Raising the bar for freelance journos from Africa

Hello friends! It’s November. Time for a new post.

A few weeks ago, I had a chat with Ayodeji Rotinwa, the deputy editor of African Arguments, which covers politics, economics and culture across Africa, all brought to the fore by the Royal African Society in London. In recent years, the outlet has gotten more popular – well, that’s what it seems like to me. In the past, I think it had somewhat of an academic/policy analyst sort of air to it.

Now, it seems more accessible and I’m seeing more writers from Africa contributing content. Ayodeji is a true journalist. This means, it’s not just a profession for him. It’s a way of thinking, a way of being in the world and this is really cool. So, we have that in common.

Ayodeji told me that he came into journalism by accident after studying diplomacy in school. His plan was to get into Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and work his way up the civil servant ladder. But things happened and he found his way writing a piece for the Nigerian daily, Nation newspaper, commenting on the Arab Spring and how Nigeria could learn from it. “…why we needed a revolution,” he told me. To his delightful shock, that essay got published. He wrote another one. That, too, was published. Building on his foundation as an avid reader, he kept going. He reported for Nigeria’s ThisDay for five years, following the art scene. Then, he went into freelancing. Now he’s been with African Arguments since 2019.

So, we connected not too long ago for a wonderful conversation about journalism and I got a chance to talk to him about how he wants to help raise the bar for freelance reporters from Africa through a new fellowship program that African Arguments is currently running. (Learn more about the fellowship. It’s good stuff!)

I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did!

***

Ayodeji Rotinwa

Chika: Why don’t we just start with an introduction?

Ayodeji: Alright, my name is Ayodeji Rotinwa, I am the Deputy Editor of African Arguments, a publication that covers African politics, business news, culture across the continent.

Chika: You know, there has really been a splurge of upcoming publications that focus on African current affairs. Have you noticed this? Do you think this is a positive trend?

Ayodeji: That’s a very good question, cause, I’m not sure because I think, you know like funny, I had a conversation with someone the other day, when we talk about African current affairs, there’s almost the idea that you know Africa, anything Africa is synonymous to only politics. Like the only thing that we think about and we, I mean not to say – because politics is a big part of our lives, but we are not unique in that sense. It happens everywhere else in the world. But I sort of worry sometimes that, like the Africa [publications] are overly focused on just [politics] so like when a coup happens somewhere or when there’s an election somewhere, that’s only when, you know, countries are like worth covering or worth analyzing. Like, I remember when Zambia had their elections. I think it was a couple of months ago and I saw like, all of a sudden, I was seeing Zambia everywhere. But before then I had never. Zambia? It’s either elections or China did something there. You know, those are the two sort of binaries. 

Chika: [Laughs]

Ayodeji: And I’m like, surely something else is going on in Zambia! Like, you know, it’s not just these two things.

Chika: Yes, you’re right. 

Ayodeji: So yeah, that’s my thing on the increasing, I guess, more, you know Africa current affairs, like podcast, like we just talked about earlier before we started recording or things like that. I’m not sure. I’m on the fence about it, I think.

Chika: But you know, just to, kind of add some, you know, a counter narrative to that., I have seen new publications that focus on certain topics. For example, I subscribe to a publication called EnviroNews and it’s just talking about the green energy space.

Ayodeji: Okay.

Chika: Innovation, that type of thing, environmental conservation across Africa. And I’ll see things about, what’s it, Swaziland? Well, was formerly called Swaziland. They [the government and private initiatives in the country] are now investing heavily in wind energy, wind and solar energy. They’ve got huge farms everywhere.

Ayodeji: Ah. That’s amazing.

Chika: Yeah. So I’m seeing a lot of niche publications.

Ayodeji: Oh, are you?

Chika: There’s another one.

Ayodeji: I need to read that then.

Chika: Yes, Ayodeji. I’ll tell you about it. There’s another one. Ah, a woman’s publication that’s really funky, very trendy. It’s just cool how they do it.

Ayodeji: Hmmm.

Chika:  Because some of the women’s publications are often very cheesy.

Ayodeji: Yeah.

Chika:  And too, like, NGO-ish.                                        

Ayodeji: Yeah.

[Later, I remembered the name of the outlet. It’s called Amaka Studio, a digital media space celebrating Pan-African womanhood.]

Ayodeji: Great.

Chika: And then I’m seeing a lot of cool, funky avant-garde publications, too, that highlight artists across Africa. So maybe because of your line of work, you’re just seeing like the current affairs, political stuff… [Laughs]

“…people say when it comes to black bodies, we’re not people.”

Ayodeji Rotinwa

Ayodeji: Yeah, it might be, it might be, it might be, and, and, are they heavy on like newsletters? Is that the format?

Chika: Well, like for example Nataal. It’s really arty and funky. Based in South Africa, I believe. 

Ayodeji: Oh, I know Nataal. I know Nataal, yeah.

Chika: Yes, yeah, exactly, stuff like that

Ayodeji: I know Nataal. Yeah.

Chika: Hmmm.

Ayodeji: Okay so, I guess Nataal has been around for a bit longer, so I didn’t think of it when you said new.

Chika:  Okay, okay.

Ayodeji: They’ve been around for almost five years now, yeah. So then, I agree, yeah.

Chika: Yeah. No, as in like, the past six years.

Ayodeji: Oh, fair enough.

Chika: Because I mean I would say the space is so different from what it was ten years ago.

Ayodeji: Definitely, definitely, for sure, for sure, for sure, yes, yes, yes, yes. I definitely agree with that, that’s true, that’s true. I’m definitely going to look up on EnviroNews. Maybe cast my net a bit wider, you’re right, it might be that what comes to my radar is all this stuff that I guess may be similar, or likely the same family as what we [African Arguments] do. Even though we try to do a bit of culture and business as well, so it’s possible.

Chika: Can you talk about how long you’ve been at African Arguments? And how is it going for you there?

Ayodeji: So I’ve been on African Arguments since June 2019. For me it was kind of like a transition in a way because before that I’ve been freelancing almost exclusively fulltime and it was mostly reporting and not editing. But I think at that point, beginning of 2019, I just felt like I was thirsty for a role. So sort of like where I was contributing to setting the agenda, ’cause I do think with freelancing, sometimes or with reporting. Even though yes, you are the one pitching the story or the idea, sometimes there is that thing where you sort of feel like sometimes you sort of have to like follow a house style or like what this publication wants to like cover. But with editing, you are sort of, like, it’s slightly more expansive, I think, like you can sort of say. Oh you know, like, um, you have more power, let’s say. That’s really it. More power to say we should cover this, you know, cause you’re in the editor’s position. So it’s been really, really fascinating. I think the most favorite thing for me is, because we’re quite broad to say that we don’t, we cover the entire continent, or rather we try to cover the entire continent. Like having to chase, to see, to even experience and discover myself even as an editor, like stories from like different places. I remember like just this year alone, we had, at least, one of the most fascinating pieces I’ve ever edited, ehhh, the politics of BDSM in South Africa, and how it’s like, you know like, obviously, South Africa is like, how it had to do with race, with identity. Like it was just like a layered story and just being able to publish that was very, very exciting for me personally and that’s sort of been the case, like, sort of chasing these stories that I actually want to read or maybe that I didn’t even know that I needed to read, you know. Or like tracking the trend or the crossover between afrobeats and amapiano which I think is really a moment in music on the continent.

Chika: Yes. Speaking of amapiano, I just learned that word last week, so [laughs] I’m glad you brought that up.

Ayodeji: Really?

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji: Amapiano! Oh really? Oh wow, it’s everywhere. [Laughs] Where have you been? [Laughs]

Chika: Yeah, my Ghanaian friend [Erica Ayisi] said she likes it. My Ghanaian friend brought it up, said she likes it. So, I’m like what’s amapiano? But when she played the songs, I’m like “Oh yes! I recognize it. I definitely recognize it, like, Niniola. Yes. I didn’t know that’s what it was called. To me it just sounded like South African house mixed with afrobeats. I didn’t know it had a name. So I know the sound, but I didn’t know the name of it.

Ayodeji: Yeah, I mean, I believe it’s called Amapiano.

Chika: Yes.

Ayodeji: I’ve forgotten the history now. How it’s like drawn from the strings or chords from the piano and then something else. I read that somewhere. So yeah, that merger. I know, like, last year, like writing, and being able to drill down and commission almost close to ten pieces on #EndSars. So like, that was for me like, it’s been the highlight of my time at African Argument so far. I don’t think if I was a freelancer or even maybe an editor in another publication I would have that space to really dig deep on one particular topic. You know we commissioned, like we, well, you can go to the website to see the series. We’re even doing more pieces on the protest from every angle, on the angle of like how it’s divided across or was supposedly divided across geographical lines and about queer people in the protest and on the army and more, like bigger analyses. There’s analysis; there was reportage; there were photo essays, you know. Just being able to do that, and those are the sort of things I enjoy about my job at African Arguments.

Chika: Yeah, that’s great. So, you know, as an editor looking at current affairs in Africa, you know, one thing current affairs in Africa tends to cover is conflict. That big ‘C’ word.

Ayodeji: Hmm.

Chika:  And bloodshed. Not just in Africa but all over the world. Journalists, you know, we’re always smelling, looking for the smell of blood and you know in J-school they teach you –

Ayodeji: [Laughs]

Chika: They teach you, if it bleeds, it leads.

Ayodeji: If it bleeds, it leads, yeah.

Chika: So do you think that standard still kind of follows through regarding stories of conflict? Do they tend to make the front page of African Arguments?

“..the sort of African affairs, quote and unquote analyst, that sits in the think tank in, I don’t know, Sweden, or whatever, has to stop.”

Ayodeji rotinwa

Ayodeji: I would say, not necessarily. But actually what I would say in this regard, so what we get, what we predominantly get pitched are stories like this. So like when, because we’re a very small publication, we also rely on people sending us submissions, sending us their pieces and because we sort of grew out of an academic sort of like community, like platform, that sort of reports on Africa in a very particular way, so those kind of people sort of reach out to us. But we try [laughs] it hasn’t been easy, but we try very, very hard to not approach coverage in that way. So even though, like maybe if we get ten pitches a week, you know like I said earlier, like it’s about, oh elections, and conflict here and so this and that. But we’ve actively tried to diversify – no that word is tricky with the way I’m using it – but we sure try to make richer our coverage. Conflict is not dominant or should not be the dominant narrative. And even when we are covering conflict, something we’ve tried to do, we’ve tried to institute an internal policy at African Arguments to say the parachute journalism, the sort of African affairs, quote and unquote analyst, that sits in the think tank in, I don’t know, Sweden, or whatever, has to stop. You know, so even if we are going to report conflict, [even if] we are going to report some skirmish, disagreement, some political battle in any country. It needs to be people who are from there and who can sort of report on the ground and report from their perspectives as well and that, I think that most of this “it bleeds, it leads” is also particularly coming from people who are from the outside looking in, who make sort of like broad, general assumptions and what not. So even if we are covering conflict, we don’t try to focus on it. You know we try to do it in a more, like layered, considered, you know, way. But, yeah.

Chika: Right. That’s a good point because I know that there’s this pushback from many people that there’s too much conflict coverage in Africa and I, to be honest, I push back against that.

Ayodeji: Yeah.

Chika: I am not going to stop covering conflict because it needs to be covered. So I feel, just as you’ve said, there’s a way to cover it. The answer is not to stop covering it. It’s not to stop covering it because that’s ridiculous.

Ayodeji: Yeah.

Chika: Because then, you know whenever I do a story about a conflict, the people on ground, they are always so thankful. They’re always like, “Thank you so much for covering this thing.” You know what I’m saying? So It’s just like, “Oh thank you, thank you for talking about this kidnapping.” They are the most incredibly grateful people. I understand that there might have been an unbalance in the way Africa has been covered. It leans heavily towards conflict; I understand that. But this move, this trend that we need to stop covering conflict, I’m totally against it. I think we need to – because there’s this other side. A lot of people in Africa say that the media, the mainstream media ignores when Africans die. You know, so you’re hearing both sides. Some people say we focus too much on when Africans die. Other people say, no, but you guys don’t cover it enough, you know, when Africans die. So I’m hearing both sides of this thing. So which is it?

Ayodeji: Hmm.

Chika: You know? A lot of people were upset when former President Goodluck Jonathan reached out to sent condolences for terrorist attacks happening in other countries but not to [the families of] people who were killed by Boko Haram. So that kind of thing. So there is a sense from people on the continent that there’s not enough coverage of conflict whereas [some] people, say no, we cover it too much. Isn’t that interesting, that [seemingly] contradictory perception?

“I feel like the way I’ve seen conflict covered, it’s like, it’s very detached from what is happening sometimes. It’s like the people there are just statistics, or they are just like pieces on a chessboard.”

Ayodeji rotinwa

Ayodeji: Yeah, I mean like, yeah I agree. I think that is interesting. But I don’t know, I’m gonna answer this like a bit deeper. For me I don’t see it as that. It’s not that black and white. I think when people say we cover too much conflict, I think what they mean is that conflict is what is privileged in the coverage of the continent. This happens to freelancers all the time. It’s not saying stop covering conflict. But if you say, okay, yes I want cover, I want to do like a piece on maybe something that’s been going on in the North [northern Nigeria]. I also want to do a piece on how, on the culture of perfume making in the North, as well, for instance. The piece about perfume making is not going to be seen as quote, unquote important.

Chika: Mmm hmm.

Ayodeji:  Because it’s like saying, “Oh your people are dying.” But I personally don’t believe that. But yes, conflict is happening. But that’s not the only thing that’s happening to people. 

Chika: Sure.

“…I think the way conflict is covered on the continent is definitely problematic. I think we can agree, sometimes even by us.”

Ayodeji Rotinwa

Ayodeji: So, this is my own argument. I’m not saying to not cover it. Yes, you can cover it, don’t necessarily privilege it, that’s one and two, there are other things that are happening as well and it’s also the way, like you said, the way it’s covered. Because if people feel like they are, they are not just – I feel like the way I’ve seen conflict covered, it’s like, it’s very detached from what is happening sometimes. It’s like the people there are just statistics, or they are just like pieces on a chessboard. Like, I hardly ever see like, considered [reportage], even in a way, sort of vulnerable in reporting about conflict. I mean when it’s done, when it’s usually done, it’s usually done by people who have spent time, even if they’re not from that community, they’ve written the story with the people they’re writing about, not you know from the outside looking in or just like, “Oh I’m just here to do my copy. When I’m done I’ll go to this refugee camp. I’ll speak to a military commander.” And that’s it and you just, you know, go away and do their story. I do think that, I think the way conflict is covered on the continent is definitely problematic. I think we can agree, sometimes even by us. It’s not necessarily even just like, maybe, I don’t know, people from, maybe reporters from outside the continent. Sometimes even internally, the way we do it, I don’t like and this is a much deeper problem that [laughs] we may not have enough time to cover on this call. The way we do it also can be problematic as well. Conflicts are important, we know conflicts are important, but things that happen to people during conflict is important and should be spotlighted. It shouldn’t be ignored necessarily. Yes, I agree with that. It’s the way that it’s done, you know. It’s the way that it’s done and then that you know, for me that is very, very important. Too often, like people, especially like, it also depends upon black bodies. To this point about the way that conflict is covered, when the bomb went off at Dusit hotel – I can’t remember the year. I think it was 2018 or 2019 in Kenya, I think it was an al-Shabab attack, and you know, horrible, horrible, horrible images had come out from there and I remember the New York Times had put up an image of somebody, like dead, you know, people bloodied up. Everything.

Chika: Yeah, yeah.

Ayodeji: And that backlash was entirely justified because [in the Western world, especially the U.S.A.] when a lone gunman goes into a school and shoots children, or shoots people in the mall. I have never seen a photo of it. Never.

Chika: Right.

Ayodeji:  You know. So the standards cannot change. Which is why people say when it comes to black bodies, we’re not people.

Read more: The Gaze on Black Bodies

American visual artist Ayana V. Jackson depicts the lynching of an African-American in this deeply sensitive work
Art depicting violence by Ayana V. Jackson

Ayodeji:  And then I remember the photo editors [at the New York Times] sort of came online to defend their decision, which to me was kind of like you know, digging your heels in over something that you cannot really defend, you know.

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji: So that’s it for me really. It’s one – there are other – yes, the things that happen to people in conflicts are important. It should be reported. Two – there are other things to say. Conflict is not the only thing that is happening to them. A good example, even in Nigeria, Boko Haram, when Eromo, I think Eromo Egbejule, who I imagine that you might know. He did a series on the insurgency and he was in Maiduguri for, I think for a month or two months or so. And there was just like a rich, it was a range of stories that had to do with the conflict and had to do with, like, around the conflict. I think there was a story for instance about how people go to, how people spend their Friday nights.

Chika: Night clubs, yeah.

Ayodeji: In war time. Yes. That to me, that is, because that is the full spectrum of, yes, people are going through something horrible. But they’re also still living.

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji:  That’s my own [perspective]. That’s really my own. Sorry, I’m getting really passionate about this.

Chika: Yeah, I get passionate about it too!

Ayodeji:  Yeah, yeah.

Chika: Like for example, on my instagram, I’ll put images of you know, people smiling and dancing. I did a [photo] series on Congolese dancers. It was just beautiful people smiling in happiness, right?

Ayodeji:  Yeah, yeah.

Chika: And then I did one post, I did one post of a kid crying. It was like you know a sad situation and I got attacked by a commentor. “Why do you always cover conflict in Africa?” I’m like, “Yo! Did you not see like the ten pictures before that with pure happiness?” You know? It’s like! [Laughs]

Ayodeji: [Laughs] Yeah, people do that.

Chika: They get very hypersensitive. Like, I’m aware of that balance. But they got hyp– just that one picture, but all the ones before were very positive stories but you know I think people are very hypersensitive about, you know, “Oh stop talking about conflict. We’re sick of hearing it.” It’s like, but it needs to be covered. I’m not gonna ignore it. You know, so.

Ayodeji: Yeah, yeah. And people are sort of reaching, I guess, saturation points, you know, and so that’s it.

Chika: Yes, yes, fatigue, yes.

Ayodeji: Yeah, fatigue, like which is, I mean yeah, yeah, yeah. Like even I, who does reports like, I’m just like, “Okay. Like ahhh. Like is there nothing else?”

Chika: Yes.

Ayodeji: But yeah, I hear you. I hear you. [Laughs]. Yeah.

Chika: Yeah, that fatigue is there, but I also think that the work that we do as journalists, there’s an activist nature in a certain way because we truly believe that we’re highlighting problems, right? As journalists, I do believe that our role, we are playing a role in bettering societies. Because we are highlighting issues that need to be addressed. So it’s not just, like, glorification of conflict. We’re trying to get these things addressed, right?

Ayodeji: Oh! Yes, yes, yes, definitely that. A sub-genre of journalism that I absolutely enjoy is solutions journalism when, “Oh yes, we’re talking about an issue. But this is how it could possibly be solved.” You know? I love that. You know, it’s like saying, “Yes, we’re spotlighting this thing and where we can, if we can speak to people who are thinking about those problems, those who are passionate about those problems, what do they think can be done about it?” You know? But yeah, I agree with you, we are in that sort of activist slash advocacy role, especially when people cannot advocate for themselves. That’s when we go in and like report a problem and hopefully, you know, like a perfect example again, using a Nigerian example, was when, even though, I don’t know, but I did think it did do something – the Sex for Grades documentary.

Chika: Mmm hmm.

Ayodeji:  By the BBC, you know, sort of instigated, even though it like sort of accelerated a legislation about that, about sexual harassment in the universities, which has gone on for – since I was a child!

Chika: Yes, yes, yes, yes. [Laughs]

Ayodeji: You know, like, it has gone on for decades, you know, and like I don’t think that bill would have seen the light of day if it were not for that documentary. Like, it gave the bill urgency, you know. But yeah, yeah. I definitely agree. I do think we are in that role, and we should continue to play that role. We shouldn’t shy away from it.

Chika: But then on the other hand, those who are kind of against the conflict reporting, there’s this new push to show the lifestyles of the rich and famous across Africa, like a response.

Ayodeji: Oh, no, no, no!

Chika: [Laughs] It’s like, a way to show the West: “We’re rich too! We have yachts and we have multimillion dollar homes.” What do you feel about that?

Ayodeji: I have a big problem, I have a big issue with that. Like that, this is still what I’m saying about. It can never, nothing is ever black and white, you know. Not that everything is bad or – everything is bad, is bad, everything that’s good is bad as well because it’s not! I think even in like, with our popular culture, especially with our films, this sort of corrective- what it does, what I think it does, this sort of corrective, “Oh!” Like you said, “Oh, we have yachts. We have buildings.”

“…the main issue with this sort of corrective reporting…it rests on proving something to somebody outside of yourself.”

Ayodeji Rotinwa

I think this particular sort of brand of, you know, we have yachts…one percent life. I think Nollywood is the biggest representation of that, at least in Nigeria anyway, where we’re trying to like, [show that] suddenly all of us are rich and we all throw parties every day of the week and we are just like casually like on boats on a Wednesday evening, you know, which is not the case.

Chika: [Laughs]

Ayodeji: ‘Cause this sort of corrective – oh, because it has been so, we’ve been painted quote and quote so badly –

Chika: Right.

Ayodeji: – that we have to show people that it’s good, but the main issue with this sort of corrective reporting, is because it rests on proving something to somebody outside of yourself.

Chika: Exactly.

Ayodeji: That something is – or that somebody is usually the West and that somebody is actually usually white people. It reminds me of a quote that Toni Morrison says, even though it’s specific to racism. I use this analogy when I think about journalism, this kind of journalism as well. Because it says that you will always have to keep – the point of racism is distraction. You’ll always have to keep proving something.

Oh, they tell you that you don’t have high rises. Now let’s show them that we have high rises. They’ll tell you that we don’t have culture. Oh no, let’s now show them, oh afrobeats is the next best thing after agege bread. Now you’re constantly having to, you know, prove something to someone. And I’m like to who and why?

Chika: Yes, yes. I totally agree. I totally agree. Well said. [Laughs]. Well said. And I like the word you used “corrective” cause that’s what they are trying to do. Correct what was a very damaging image.

Ayodeji: Yeah, yeah.

Chika: But it’s like, why do we have to keep proving our humanity? Why can’t we just talk to ourselves? You know what I’m saying?

Ayodeji: Exactly. Tell our own stories and tell all the stories, then that way, this problem will not arise! Tell all the stories.

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji:  The early 2010s, Africa rising.

Africa Rising is a term coined to explain the rapid economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa after 2000 and the inevitability of its continuation. The Financial Times defines Africa Rising as a “narrative that improved governance means the continent is almost predestined to enjoy a long period of mid-to-high single-digit economic growth, rising incomes and an emerging middle class.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africa_Rising

Chika: Yes.

Ayodeji: There’s oil! There’s money! Everybody is moving back.

Chika: Silicon Valley in Kenya!

Ayodeji: This thing of always comparing ourselves. Yaba cannot just be Yaba. It has to be Yabacon Valley. Or we have a TV personality, they can’t just be themselves. They have to be the “Oprah Winfrey of somewhere.” I’m just like no, no. You know?

Chika: Yeah, yeah.

Ayodeji:  But yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s my, those are my thoughts. [Laughs].

Chika: Very good thoughts. Those are amazing observations really yeah. We’re still using the West as a measuring stick you know, for a lot of our so-called advancements.

Ayodeji: Yeah, mmm hmmm. Very bad, very, very bad and we really shouldn’t. We really need to be like, I don’t need someone to tell me that somebody is “the this of the” – no! You know? Just like I read a really interesting, I don’t know if you know, there’s this artist who, CK, he’s a Nigerian artist, who’s not – I don’t think he was – well, he’s definitely well-known now after like one of his songs like blew up on Tik Tok like and it’s like one of the most listened to songs across the world and not just in Nigeria. That happened like almost entirely organically. CK is not the Justin Bieber of Nigeria. CK is the CK of Nigeria, you know, and he himself said that, like he wrote like a short, like, text on his Instagram.”

Chika: So now, are some of these energies and observations that you have, does it have something to do with the workshop that you’re starting? The crash course?

One of our modules in the fellowship, for instance, is how to report in Africa without stereotypes.

Ayodeji Rotinwa

Ayodeji: Yes, yeah, yeah, the fellowship. The first thing is even like, I think mentioned earlier, about people who get to write these things, who gets to do this reporting, you know, from the outside looking in. And internally, we’re like – yes, African Arguments actually did come from, like I said, sort of an academic journal that was predominantly written by African affairs experts who were not actually African or based on the continent. So we’re trying to change that and we’re trying to like empower – even though I find that word sometimes problematic, cause I think it’s been used to, you know, oblivion.

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji:  Well, but we’re trying to, you know, to [create a] platform I should say that is, young African journalists across the continent who want to report in the ways that I think that we should be reporting about ourselves about. And we think that why not instead of just, you know, looking for, I mean yes we can publish them, but we can give them the skills to make them better, you know. That’s very much where this, where the thought around this fellowship is coming from. That, you know, where can we find, how can we platform what African voice is? How can we upscale African voices so that they can do the kind of reporting that we need to be seeing across the continent, you know? How can we give them the tools that they need, you know? So that’s why we started this fellowship. I wanted to catch them really young in a way, ’cause I think out of our fellows, the oldest person is like 26 or 25. People who have just been reporting for one year, two years, who are like, I think in this stage of their careers are very teachable and moldable, you know, presumably, you know. To say, oh, we’ll teach you how to do audio reporting. We’ll teach how to do investigative journalism, how to do data journalism. How to pitch. How to get your stories out there. How to network with editors. How to negotiate rates, like how to build a sustainable career doing what you already, like, want to do, which is like reporting and doing it well, you know? One of our modules in the fellowship, for instance, is how to report in Africa without stereotypes, which is a very broad, you know, like thing. It’s one of the foundational things for me, you know, because I felt like – I designed the curriculum – and I feel like people need to know ’cause I do think that there are ways in which when you see as a journalist – as a journalist growing up, when I also started out, sometimes when you see certain stories get the attention, you know, that do certain things, you know that do this – maybe they report conflict in a particular way. They do this, or maybe they do the opposite – they do this corrective thing. You might be tempted to do the same because you’re seeing that this is what works. You know, like, “Oh, if I’m reporting that, I can get published.”

Top: Kanyi Wyban, 26, Kenya; Ope Adetayo, 23, Nigeria; Immaculata Abba, 24, Nigeria Bottom: Lara Reffat, 21, Egypt; Nicolas Nhalungo, 23, Mozambique; Yared Tsegaye, 25, Ethiopia

But it’s like, how can I do like a deeper, richer, more layered work? I feel that’s so important, you know? So that’s one of modules we’re teaching as well. So I’m just like yes, you might see that those particular stories get published but you can do better. Like, you can raise the bar level or the standard of your work. Because of the, well, lean resources, we were able to pick just six fellows for this inaugural, this debut pilot fellowship. But we are looking at how we can also still support people that applied as well. ‘Cause we saw like 500 applications from across the continent. We saw there was an application from a refugee, well, he said he was a refugee from South Sudan. Applications from Lesotho. Some who say like, their media industry isn’t as, you know, as, as layered as rich as, you know, other countries or countries like in their region. Applications from Mozambique, from Mali. I particularly, I’m desperate almost, to help, as much as we can, you know, as much as resources allow, to help to upscale, support these journalists from these places. Even though we couldn’t get them in the official fellowship, but we’re still sort of thinking out ways in the next couple of weeks, how we can support the other applicants as well. We try to like go into like partnerships with other publications. One of them is called Unbias The News. They have their own trainings. So when we cannot even offer trainings, we can sort of like place people with our partners and like still get trained as well. Yeah, it’s been, for the last, I think for the last, well, three, four months, this has been in the works. We’re also thinking, like how can we do more? We’ve done six, yeah, we’ve confirmed them, but how can we still continue doing more, which would be the case, you know, for the next year or so. So yeah, it kind of like, all of my – our – observations, our beliefs as an organization, they sort of like crystallized into this fellowship.

Chika: And you’re targeting freelance journalists, is that correct?

Ayodeji: Yes, yes.

Chika: Okay. Tell me about that, the freelance, it’s like a curse word in some spaces.

Ayodeji: [Laughs]

Chika: It’s like not seen as a very responsible way to be a reporter. So how did you manage that? Because like for me in my experience, people just didn’t see freelancers as serious.

Ayodeji: Yeah, ’cause we’re the second cadre journalists! [Laughs]. We’re not the real ones. I think freelancers have, in many ways, kind of like the freedoms that other journalists like in traditional media houses don’t have. I feel like they are sometimes able to tell like a wider range of stories. If they want to generalize, they can. They have like more flexibility. You know, these are the people that we do want to support. So, people who are not necessarily bound by – being in an organization is not bad – but people who are not bound, people who we think can do more because the people that we work with at African Arguments are predominantly freelancers. It’s also like an institutional thing. We already work with freelancers; we’ve been working with freelancers for years. I mean we get the odd, you know, contributions from people who are in media houses or experts or analysts and things like that and we think freelance journalism should be supported. I mean, we don’t see it as second rate. We don’t see it as inferior. Recently we commissioned a freelance journalist in Mozambique to report on food security there and he had mentioned to me that, oh you know, when he goes to the state government house, they’re not gonna take him seriously because, you know, he is a freelance journalist and I am like, you know what? I’m going to write you a letter, you know, whatever you need to do. Do you want to get on the phone with someone? Do we need to get, like, someone to translate even? I have a friend who is Portuguese; he speaks English. We can make it work, like, you know? This is something that we strongly believe in, you know? Like in my experience, people [freelancers] that I’ve seen, are just more, they’re able to be more ambitious just by design, I think, and we want to support that, because we believe in that and we already work with that. So yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question but that’s kind of like where we, that’s how we approach it.

Chika: Have you observed like a trend where a lot of Nigerians – I’m just gonna speak on Nigeria because that’s where we’re both report from – Nigerian journalists are kind of moving away from the traditional media spaces to become freelancers? Are you observing that, ’cause I’ve seen that.

Ayodeji: Yeah, definitely, I think so, I think so. Even increasingly. I mean yeah, I think for a couple reasons. One reason is, one reason could just be like, oh you know, people feel like they are not – people want to explore. People just feel like, oh in the next stage of my career, let it not just be about reporting a particular beat, a particular way, but let me just try and do something for myself. Freelancing sort of gives you that internally, that’s one. Two – make no bones about it – there’s a money base as well.

Chika: Yes.

Ayodeji: When you freelance, you’re able to be paid more, in some cases and three increasingly now, there’s something I’m also seeing, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it as well – people are trying to build, which is a bigger trend I think in the West where you find journalists are leaving the New York Times and Wall Street Journals and start their own newsletter and trying to build their own audience and monetize that audience with their reporting. I mean, it’s still an early trend but I’ve seen that in Nigeria already. I know a couple of people who have newsletters; who have, like, agreements, like, with Substack for instance. Like, when I heard about it, I’m like, oh wow, like this has advanced a lot quicker than I thought it would. What I believe is called engagement journalism, when you’re hyper focused on your audience or what your audience wants to read and you’re trying to deliver reporting to that particular audience… and then you can eventually like lead to earning money directly from your audience as well. Maybe they pay a monthly fee; they pay a membership to read your work. Things like that. So I think those are three layers I’m seeing. People who like, oh, I want to be ambitious; I want to do something else, get out of traditional journalism. Two, I want to earn money and, you know, I want to have my own freedom. And then three I want to actually build my own audience. Yeah, I think that’s happening and it’s happening at a much quicker rate than I thought.

Ayodeji: From like five years ago to now, oh it’s, it’s, the scene is, yeah, there are so many freelance journalists now. Everyday there are new ones that I read from like Twitter, so yeah, I agree. It’s accelerating. And also of course, I don’t know if you noticed this again, there is also like a, I think I noticed this like maybe last year, there’s an increasing sort of culture of student journalism. I’m not even sure how this happens exactly but I’m seeing twenty-one-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, nineteen-year-olds who are still in school who have started reporting, you know? They might be in journalism programs. Sometimes, they’re even not. Like, one of the fellows, one of the journalists in our fellowship, he’s in his second year or third year, studying English and he has been reporting for the last one year and has been published in like Al Jazeera, The Sahelian. We’ve published him before, you know, like, it’s more enterprising. Like, you know in our days, I wasn’t reporting! So for me it’s surprising.

Chika: The money making aspect does make me a little bit nervous because money it shouldn’t be the first, you know, that should not be our primary ambition as journalists.

Ayodeji: Yeah.

Chika: That’s just not our primary motivation and some of these people who are breaking away from being staff reporters and are starting their own thing, why I get nervous is because I don’t feel like they have the experience to start their own thing. You know? That’s where I just get like, okay, how long have you been- you’ve been in it three years and you already have your own? So therefore the quality of what they’re putting out is questionable and then they start to pander so much to their audience. It becomes very editorial and subjective. So I’m very uncertain.

Ayodeji: Yes, yes. I agree with you.

Chika:  Some of these things are just blogs. They’re just blogs starting up and it’s just very one-sided. It’s no longer true journalism.

Ayodeji: I agree with that. Some of these reports I mentioned, while I do think it’s enterprising, some of these people need, desperately need editors, desperately. Like even the ones that are, some of the ones who have even been doing it a bit longer, I would not name any names but like their writing is like – what are you like, yeah, like it needs to be worked on by an editor. There is also increasingly like – it’s something that I had a conversation [about] with the likes of Eromo [Egbejule], I had this conversation with the news editor at The Continent like a few days ago, there’s this – and I do think even with the freelancers, especially the younger ones that I mentioned, the twenty-one and the twenty-two-year-olds, they are pandering to the audience and also pandering to a certain kind of Western editor. I remember seeing a piece in Time Magazine about #EndSARS, I was thinking like, if this was any other country, this piece would be better edited, one, and this piece, there’s something about it that I was just like, this doesn’t read like – and I’ve been reading Time since I was like thirteen – like, a piece that Time would ordinarily publish. But I think either it was published in a rush or published for its novelty. Some of these young journalists are targeting to the fact that yes, some editors want to see for the sake of, you know, the way of the world, identity politics, for diversity – this is just me assuming, I don’t know whether that’s really the case you know.  But I do think there is some truth to that. I’m like, oh yes, this ended up in a big publication which is a good thing, you know, this story getting out there, but like what is the quality of the story?

“…I do think the quality of freelancing, even though there’s more, it has dropped.”

Ayodeji Rotinwa

I should go back to this and say, this is why I think, you know, working as a staff reporter can be good. Even though yes, in some ways, it is limiting, but in some ways it teaches a kind of discipline, that starting as a freelancer right out of the gate does not quite give you, I think. You know, I mean, I can speak for myself anyway, you know,  because before I started freelancing, I was with ThisDay for like five years you know. Things you know, with deadlines, having to submit your piece to an editor, which I guess we also do with freelancing, but having to go through several processes of like making a piece you know better by being held to like a high standard. Sometimes I don’t think freelancers are always held to a high standard as they would have. Sometimes freelancing can be very like, it’s like fast food sometimes. Oh, yeah! Let’s commission this. It’s quick. Let’s put it out there. I don’t think there’s that patience to go through a piece over and over and over and over again to get to the point where it can be in the public eye.

Chika: That makes sense.

Ayodeji: I don’t know if you agree with this, but I do think the quality of freelancing, even though there’s more, it has dropped. Would you agree with that? Like, three, four years ago, I could go on Twitter, come across a piece by freelancer and go wow, this is fantastic! This is so good!

Chika: Yes! [Laughs]

Ayodeji: But these days, I’m like what?

Chika: [Laughs] I think, I have to agree with you. There are some international publications that are accepting a lot of stuff that’s just like sub-par and I’m like what? Is this because this is an African reporter?

Ayodeji: Exactly.

Chika: When I first moved to Nigeria 2012, I got a flurry of emails from young people across Africa, saying, “Oh, you’re a freelancer. This is really cool. Can I try it? How can I get into it?” So I was like every week, sending tips on how they can get into it and I was excited to see how eager they were, enthusiastic. But my fear is that maybe some of them were publishing in these prestigious publications too soon. Like you’re not quite ready, I know you wanna like take off but you still have to fine tune your craft and practice on your own. You know what I’m saying?

Ayodeji: Yeah, yeah. And also, I think – and this is something we don’t say enough – I do think there is also a, maybe crisis is a dramatic word to use, but I do think it’s a crisis of reading. If you do read very widely and if you do read like people who are producing good works, I feel like it can seep in. You can sort of see that this is the standard at which I should, you know, be operating in.

Chika: And just to round up the conversation, can you mention maybe four, five reporters on the continent, freelancers, maybe currently freelancers or former freelancers, whose work really impacted you?

Ayodeji: Oh yeah, that’s a good question. First, Isaac Otidi Amuke. Isaac, we were in the Farafina workshop; we were in a creative writing workshop actually with Chimamanda [Adichie]. That’s how I came to discover his work. But he does like narrative, non-fiction, narrative sort of like narrative long-read journalism, I think, probably one of the best that I’ve read, you know, like, period. Anywhere. He’s Kenyan. I love, love, love, love his work. In Nigeria, Wana Udobang, even though she doesn’t write as much anymore. She does more poetry these days. But yeah, Wana was one of the first people who – again, the point about reading, she was one of the first people that I read where I was like, oh wow! You could write like this? You know, you can approach it this way. She did write about development; she would write about culture as well. She has such a distinct, I think, voice, in her reporting that I really enjoyed. I tracked her down and became her friend by force [laughs] and asked her to help me!

Chika: Oh, that’s good, that’s good.

Ayodeji: I also read Mili- she’s one of those people I guess who have gone onto other projects – she’s working on a film right now. But, Milisuthando Bongela. She used to be the arts editor at Mail & Guardian, I believe in South Africa. She writes very like, it’s like, art reporting; it’s analysis; it’s culture; it’s politics, like all wrapped in one. It’s reportage, sometimes it’s like op-ed writing but just like very strong. You can feel conviction on the page. It’s a quality that I don’t know if it’s something somebody can even learn, but just like when somebody is writing about something that they feel strongly about, you know, and they’re able to like work out their points in like really powerful ways. I’m trying to give a broad – I don’t want to mention just Nigerians. Ismail Fayed. He’s Egyptian. He’s pretty good. He writes pretty good long reads as well. I’m quite partial to like, feature writing. I can sit down, you know, settle in, have a drink and just like read something that’s really, really good and I can just be transported, you know.

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji: I’ve mentioned four now. Oh yeah and you as well, actually yes! ‘Cause I think when I came across your work for the first – can’t remember when I came across it for the first time – but I was just like, oh like, I did not – okay, not that I didn’t think it was possible. I hadn’t seen someone who had such like a rich body of work and I think also quite a diverse body of work as well. I know some of like your op-eds – I think I read one of the op-eds that you wrote. I can’t remember what it was on now. Whether it was Bella Naija, I’m not sure.

Chika: Oh, that’s really old, Bella Naija! Yeah! [Laughs]

Ayodeji: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Obviously, I reached out to you when you did the #EndSARS piece. I thought it was like [sighs]. That piece…I guess that was part of its power because it made me sad, almost. It was just like this clear, honest reporting.

And I think for you, obviously, I’m on this conversation with you, not to gas you up [laughs] but I think, for you, I think it was more like the, just like raw reporting. ‘Cause I think, for most of your things that I’ve read, it is like reporting rather than long read features, although I have read those ones as well, so definitely that was like an example for me as well. I read that and I had to share it.

And I think, finally, Eromo yeah. Eromo Egbejule, yeah, he’s my friend and whose work I deeply enjoy. I think Eromo increasingly reports from like both the lens of history. So, whatever he writes about, he always has like a, you know, a historical perspective, whether it’s about, you know, something that happened in Sapele in the ’90s and how  it connects to something that is happening right now, or you know, going to report in Maiduguri, you know. Or when he wrote about the Benin bronzes. He really tries to like, look back, you know?

Chika: Yeah.

Ayodeji: So, for all these people like, I try to like, draw from, copy. Be inspired by. You know? Yeah.

Chika: Well, thank you so much, this was such a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it?

Ayodeji: Yes. I have! You know, it’s always nice to talk and think through these things like in the moment. Yeah, so I have, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Chika: We have to do this face-to-face one of these days but thank you so much, I appreciate.

Ayodeji: Of course! We must.

Chika: All right. Enjoy your day.

Ayodeji: You, too. Bye.

Chika: Bye.

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