While she may be labeled a journalist, Chika Oduah is perhaps better described as an anthropologist ⎯ a true student of culture. Through her photography and writing, Chika, a Nigerian-American independent journalist and frequent contributor to Al Jazeera, shines a light on Africa’s culture and politics as well as history and development. In 2014, Chika won the Trust Women Journalist Award for her coverage of women’s rights in Nigeria. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Chika about her journalistic work, the art of storytelling, and Nigerian society.
Akinyi: Having grown up in the diaspora, how did you arrive at the conclusion that you wanted to work on the continent?
Chika: I’ve always been an ambitious person. I’ve always been a dreamer attracted to faraway places. Firstly, I was intrigued with my own Nigerian heritage ⎯ my parents are Nigerian and I was born in Anambra State ⎯ and I wanted to explore that more. Growing up, I always had the sentiment that I didn’t fit very well in the United States. I always felt that I would feel more comfortable working and living in Africa.
Akinyi: When did you move to Nigeria full-time?
Chika: I moved here in December 2012, so I’m hitting the two-year mark.
Akinyi: What was the best part of moving to Nigeria?
Chika: Interacting with the people. It’s such a different paradigm. Social behavior in Nigeria is so different than social behavior in the United States. Everything from the volume at which people talk to each other in Nigeria ⎯ very loud [laughs] ⎯ to the lack of personal space. People here are very boisterous. You have to be very quick-thinking in Nigeria: people here are mentally adept and have a survival instinct which lends itself to everything from entrepreneurship to criminal enterprises. You have to think smart, so you don’t get taken advantage of. All of those dynamics fascinate me, which is why I love working and living here.
Akinyi: On the flipside, what was the worst, or perhaps most difficult, part of moving to Nigeria?
Chika: Definitely seeing the patriarchy through abuse and the way that men talk to women. It’s really hard for me to see it and to hear why and how men justify their actions. I had a guy tell me, “Chika, some women just like to be beat. It shows our wives that we love them.” Hearing some men say these things with such confidence has been difficult, but I’m glad I’m hearing it because it lets me know what needs to be confronted. But seeing the abuse in the street, at the bank, in the mall… Seeing a guy slapping his girlfriend… It’s all very difficult to witness.
Akinyi: You mentioned the patriarchy in your everyday life in Abuja, but what do you think of the patriarchy as it applies to Boko Haram? A recent New York Times article detailed some pretty horrific sexual violence against women and girls.
Chika: The sexual violence committed by Boko Haram has several different dimensions. Firstly, there is the religious dimension that draws from 7th century Islamic ideology where they say it’s ok to take girls or women who are wives of non-Muslims or infidels and use them as “booty” or sex slaves. They are operating from a very archaic religious ideology. Secondly, there is the cultural aspect where a woman really is seen as a man’s property. These are just two realities that when jammed together can create truly appalling brutality.
Akinyi: How would you describe the range of stories that you cover?
Chika: Human rights and culture. In my stories, I like to really get into culture by talking about where people come from, what society is like. I am very interested in the traditional and contemporary paradigms of African culture ⎯ issues like elders and village chiefs at one end and life in the big city at the other. I like to use culture as a context to explain things. For example, if I’m writing a Boko Haram story, I often talk about the fact that a lot of these insurgents come from the Kanuri ethnic group, which many people don’t know. What languages do they speak? What is the history of the Kanuri people, for example? They have a history as warriors, which sheds a lot of light on why Boko Haram attracts the members that it does. These are dynamics that need to go into stories to explain phenomena. On the human rights side, I’m interested in injustice and stigma.
Akinyi: Do you ever face conflicts in the stories that you want to tell versus the stories that news organizations want you to write about?
Chika: All the time, but I’ve been lucky for the most part in that most of the stories I want to tell are in line with what editors want. The conflict oftentimes comes in the way the story is told. For example, I was doing a story a few months ago, before the Nigerian presidential elections, about voting in emergency areas. I was writing about a man who was traveling from Abuja to Chibok to cast his vote. Some areas were considered safe enough to vote in even though they had been hit by Boko Haram. Other areas were deemed too unsafe. Chibok, where the girls where taken last year, was deemed a place that was safe enough to go back to. The headline was something like: “Nigerians have to vote in unsafe places.” The editor changed the headline to “Nigerian government won’t let Nigerians vote.” That’s just wrong, but it’s an example of something that happens a lot. American news outlets especially sometimes want to twist the story in a certain way and you really have to combat it. In that voting story, I mentioned in several lines that security officials would be at the polling units to make sure that everything was safe. The editor took that line out. So the picture that he tried to paint was that the Nigerian elections were complete anarchy, but I insisted that he keep those original lines. I’m not going to be part of the machine that is going to project Africa a certain way. He eventually changed it to what I wanted, but you get pressure like that every once in a while.
There have also been times when I have pitched non-Boko Haram-related stories, stories about development. There is a manufacturing factory in southeastern Nigeria where they are actually putting cars together. It’s the first of its kind in West Africa. I pitched the story about five times to different outlets who said “no, we only want Boko Haram.” A lot of times you want to do something outside of the usual, but you get resistance.
Akinyi: Touching on the elections, how do you think Buhari’s election will change Nigeria?
Chika: Buhari will definitely have to do some good. There’s such a high level of hope being put on him, especially from Northern Nigeria, where he is from. Those people expect money to flow like milk, so he really has to try to temper these expectations. I think he is going to make some positive steps, but I don’t expect any revolutionary change at all because he is part of a system that really wants to maintain much of the status quo. The people around him are old guys who have been a part of Nigerian government since independence in the 1960s. They aren’t going to want to change much, but they will do a few things to show that they are better than the former ruling party.
Akinyi: What is the hardest story that you’ve reported on?
Chika: There was a story about a farmer in northeastern Nigeria. I was working with a crew of Al-Jazeera people ⎯ myself, as the producer, the correspondent, and the cameraman. We were interviewing a farmer who had run away from Boko Haram. On his side, he was still bleeding from where they had shot him several times. He had been attacked by Boko Haram twice and his wife, as we were interviewing him, was patching up his wound. Seeing that and hearing the dismay in his voice as he talked about losing his home and his crops ⎯ his livelihood ⎯ was quite difficult as well.
Akinyi: What’s your favorite piece that you’ve written?
Chika: A piece about lead poisoning. There was a lead poisoning outbreak in Nigeria in 2012. When it happened, news outlets across the world covered it: BBC was here, CNN was here, Al-Jazeera was here, etc. But after the outbreak, no one followed up. And the follow-up was that a young Nigerian guy created an app to make sure that the government actually cleaned up the lead contaminating the soil. His campaign was highly successful. To date, the area is clean and the children are no longer sick. I thought that the success needed to be covered because everyone was here during the bad part, but no one had seen the good that had come afterwards ⎯ an app that saved 1,000 children.