Sunday, November 19, 2006

What am I doing here?

Margaret asks:

How did you land in Senegal? Did you find work prospects first? Didn't you mention you write for Voice of America? How did you get that gig?

Actually a bunch of people asked pretty much the same thing.

The first bit: Why Senegal? I get all the time.

To wit:
Naomi: I’m a freelance journalist in Dakar.
Other Person.: [blank stare]
Naomi: That’s in Senegal.
Other person: [blank stare]
Naomi: In West Africa. You know, the continent? Africa? It’s in the western part.
Other person: How’d you end up there? [insert tone of bewilderment and possible derision]

Occasionally, the conversation goes a bit differently. Say, for instance, I’m talking to the foreign editor of a newspaper.

Naomi: I’m a freelance journalist in West Africa.
Foreign Editor: Oh great. Where are you based?
Naomi: In Dakar. Senegal.
Foreign Editor: Senegal? What happens in Senegal? How’d you end up there?

Or sometimes:

Naomi: I’m from America.
Senegalese Person: I’ve always wanted to go to America.
Naomi: Yes, America is very nice.
Senegalese Person: So why’d you decide to come to Senegal?

Although to be fair, there’s also a plenty of:

Naomi: I live in Senegal.
Other person: Oh wow!
Other person: Tell me all about it. What’s it like? How’d you end up there?

And clearly, the people reading this blog fall into the latter category.

So the short (and probably truest) answer is that I’m in Senegal because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’d been working as an editorial assistant at a really cool magazine for a couple years. I got to meet amazing people who were traveling the world and writing stories about it, and it confirmed the idea I’d had all along: that was what I wanted to be doing.

But Really Cool Magazine was never going to give me the opportunity. So I decided to make my own opportunity.

Worst case, I’d hate it or fail miserably and go home.

Best case, I’d be living in an interesting place and doing the work I’d always dreamed of doing.

I spoke to anyone and everyone I could find who could give me advice. Anyone who’d ever been in, near, or heard of Senegal, anyone who’d ever worked with, for, or next to journalists, or watched the news on TV, and anyone who seemed the slightest bit interested in hearing the details of my neuroses surrounding this scary decision.

In the beginning, all I knew was I wanted to go to Africa. After the first couple of conversations, where people mentioned that there were fewer journalists based in West Africa than elsewhere on the continent (official bureaus, for instance, tend to be located in Nairobi or Johannesburg), I settled on Dakar.

Thanks to Really Cool Magazine, I had a lot of contacts in the journalism world. And almost every time I called a friend, they gave me a bunch of other ideas, names, and suggestions.

I made a million phone calls. I met with any editor or journalist who would meet with me. I looked for ideas from people who’d spent time in Senegal.

And basically, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

The Voice of America work is a bit of an exception—the West Africa bureau moved from Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, to Dakar, and they advertised on Journalism Jobs that they needed new stringers. I wasn't even looking, but a friend was, and she forwarded the link to me. None of the other work I’ve found (ever, really, including any of my internships or previous jobs) has been advertised anywhere.

I wouldn’t say I’ve really figured this out yet. I still feel like I’m pretending when people ask and I say, “I’m a journalist.” But, it’s less pretend than it was six months ago.

It’s not easy. Imagine sitting at your laptop all by yourself, staring at the screen and trying to figure out how you’re going to convince someone you’ve never met to pay you to write about something they’ve never seen and probably aren’t that interested in. No one is going to tell you what to do with your week, where to start, or when you’re done.

But then, life isn’t about looking for easy.

It's about--

Hell if I know. But if it involves a beach within five minutes walk and hanging out and drinking attaya, then it can't be all wrong.


Blogger Habeela said...

Your friends two buddies from the State Dept. sound very stereotypical - it makes me nervous to join the foreign service because you end up living in a glass box.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Scooter, I'd tried posting a couple of days ago, but since I'm on "old" Blogger, I'm locked out. My comments at the time were that I liked the traffic light and nut vendor photos. I then asked about the writing on the vendor's signs. The writing appears Arabic. Is that correct? Also, I've always felt that Hebrew script and Arabic appear very similar. If it's Arabic, do you see similarities?

9:17 AM  
Blogger LeahC said...

spectacular. I love that you decided that you wanted to go and then made it happen. good for you, I think we don't see enough of that kind of attidue.

12:03 PM  

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