Behind the Headlines with Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo is a writer and reporter based in New York City. She has lived and reported from Nigeria, Mexico, and Uganda and written for The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Vanity Fair, Time, and other big name publications. Her recent reporting on the missing Chibok girls and the actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria has received widespread acclaim for her nuanced and factual insights. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke with Alexis over email about her journey in journalism, what it’s like to report from troubled areas, and journalism’s role in revolutions.
What motivated you to get into journalism? What would you describe your style as?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actress before becoming interested in writing. Joan Didion, who also wanted to be an actor before switching to writing, says the impulse for the two professions is the same — partly a desire to perform. I’ve wanted to be a journalist since high school. I’m naturally an introvert, but incredibly curious. I love the act of reporting because it gives you free license to poke into peoples’ lives and ask them questions about their worlds. I’m not sure if I have a particular style, but I do try to write as clearly as possible, and not get tangled up in overly long, ornate sentences.
What is your writing process like? (I’m asking this as a curious fellow journalist.)
Too slow probably! I tend to transcribe interviews, research, and write all at the same time over several weeks if it is a longer story, and over a couple of days for a short piece.
Describe the international reporting space in Africa: is it open to new people? Is it encouraging? What has your experience been like?
Any reporting space is open to new people; it’s just on reporters arriving on the scene to study up by doing sufficient research on the place they want to report on. And talking to more experienced journalists in the region, both local and international, reading as much as you can, and reporting on everything interesting. I started reporting in Uganda right after college by interning at a local newspaper there and have never looked back. As I now transition to writing about places other than just Africa in the near future, I plan to take my own advice!
In your opinion, do Western reporters really get it wrong when they report on Africa?
It’s getting better. Now that social media holds reporters to account when they get it wrong, journalists are tending to make sure they portray Africa with more empathy and accuracy.
Have you had any backlash with stories you have done?
Only when I was first starting out. I had a story at the Ugandan newspaper about a female entrepreneur living with HIV/AIDS. Even though we talked explicitly about how my article was about people living with HIV/AIDS, she was upset I wrote about that and complained to the paper, and I think sought compensation, too.
What’s your most memorable reporting experience? What are you most proud of?
My most memorable experience was reporting on couples who were abducted as children by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group in northern Uganda and who later escaped as adults with children. I also am proud of the time I spent in Mauritania last year reporting on brave anti-slavery activists there.
What has been the scariest?
Last year in the Niger Delta I was reporting on oil theft and following around some thieves in the middle of the night. Our group was ambushed by a group of rival oil thieves with machetes, and a brawl broke out. It was crazy.
You’ve written for The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Vanity Fair, and other big name publications. Do you have a preference?
I do have a particular loyalty to The New Yorker because they gave me my first job in New York, as an editorial assistant to the editor-in-chief. My old boss has always been a mentor and a strong encourager of my work.
How did you start reporting on Boko Haram in Nigeria? What would you say if you were asked to give Boko Haram 101 pointers?
I was first drawn to covering religiously and ethnically-motivated conflict in the Middle Belt, an especially diverse region of Nigeria. That led me to Boko Haram, which had been attacking places in the Middle Belt, though I had written about them here and there in the past. Boko Haram 101 would take a long time to explain because it’s a very complex insurgency, but look up my work on it. I’ve tried to explore many different angles into Nigeria’s war with the group, into Boko Haram itself, and into the people standing up to Boko Haram. I will talk more about those people banding against Boko Haram in a book I’m currently working on about people around Africa standing up to extremism.
Do you honestly think the Chibok girls will be found?
I mostly don’t think so, except if individual girls escape on their own. But now that the Nigerian military says it will destroy all Boko Haram camps over the next six weeks, maybe there is a little hope.
The theme for this Ayiba issue is #Revolution. What will you say is the role of journalism in revolutions?
The role of journalism in revolutions is to document them through vivid, truthful portraits: their goals, struggles, and roots.
Would you consider yourself a revolutionary?
I consider the people I write about to be revolutionary! They are pushing forward their countries the best ways they know how.
What are the three skills that anyone interested in journalism should have?
You have to be curious, persistent, and careful, both with reporting and making sure you have the facts.
Any lessons learned? Please share them with us.
Take risks; they often pay off. I don’t mean physical risks, but rather getting out of your comfort zone and trying to do challenging, unfamiliar things: spending time in a place with a language you don’t know; doing a story about a field you don’t know much about; or chasing a person who seems difficult to access and talk to. Also, triple-check details in your story. It’s never a good feeling to get something wrong in a story when it could have been avoided. And be persistent in pitching, submitting, and reaching out to both editors and subjects; believe you are entitled to do the work you want to do.
Now, let’s play a game of favourites:
- Favourite African City: Lagos
- Favourite Meal: Plantain and egg stew
- Favourite book by an African author: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
- Top 3 people to follow: On Twitter @saratu, @toluogunlesi, and @drewfhinshaw
- Favourite reporter(s): Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Eliza Griswold, and Elizabeth Rubin
Follow Alexis on and keep up with her work via her website.