking about is the privilege not being felt because of your skin color. It’s not about owning. It’s not about Prince William, so maybe privilege is the wrong word. We should say something else, because it’s not working.
I do find it’s about education of all people and also in Britain, a lot of black people are now very angry. So, you’ve read that book, “Why I Don’t Speak to People About Race?” and I feel a lot of black people are like that, they’re like, I don’t want any white people or people from any other background and especially Asians to talk about black issues because they don’t understand or they do it to, for their career and they don’t care and I can relate. I can understand why they feel that. But then again, it’s all about educating the others otherwise we can’t change, not only racism but prejudice, right? Because that’s my main problem with French people for instance. I mean, they won’t kill someone in the street, but really in their mind, they have this idea that you’re less than them, pretty much, especially if you come from Africa. If you’re born in France or if you can speak well or you’re successful, if you have money, they might forget about your skin color, but if you come from another place in the world and you have an accent or you’re dressed differently you’re gonna be discriminated against. You’re never gonna get the same jobs and all of that. And so, it’s a difficult one because there’s also a lot of people using this issue for their career at the moment right? It’s always like that. I was not there in ‘60s, maybe it was already like that during the – I totally idealize the Civil Rights movement. I feel there was so much authenticity. But I wasn’t there. Maybe there were tons of white people around Malcolm X, you know, pretending to be his friends and to get, you know, some quotes or whatever. Maybe it’s human nature.
Sometimes I feel a bit pessimistic about it all, and especially for us. I feel like when you talk about the Middle East, the Palestinians and North Africans, it’s almost like we don’t exist. We’re a smaller country and it’s not like you see it on people’s face. Someone Lebanese or Palestinian could totally pass as Mexican or even white sometimes and you don’t know the struggles against colonialism that comes with it and most people don’t care. ‘Cause, I mean, if there’s one issue that people have given up on, it’s the Palestinian issue, right? It’s not even in the news anymore. I mean it was recently because it was horrendous what was happening in Gaza, but it’s like, I think a lot of people take for granted that it’s too late, just too late.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s a lot to carry and that’s also something that separates you from people who haven’t been anywhere. They usually have a very normal life. My best friend is French. She complains all the time, “I didn’t get that job. My flat’s too small,” and I’m like so many people have had their parents going through terrible wars and blah, blah, blah and they don’t have to think about that ever.
Chika: Do you have siblings?
Melissa: I have a sister, yes.
Chika: Do you relate with her or do you think that your experiences create distance between the two of you?
Melissa: No, she’s the opposite of me. She’s a doctor. She wants to be in the middle class. She only has white friends. She came to visit me in Nairobi. It was a comedy. First thing she said was like, “Oh can we have a nice outdoor terrace sort of thing?” Then I said, first, you need to understand how it works here. It’s not a typical thing. People don’t eat in, you know, on the pavement, it’s just not a typical thing in Nairobi and she kept asking for the things that she couldn’t find in where we were. And I really wanted to take the train to Mombasa and she was really disappointed because it was a bit dirty and there was one cockroach here. It’s about adapting. Certain things are natural in a non-industrialized environment. There are animals; there are spiders; there’s insects that you wouldn’t see in Paris but she resents that. She also thinks I’m too political. (Laughs).
She just kept projecting what she could find in Europe. I think she liked, she loved, when went to Mombasa and I booked a cheap room, she literally the next morning she switched to a luxury hotel… So, it’s just, we’re are just very different.
Chika: On that note, Melissa, we can end it here. Thank you so much!